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Media Outsourcing and Journatic: Hate the Player, Not the Game

There has been a debate raging in the media lately over the practices of a journalism-outsourcing startup called Journatic, which used to provide hyperlocal news content to such papers as 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, and others have stopped using it due to more recent reports of plagiarism. But those slip-ups don’t invalidate the idea of outsourcing and/or automating the kind of information 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 an unattributed quote from another news report and fabricated a second quote—and said it was suspending its use of the service (in which it is also an investor) indefinitely. Shortly after, 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 it had planned to fire Fourcher anyway.
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 “pink slime” processed food 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 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’re under. As Silverman put it:
Even 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 sales reports, community award presentations, and other kinds of information that are seen by many (including journalists) as a commodity.
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 local tasks so reporters can have more time for the kind of journalism newspapers would rather spend their scarce resources on, including investigative or in-depth reporting. That the Tribune and other papers laid off dozens of staff at the same time as they started using Journatic makes it harder to believe they actually want to do this, but that doesn’t mean the principle isn’t still solid. 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 newspapers could continue to finance a local bureau in every small town, with a reporter who could get to know the community and cover council meetings, human-interest stories, and so on. But that simply isn’t economically viable for many papers anymore, 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’re 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 locals into the process. Another venture called TBD has 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 Spot.Us—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.