Anna Tarkov

Anna Tarkov is an independent journalist based in the Chicago area where she lives with her husband and baby boy. Getting her start in media by writing a popular blog about former Mayor Richard M. Daley, she went on to eventually work with the Chicago Tribune, Time Out Chicago and others. Learn more at http://annatarkov.com/.


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How hyperlocal sites handle ‘micro-news’ in their communities

We’ve become familiar with the way Journatic — and the news organizations that outsource to it — are gathering and publishing local “micro-news” like school lunch menus, death notices, high school sports scores and real estate transactions. But we wondered: How else is this information being compiled?

To find out, I checked with some independent, online-only local news publishers. I asked them if they include this sort of content on their sites and how they collect it.

Tracy Record of West Seattle Blog said via email that her site handles this type of news in a variety of ways. High school sports coverage, for instance, is sometimes reported by attending games, or information might be pulled from schools’ websites and Twitter. Not every game can be covered, so Record said they depend on their own judgment and readers’ input to point them to the most newsworthy contests.

West Seattle Blog’s death notices come mostly from families themselves. A professional writer does the crime roundup, but Record stressed that their breaking crime coverage is often far more vital to the community. “When something big happens, we’re there. In person. And we report on it as it unfolds,” she explained.

The Batavian’s Howard Owens, also responding via email, said his site does paid death notices, which are provided by four of the six funeral homes in his site’s coverage area. It’s a self-serve process. The site’s event calendar is populated by Owens’ wife and a freelancer; community members can add events on their own if they register with the site. Announcements and milestones are also gathered by Owens’ wife.

Owens said he would love to have more of this sort of content on the site and has been trying to figure out a way to gather it using local employees.

Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent and Eugene Driscoll of the offshoot Valley Independent Sentinel echoed Record in underscoring the importance of strong contacts within the community to facilitate this type of coverage. Much of the information is uploaded by readers themselves or submitted on Facebook (here’s the Sentinel’s page, for example).

“For us, Facebook is the talking Rolodex,” Driscoll said. “We’re in constant, two-way communication with readers. We’re not the anonymous, omniscient newspaper reporter dropping in on your community and dumping cookie-cutter news stories on you.”

In general, decisions on “micro-news” coverage are made with the community in mind. If the information can be found elsewhere, links will point readers to it. High school sports, for instance, were once covered with freelance help. Eventually it was decided that the money would be better spent on hiring another full-time reporter and now the sites link out to other sources, including, Driscoll said, local blogs.

Other sites, like VTDigger, for instance, publish little to no micro-news. Editor Anne Galloway wrote via email that they have an events calendar for public meetings and hearings, press releases about issues of statewide interest and that’s it. When I asked why they don’t include things like real estate transactions, Galloway replied that it is not relevant to their core mission, which is to provide in-depth and investigative reporting on public policy matters. “We also don’t have the human resources,” she added. “I would prefer to invest in searchable databases of government data instead.”

Perhaps Tracy Record summed up best how sites like hers make decisions on which hyperlocal news to cover: “Most importantly of all: We listen. When readers start to ask about a particular type of thing we hadn’t been covering … that’s a signal to us that it’s time to start covering. But that means you have to have a relationship with the community.”

Related:A good local story is about connection. Connections exist between people” (Dan Haley/OakPark.com) | Outsourcing will be part of journalism’s future (Mathew Ingram/GigaOm) | 5 lessons from Journatic (David Cohn) Read more

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Journatic CEO to staff: ‘Bumps are going to be part of the ride’

Journatic CEO Brian Timpone wants his staff to know that “This American Life” and other reporting on the outsourcing company is “noise” that follows “the change we’re forcing” in journalism. In an email (subject line: “from the front”), Timpone also says Journatic is finalizing a deal with one of Canada’s largest publishers. Could it be Postmedia, which is about to reduce print and lay off staff? Here’s the note Timpone sent to staff on Tuesday, July 3 at 10:54 PM CDT.

Team–

Some good news.

I just returned from Canada, where we’re working out particulars with one of the largest publishers here– to be our first non-U.S. client ever. That’s a milestone– and it means we likely need to build out proficiency now… in French.

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GateHouse to end outsourcing relationship with Journatic

The Tribune Company has gotten most of the media’s attention lately for working with Journatic. They’ve even launched an internal investigation into the content provider. But as Brian Timpone told us, Journatic works with many more news companies. According to him, they number in the dozens.

One such company is GateHouse, though they will not be a Journatic customer for much longer. I spoke on the phone with David Arkin, the Vice President of Content & Audience, to learn more about GateHouse’s experience with Journatic and why it’s coming to an end.

GateHouse signed on with Journatic in May of 2011. Arkin said he doesn’t remember how they found out about the company, but they were curious to see what they could do.

“We were intrigued by them, because they could produce content that was very process-oriented, like gathering honor rolls and police blotters,” he said.

If this sounds eerily similar, it’s because Journatic CEO Brian Timpone has said the same thing time and time again. The value proposition is that Journatic will do the nitty gritty work so that journalists are free to focus on weightier stories. Arkin echoed this when he said, “I don’t think anyone gets into journalism to post events and lunch menus.”

GateHouse began to use Journatic content in 28 daily and weekly newspapers in New York, Illinois, Delaware, Michigan, Ohio and Connecticut.

I asked Arkin if the deeper, more meaningful journalism materialized in the wake of the Journatic deal. Not really, he said. Not as much as it should have.

By email Arkin followed up:

One of the reasons we weren’t able to turn around as much enterprise content as we would have liked: We were spending a lot of time at the local level, looking over what Journatic was posting and still having to manage the content too much, which didn’t allow us to put as much time into enterprise reporting as we would have liked. We were doing content quality control checks and flagging issues.

GateHouse also had layoffs when Journatic came aboard, much like the Tribune Company. Arkin declined to say how many though some clues can be found in this report.

Hoping to yet do better journalism by freeing up local reporters more, GateHouse is now in the process of setting up an in-house centralized content hub in Rockford, Ill. A team of 10 content providers will do work like what Journatic was doing, but they will be full-time, salaried GateHouse employees.

Customization will be key, Arkin said. By having this done inside the company, there will be a much more personalized approach with each GateHouse publication. “We’re doing a lot of surveying with the various editors now at all the papers to ask what exactly they need,” Arkin said.

One of the problems with Journatic was that it was a one-size-fits-all approach and not all the content produced was usable or needed at each publication. “Content selection,” as Arkin put it, was also an issue. Stories were sometimes about not quite the right topics or off base in terms of relevancy.

Timeliness was also a problem. By the time Journatic did an item on a city council meeting, it was often already reported on by a paper’s staffers. Ultimately, Arkin said, GateHouse moved Journatic away from doing that sort of content. The content producers in Rockford won’t be writing local government stories either. “They will focus on community content like re-writing press releases, news and feature briefs, calendar items and submitted news like school news,” Arkin said by email. He says they will focus exclusively on process-oriented work and write nothing longer than a brief.

To determine if their staff would be able to handle Journatic’s workload, GateHouse did a test at one of their Journatic papers and at one where Journatic was not providing content. He said they were able to match Journatic’s output at cost. In fact, though he declined to discuss specific figures, the in-house content hub will cost GateHouse less than the deal with Journatic.

Ultimately, Arkin was positive about GateHouse’s experience with Journatic.

“I think they are a good company and we got a lot out of our partnership with them,” he said.

However, “there is a fundamental difference between a large, metro daily like the Tribune and community newspapers that have been around for 100 years. I think there’s a different expectation.”

Arkin said that it’s one thing for the TribLocal to go into a new coverage area and start producing content through a vendor like Journatic. It’s quite another for a newspaper which has been in a community for a long time to do the same.

GateHouse will continue to work with Journatic through the end of August, then the new content hub in Rockford formally takes over.

Anna Tarkov is an independent journalist based in the Chicago area where she lives with her husband and baby boy. Getting her start in media by writing a popular blog about former Mayor Richard M. Daley, she went on to eventually work with the Chicago Tribune, Time Out Chicago and others. Read more

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Journatic worker takes ‘This American Life’ inside outsourced journalism

Not long after he started working for Journatic, Ryan Smith felt there was something not quite right about what the company was doing. The Chicago freelance journalist started working for Journatic, which provides outsourced journalism work for newspapers, in January of 2011, and he was glad to have steady work, even if it paid $10 an hour with no benefits.

At first, Smith worked primarily for Journatic’s sister company BlockShopper.com. That’s when he noticed information was often pulled from LinkedIn, writing was outsourced to foreign countries like the Philippines,and bylines were sometimes fake.

But Blockshopper was small, Smith thought. Then things started changing. After moving to Journatic proper, Smith started seeing names like The Houston Chronicle and Newsday on his copy-editing assignments. Because he knew that Journatic produced its content at a very low cost, it made him fear for the newspapers they serviced. “I felt like the company I was working for was accelerating the death of the newspaper, luring many members of the industry into their own demise with the promise of short-term savings,” Smith said via email this week.

He decided to do something about his concerns. At the end of 2011, he contacted Michael Miner, the Chicago Reader’s media reporter, to discuss his qualms about what Journatic was doing. Miner in turn contacted Journatic, which tipped off the higher-ups that someone was leaking information to the press as it was completing a deal with the Chicago Tribune to produce its suburban coverage. Journatic was not pleased.

Smith said that Peter Behle, Journatic’s executive editor, sent an email to Journatic employees instructing them not to talk to the media and offering to pay $50 in “hush money” to anyone who reported getting a request. Miner reported on this and more in the piece that the Reader eventually published. In an interview with Poynter, Journatic CEO Brian Timpone said the email was sent only because Journatic was in the middle of the Tribune deal at the time and didn’t want employees commenting on it.

Miner’s story was circulated on some media blogs, and there was a good amount of coverage of Journatic after the Tribune deal became final and layoffs were announced as a result.

But Smith was concerned that the story was still not getting enough attention. “The whole thing continued to eat me up inside because I felt Journatic violated almost everything I believe in when it came to good journalism, and I felt like I need to do something about it,” Smith said by email.

So Smith contacted “This American Life.” His story is broadcast on this week’s episode, “Switcheroo.”

“People didn’t think much about the beef they were eating until someone exposed the practice of putting so-called ‘pink slime’ into ground beef,” he said in an email. “Once it came out, the food industry moved quickly to change it. I feel like companies like Journatic are providing the public ‘pink slime’ journalism.”

Why BlockShopper used fake bylines

Timpone acknowledged in a phone interview that BlockShopper has used “aliases” in place of authentic bylines. It is unclear whether they still do that on their website, but any content that goes to clients for their sites or print editions now simply has no byline.

There were several reasons for the aliases, Timpone explained. In the beginning, showing up in Google News necessitated a byline and since it was only a few editors who assembled the stories from research done in the Philippines, it wouldn’t have made sense to repeat the same names over and over, he said. Also, people complained about BlockShopper stories. They said their privacy was being violated and some even had lawyers contact the site. “I wasn’t going to have some $12 an hour copywriter be harassed by a lawyer,” Timpone said.

When some of these BlockShopper stories made it into the Tribune, the alias policy was re-evaluated. Before that, the policy was never given a second thought because, Timpone said, BlockShopper kind of runs on its own. He repeated several times that it’s separate from Journatic, “distinctly different” and stated that Journatic never has and never will use aliases.

The dangers of outsourced journalism

If you’ve never heard of Journatic, that’s kind of the idea. The company, which was founded in 2006, has a website that doesn’t appear on at least the first five pages of Google search results. Job openings, often posted on Craigslist or JournalismJobs.com, once mentioned the company’s name, but no longer.

Journatic currently works with “dozens” of media companies, Timpone said, though he declined to name them. He’s spoken before of the real estate section Journatic produces for the San Francisco Chronicle. He said more are signing up all the time.

Journatic doesn’t share financial information, Timpone said, because it’s privately held. Now with over 50 full-time employees and countless freelancers, the company is hiring, growing rapidly and changing all the time. For instance, benefits were instituted for full-time employees starting on June 1 of this year.

What Journatic’s taking off newspapers’ plates is what Miner calls journalistic “scut work” — scanning police blotters, tracking high-school sports results, pulling permits. As newspapers have slashed staffs and seen profits disappear, they’ve struggled to prioritize paying for this kind of elbow-grease coverage.

Timpone maintains it’s not important to have reporters stationed in the communities they cover to perform such tasks. “Being based in the community is not beneficial,” he told Poynter in April.

Tracy Record, of the successful site West Seattle Blog, believes that being present in a community has more than one advantage. “Many stories come from something you see — such as the sudden, unannounced start of road work that will dramatically change a major local street’s traffic flow,” she said via email. Contact with sources is crucial, too: “Many story ideas and tips come from contacts you make, not by chumming around with them, but by covering them on the ground — community group meetings, volunteer projects.”

Ben Ilfeld of The Sacramento Press said he doesn’t mind experimenting with new ways of covering local doings. However, he added, also via email: “I do not think an outsourced service would replicate everything that a local reporter brings to the table.”

Timpone said he conceived of Journatic when he was a young reporter, thrust into markets where he didn’t know anyone or anything. He recalls being 24 and working as a TV reporter in Duluth, Minn. “I knew about TV reporting, not about Duluth. I had no local knowledge,” he said. He feels print local reporting often has a similar problem: Young reporters cycle in and out of the areas they cover without knowing much about them. By that logic, why not give that work to someone outside the area even if it means local journalists lose their jobs?

A Journatic employee who is leaving the company willingly within the next few months said that when he posted a story about his employer on Facebook, he learned that a former college classmate used to work at one of the newspapers mentioned in it. This Journatic employee wrote similar stories for that same newspaper and is concerned that journalists are losing their jobs because news organizations are outsourcing their work to Journatic.

Brad Moore, vice president of Targeted Media for the Tribune Company, spoke on the record to “This American Life.” He said the team of 40 TribLocal staffers wasn’t generating enough content to drive the traffic the Tribune wanted. Journatic came in, 20 TribLocal staffers were laid off and there is now three times the amount of content there was before.

Moore insisted that all the writing and editing is being done here in the U.S., and Timpone told “This American Life” the same. He said foreign writers only gather information and they may write a lead as well. “This American Life” then reached out to Filipino writers to ask them what, in fact, they did. They could only get one foreign Journatic worker on tape, and he didn’t want to risk his job by being named. When asked if he wrote the stories, not just gathered information for them, he uttered just one word: yes.

How Journatic’s work stays hidden

Through it all, covering up Journatic’s involvement in the news they are producing is stressed, said the Journatic employee who contacted Poynter. “We’ve been told time and time again to protect the Journatic identity.” When calling on a story, employees must say they’re calling on behalf of the newspaper Journatic works for and even acquire a temporary phone number with a local area code. “We are basically lying to our sources,” he said.

Smith related a similar experience to “This American Life.” He recalled writing a story for the Houston Chronicle — a “Student of the Week” piece. When he was talking to the principal of the high school that the story’s subject attended, the principal asked Ryan to come by the school the next day. Ryan didn’t know how to tell him that he wasn’t in the Houston area. He remembers telling him, “Let’s just do this on the phone” and hoping that he wouldn’t be asked where he was calling from.

Timpone says that Journatic’s clients decide how their writers should identify themselves when they call on stories. “We handle it the way our clients want us to.” As to whether writers have to have a local phone number set up, he dismissed the question as unimportant, though he said there has never been a directive from higher-ups that instructed writers to do that.

Smith said he has no regrets about talking with “This American Life.”

“Part of the reason Journatic keeps taking over more papers is so few people are talking about it and aren’t fully aware of what they’re doing,” he said by email. “Maybe now that the story is out, the public will be willing to spend money on good journalism instead of demanding quality information for free. That has definitely helped lead desperate newspapers to consider companies like Journatic.”

Someone who hopes the public will indeed listen is the non-partisan media advocacy group Free Press. They’ve posted a petition on their site that allows signers to contact Tribune and other companies known to work with Journatic to let them know how they feel about their news being produced overseas.

Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, explained his organization’s interest in an emailed statement: “Runaway media consolidation appears to have reached a new low. The idea that companies like Tribune would sack local journalists while outsourcing their jobs to other countries is appalling, but sadly not unexpected if you’ve been watching the downward spiral of the corporate media giants. But this rock-bottom moment in U.S. journalism may offer a moment of clarity about what happens when you continually put profits above public service.”

Anna Tarkov is an independent journalist based in the Chicago area where she lives with her husband and baby boy. Getting her start in media by writing a popular blog about former Mayor Richard M. Daley, she went on to eventually work with the Chicago Tribune, Time Out Chicago and others. Read more

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