The future of media and forcing new content into old models

We’ve seen a ton of digital ink spilled over the implications of media startup Journatic faking bylines for some of its content, including my post about the underlying economics that have forced newspapers like the Chicago Tribune to outsource their hyper-local content. While some critics choose to see outsourced journalism of the kind Journatic produces as unethical “pink slime,” the controversy over the startup’s practices actually says a lot about how difficult it is to find new ways of producing that kind of content — in part because the traditional media industry and its supporters want to force everything into old models and familiar formats.
Just to recap, Journatic is a Chicago-based startup founded by former journalist Brian Timpone as a way of helping news providers cover local and community news more efficiently. The company has worked with a number of mainstream outlets such as the Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, as well as the GateHouse newspaper chain, providing the kind of commodity news that community papers specialize in: notices of events, local residents winning awards, real-estate transactions and so forth. Journatic pays staffers and freelancers — some of whom work in the Philippines — to produce this content from publicly available data.
The company was engulfed in a firestorm of criticism last week, after a Journatic employee (who has since resigned)told the public-radio program This American Life that it routinely used fake bylines for some of the content it provided to the Tribune and others. Timpone said in an interview with me that these manufactured bylines were only used for data-based stories that came from a sister company called Blockshopper, which aggregates data about real-estate sales in various communities, not traditional journalistic stories that were provided to newspapers — but he admitted that using the fake bylines was “absolutely a mistake.”

Why does the new have to look like the old?

As media industry blogger John Bethune pointed out in a blog post about the Journatic incident, the source of the mistake was a desire to make the content that came from Blockshopper look and feel like the stories that both newspaper owners and readers would be familiar with — in other words, a traditional newspaper story with the name of the author at the top. As Bethune put it:

The real issue was not that the company used fake bylines on its stories, but that it used bylines at all. Journatic screwed up because the company wanted to have it both ways: to embrace new-media principles while trying to disguise them. Instead of looking forward, it looked backward.

Timpone effectively admitted the same thing in his interview with me — that part of the mistake Journatic made was in thinking that the content it was producing needed bylines in the first place (much of what it provides to the Tribune for that newspaper’s TribLocal sites now simply says “Neighborhood News Service). Some critics of the practice have assumed that the fake bylines were intended to disguise the fact that contributors were from the Philippines, but Timpone said the practice was mostly designed to make the content look like a traditional story because that’s what the company thought newspapers would want.
But much of the content that comes from both Blockshopper and Journatic doesn’t really fit that model at all. Instead of being a story that a single individual produces (along with some editing), they are an amalgamation of data and contributions from multiple sources, some of whom scrape databases or make phone calls and others who edit or fact-check or perform other functions to produce the “story.”

Critics of the Journatic model, including Mandy Jenkins of Digital First Media and Anna Tarkov at the Poynter Institute, seem to want newspapers to continue to produce hyper-local community journalism in the traditional way, with reporters based in the community writing traditional stories. But given the kinds of financial pressures on the newspaper industry, that may simply not be viable for outlets like the Tribune or GateHouse. That’s not to say they shouldn’t devote resources to those communities, but it does mean that looking at alternative models for some kinds of content makes sense as well.

Not “pink slime,” just a potential new model

I think what’s important with a new model like the one Timpone is trying to implement is not to find ways of dismissing it as the “pink slime” of the journalism industry, but to see whether anything in it is ultimately worth keeping or is providing a worthwhile service for readers. Does Journatic or Blockshopper content inform readers about things that they might be interested in, and does it do so accurately? It seems to (no one has raised concerns about inaccuracy so far, just bylines). Do readers really care who wrote the post about the high-school student winning an award or the sale of a local property? I don’t know.
In a recent presentation about the future of media, Richard Gingras — former CEO of Salon and now director of news products for Google — notes that many of the models that newspapers and other media entities continue to rely on, including the traditional story format, are throwbacks to the days of print. Why do we need to use them online, where content is more fluid? Why not experiment with new forms? As Gingras puts it:

These were models that barely changed in 100 years — what, they added color? So people didn’t have a reason to evolve. [But] you now have people on the outside looking at the problem with a clean slate.

In many ways, this is related to the discussion that media theorist Jeff Jarvis and others have been having for some time now about how the news “story” needs to be blown up or dismantled, or at the very least re-thought. Since the way that news occurs and the ways in which information reaches us has been completely disrupted by the web and the democratization of distribution, the argument is that we need to have different models and formats for handling that information intelligently — whether it’s with tools like Storify or new ways of aggregating and filtering data in order to make it meaningful.
Could Journatic be one of those ways, at least for certain kinds of hyper-local content and information? It’s possible, or at the very least worth considering. And demonizing that approach as “pink slime” or something that is antithetical to journalism doesn’t really help.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Zert Sonstige