Media outsourcing and Journatic: Hate the player, not the game

There has been a debate raging in the media sphere lately over the practices of a journalism-outsourcing startup called Journatic, which used to provide hyperlocal news content to papers like the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle. The service was dropped by several newspapers after it was revealed that some stories it distributed had fake bylines on them, and others have stopped using it due to more recent reports of plagiarism. But those errors don’t invalidate the idea of outsourcing and/or automating the kind of information that Journatic specializes in — something more cash-strapped newspapers are likely going to have to consider, even if they produce or manage it themselves.
The latest incident occurred last Friday, when the Chicago Tribune said it had found evidence of plagiarism by a Journatic writer — who allegedly used a quote from another news report without attributing, and fabricated a second quote — and said it was suspending its use of the service (which it is also an investor in) indefinitely. Shortly afterward Journatic’s editorial director, Michael Fourcher, resigned, saying, “The founders and I fundamentally disagree about ethical and management issues as they relate to a successful news business.” Journatic, meanwhile, said that it had planned to fire Fourcher anyway.

Outsourcing is a reality, like it or not

For many critics, this cavalcade of errors reinforced their views about the whole idea of outsourcing local journalism in the first place, something former Journatic freelancer Ryan Smith compared to the sort of “pink slime” processed food that some companies have been accused of serving their customers. But as journalist and author Craig Silverman noted in a recent post at Poynter (and as we have pointed out before as well), that doesn’t change the fact that newspapers are going to need alternative processes — including outsourcing and/or automation — in order to survive the financial pressures they are under. As Silverman put it:

[E]ven as I abhor the plagiarism, fabrication and fake bylines, I also know that no matter how bad the behavior, there will absolutely be more companies like Journatic. Outsourcing, content farming, Mechanical Turk-like records/data processing — these things are going to increase and find their place within journalism at news organizations large and small.

As Silverman correctly points out, the idea of aggregating data around local communities isn’t unique to Journatic: A Knight Foundation–funded startup called EveryBlock, founded by pioneering data journalist and former Washington Post staffer Adrian Holovaty, started doing exactly that five years ago and was eventually acquired by MSNBC. While critics complain about Journatic’s impact on hyperlocal journalism, much of what the service was doing involved police blotters, real-estate sale reports, community award presentations and other kinds of information that are seen by many (including journalists) as a commodity.

Commodity news needs a new business model

Founder Brian Timpone — who was trained as a journalist — said in an interview with GigaOM that the whole point of Journatic is to outsource and/or automate those tasks so that reporters can have more time for the kind of journalism newspapers would rather spend their scarce resources on, including investigative or in-depth reporting. The fact that the Tribune and other papers have laid off dozens of staff at the same time as they started using Journatic makes it harder to believe that they actually want to do this, but that doesn’t mean the principle isn’t still sound. Even Fourcher argued in his blog post that the idea behind the service still makes sense:

Journatic’s core premise is sound: most data and raw information can be managed much more efficiently outside the traditional newsroom; and, in order for major market community news to be commercially viable, it needs be conducted on a broader scale than ever before.

It would be nice to think that newspapers could continue to finance a local bureau in every small town, with a reporter who could get to know the community and cover town-council meetings, human-interest stories and so on. But that simply isn’t economically viable for many papers any more, thanks to the rapid decline in the print-advertising income that makes up the bulk of their revenue. Journatic critics argue that they should see hyperlocal reporting as more valuable, but many newspapers like the Tribune simply don’t have the resources to do that in addition to the kind of civic reporting they are supposed to be doing.
Outsourcing to an aggregator like Journatic isn’t the only solution to this problem, of course. Instead of using cheap freelancers in other countries, Digital First Media has taken a different approach by setting up “community newsrooms” in the towns it serves with its daily and weekly papers as a way of bringing members of the community into the process. Another venture in local journalism called TBD developed a network of local bloggers as an attempt to cover some of the communities it couldn’t afford to send staff reporters to.
As both Silverman and David Cohn of Circa — who also founded a previous crowdfunded-journalism startup called — point out, there are many lessons to be learned from what Journatic has done, including the importance of journalistic standards and a professional approach. But that doesn’t mean outsourced and/or aggregated news isn’t going to be a part of the media environment, because it almost certainly is.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Stewart Chambers and George Kelly