Newspaper columnists jump on Journatic controversy over outsourced news

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The controversy over Journatic’s outsourcing of local news has benefited one type of content that you can’t send overseas as easily as real-estate news: newspaper columns.

The Miami Herald’s Fred Grimm promises readers that he’s a real, single human being living in South Florida. Journatic’s outsourcing, he writes, is uncomfortably similar to a satire he wrote in 2004:

A team of software engineers, call center operators, tax accountants and street urchins now assembles this column in Calcutta, cobbling together 20 inches of verbiage, checking the spelling, writing a headline and transmitting the product to Miami hours before deadline — a feat unobtainable under the old system. All this for a tenth of the cost of employing an aging American journalist. Without the mood swings.

Now, he reflects, “the joke seems a little less funny, and no longer so improbable.”

In another column, Dan McCaleb, senior editor of suburban Chicago’s Northwest Herald, makes the case for locally produced journalism:

“When you write about local people, you’re cognizant that this is someone’s son, someone’s neighbor or friend,” said [Kevin] Lyons, our news editor. “These are real people to you and often people who mean something to people you live around. News must be reported, but people aren’t to be exploited. People expect more from us. We have responsibilities to be good neighbors and community members, too. It’s a two-way discussion.”

Try having that discussion with someone in Manila.

The Salt Lake Tribune, meanwhile, published a letter to the editor asking if any local stories are “written next to a phone in a call center in Chicago, or by ‘Jimmy Finkle’ in the Philippines?” Deputy Editor Tim Fitzpatrick tells me by email the answer is no:

The Salt Lake Tribune has never worked with Journatic or any other outsourced copy generator, and we have no plans to do so. No denying the immense challenges out there, but this course does not look like the solution to us.

According to Journatic whistleblower Ryan Smith, one news outlet its Filipino freelancers wrote “death notices and business stories” for was Newsday.

As if there weren’t enough irony in this affair already, Smith writes in the Guardian that he contacted “This American Life” because he saw the “positive impact” that resulted from its show about Apple’s Chinese manufacturing. The name of the person responsible for that show, Mike Daisey, was one of its few reliable elements; Daisey admitted that he had made up key facts to fill out his narrative.

For the counterpoint we turn to Brian Farnham, ex-editor-in-chief of Patch, but it’s not exactly a spirited defense. Journatic “gives me a cheap feeling,” he writes, but the company “still deserves a chance to make up for this mistake and do better.”

Whether they get that chance is an open question. Because here’s a truism that journalists don’t like to admit: as much as they are earnestly rooting for somebody to figure this thing out online and make sustainable paychecks possible, nobody nitpicks, scoffs, browbeats or straight-up righteously excoricates mistakes faster or harder. That tendency, of course, is what makes journalism journalism. It’s also one of the things that makes the online news business problem so hard to solve.

Related: David Carr writes that “great journalism, on any platform, is the one sure hedge against irrelevancy” (The New York Times) | “Superman” reader wonders why Clark Kent hasn’t been replaced at The Daily Planet “by a freelancer who gets paid nine cents a word and receives no health benefits” (The Onion) || Previous: Why GateHouse ended its relationship with Journatic (Poynter)

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  • Anonymous

     Mr. Myers
    Thank you for replying

    1. You are conflating Mr. Daisey’s monologue, (which which he calls a monologue, not journalism, and, therefore your terming it journalism is something you bring to the discussion) and This Americal Life’s piece ON Mr. Daisey’s work, and thus confusing those who read what you say. This American LIfe never retracted Mr. Daisey’s monologue (only Mr. Daisey can do that.) They retracted their piece ABOUT Mr. Daisey. You here jumble the issue, rather than clarify it. That is not journalism.

    2. I still feel the irony is manufactured, since you misrepresent not only Mr. Smith’s intent, but what he said.

    a. Mr. Smith’s inspiration for whistleblowing was NOT Mr. Daisey’s story. Mr. Smith had already blown the whistle and pursued disseminating it to a larger audience by wanting to appear on TAL. Mr. Smith very clearly says that in November, 2011:
    “My stomach turned and my guilt grew. The company I was working for
    was harming journalism: real reporters were getting laid off and were
    being replaced by overseas writer-bots. So I decided to put my
    Blockshopper job in jeopardy and get the truth out about the company. I
    wrote an email to Chicago Reader media blogger Mike Miner offering
    inside information about Journatic off the record: the outsourced
    Filipino workers, the fake bylines and everything.”
    By lying about Mr. Smith’s inspiration for his whistle-blowing, you do harm to journalism.

    b.As I quoted him in my original post, Mr. Smith very specifically says that he “saw the positive impact it [Mr. Daisey's claims] was having on Apple’s questionable practices
    in China – EVEN if that turned out to be full of fabrications and
    exaggeration.” Since he wanted to have an effect on Journatic’s practices, he saw this avenue as fruitful DESPITE the journalistic transgressions, not because of them. And, BTW, the transgressions were TAL’s, not Mr. Daisey’s.

    3. You say: “Daisey’s monologue was presented onstage and on the radio as nonfiction, so your point about “not even a journalist” is puzzling.”
    What I find puzzling is that you very clearly want to equate all of non-fiction with journalism. I can only think that you are not aware of all of the principles and ethics of journalism that differentiate it from non-fiction in general, or you want to force Mr. Daisey’s work into the journalism genre so you can vilify him. Mr. Daisey clearly does not claim to be a journalist and describes himself thus on his masthead:
    “Actor, author, commentator, playwright and general lay-about.”
    And thus in his bio:
    “MIKE DAISEY has been called “the master storyteller” and “one of the finest solo performers of his generation” by the New York Times for his groundbreaking monologues which weave together autobiography, gonzo journalism, and unscripted performance to tell hilarious and heartbreaking stories that cut to the bone, exposing secret histories and unexpected connections.”
    Your re-definition of journalism to include things that are obviously not journalism reminds me of the way Poynter legitimized James O’Keefe’s work by inventing the term “entrapment journalism”.

    4. What I objected to in the links is that you did not give Mr. Smith’s rationale from his own writings. Instead of allowing him to explain in his own words why he wanted to consider appearing on TAL (which he clearly did and which was clearly available on the linked article he penned), you instead write a narrative which is inaccurate, since it implies that Mr. Smith’s motivation was the transgression of journalistic principles. Then you buttress your narrative by linking to something Poynter said about Mr. Daisey, not anything that Mr. Smith said. You even distort Mr. Smith’s intent by the way you quote “positive impact”. You leave it open to the interpretation what Mr. Smith means by “positive impact”. Mr. Smith clearly says “positive impact it was having on Apple’s questionable practices. The way you water it down, one could leave thinking the positive impact was on Mr. Smith himself.

    5. I disagree with your assessment that Poynter covered the journalistic issues of the Journatic story “pretty extensively” especially in comparison to how Poynter handled the Daisey story. As a rule, you mentioned the issues in the context of what it would mean for the business side of the industry.

    6. I know you can not force WBEZ to do anything. However, you can put pressure on them to answer Poynter’s ten questions which was made such a big deal about. You can have weekly updates on Mediawire saying “we again asked WBEZ for answers to our ten questions and they have again refused to give us any.” And you could check back with Torey Malatia to see how their investigation is going and what it has produced. You know, do journalism. After all, they are the ones who did bad on the journalism end, not Mr. Daisey.

    For the record, I even forgive TAL for their transgressions. They had always portrayed themselves as storytellers also, so I did not hold them to the same standard that I hold actual journalism shows.

    Meanwhile, after Poynter’s numerous follow-ups to the purported journalism surrounding the Daisey over the course of which Poynter supplied  dozens of links to others who also vilified Mr. Daisy. you unsurprisingly missed ABC furnishing Apple an opportunity to spread its case without pushback.
    The same ABC that is owned by Disney.
    The same Disney whose CEO Bob Iger sits on Apple’s Board.
    The same Disney whose biggest individual shareholder is the family of the late Steve Jobs.

  • http://twitter.com/myersnews Steve Myers

    @NateBowman:disqus , I realize that Ryan Smith turned to This American Life before anyone knew that Mike Daisey had made up key portions of his monologue. I, too, thought Daisey’s monologue was an impressive, revealing piece of first-person journalism — before This American Life retracted it. 
    But it’s still ironic that the inspiration for Smith’s whistleblowing was a story that turned out not to measure up to the standards of journalism. (Daisey’s monologue was presented onstage and on the radio as nonfiction, so your point about “not even a journalist” is puzzling.)As for subbing out links in my quotation of Smith, you are mistaken. The portion of his post that I quoted was not linked to anything.If you review our coverage of Journatic, you’ll see that we have focused on the journalism issues pretty extensively. http://www.poynter.org/tag/journatic/I wish This American Life had answered the questions about its editorial policy; I cannot force them to do so. WBEZ’s Torey Malatia did say that the show’s editorial process would be reviewed:http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/168148/chicago-public-radio-to-examine-what-went-wrong-with-this-american-life-story-on-apple/Steve Myers

  • http://twitter.com/myersnews Steve Myers

    @NateBowman:disqus , I realize that Ryan Smith turned to This American Life before anyone knew that Mike Daisey had made up key portions of his monologue. I, too, thought Daisey’s monologue was an impressive, revealing piece of first-person journalism — before This American Life retracted it. 
    But it’s still ironic that the inspiration for Smith’s whistleblowing was a story that turned out not to measure up to the standards of journalism. (Daisey’s monologue was presented onstage and on the radio as nonfiction, so your point about “not even a journalist” is puzzling.)As for subbing out links in my quotation of Smith, you are mistaken. The portion of his post that I quoted was not linked to anything.If you review our coverage of Journatic, you’ll see that we have focused on the journalism issues pretty extensively. http://www.poynter.org/tag/journatic/I wish This American Life had answered the questions about its editorial policy; I cannot force them to do so. WBEZ’s Torey Malatia did say that the show’s editorial process would be reviewed:http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/168148/chicago-public-radio-to-examine-what-went-wrong-with-this-american-life-story-on-apple/Steve Myers

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    @yahoo-4I2S2UK72BZM6RRAKP4SQLIJJ4:disqus , a clarification: Ryan Smith writes in his post for the Guardian that he recognized some of the Filipino freelancers’ names from BlockShopper when he started copyediting for Newsday. But he doesn’t say that Newsday printed aliases. Journatic CEO Brian Timpone has said that Journatic’s stories generally don’t carry a byline, or they have a writer’s byline. 

    Steve Myers

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4I2S2UK72BZM6RRAKP4SQLIJJ4 Lourdes

    As someone who works for Newsday, I can tell you those allegations are entirely false. I personally know every business reporter, and no “false bylines” have appeared in that section.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Hall/100003322010756 Kevin Hall

    Not sure I follow you Nate, but I agree with what I think you are saying: Poynter needs to report also on the work Journatic is producing. What are the bylines — real and fake — and can Poynter link us to some of the Journatic content?

    We’ve all been doing a lot of assuming on the type of work that’s outsourced.

    For example, police blotter has been mentioned, but no bona fide news organization would want to leave itself so vulnerable to libel and mischief, would they? Maybe we’ve sunk lower than I thought.

  • http://jeannettesmyth.com/ jeannette

    excoricate it to the wall!

  • http://jeannettesmyth.com/ jeannette

    excoricate it to the wall!

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Myers says:
    “As if there weren’t enough irony in this affair already, Smith writes in the Guardian that he contacted “This American Life” because
    he saw the “positive impact” that resulted from its show about Apple’s
    Chinese manufacturing. The name of the person responsible for that show,
    Mike Daisey, was one of its few reliable elements; Daisey admitted that
    he had made up key facts to fill out his narrative.”

    Whst Mr. Smith said:
    “That’s when I decided to pitch a story to This American Life. I’d just heard Mike Daisey’s story on the NPR show and saw the positive impact it was having on Apple’s questionable practices in China – even if that turned out to be full of fabrications and exaggeration.”

    The irony is one that Mr. Myers apparently needs to fabricate by not giving the full context of Mr. Smith’s statement which makes his rationale evident and subtly distorting Mr. Smith’s writing by substituting a link to Poynter’s take on the Mike Daisey story for Mr. Smith’s link.

    Again, Poynter’s coverage of the whole Journatic affair with he said/she said reporting, focus on the business aspects of the process with hardly a mention of the journalistic transgressions (as compared to the outrage over Mike Daisey who is not even a journalist and no follow-up to the ten questions they posed to this American Life and which were never answered) is very revealing. In both cases Poynter seems to say “The money takes precedence.” When Apple was threatened, Poynter vilified their critic. When Journatic became a way for newspapers to make money, the methods used are given wide berth.