Journatic problems are like lead paint that taint journalism but won’t stop progress

I’m not a Journatic hater.

That may be a minority position among journalists like me who focus on improving the quality of news.

But 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.

Journatic’s approach — and the change it represents — is not going away.

That means it’s important for journalism to find ethical, responsible and productive ways to integrate these approaches. To set benchmarks and guidelines for producing quality content using the kind of low-cost labor and mass production techniques that were long ago adopted in manufacturing. To find a better way forward.

Recognize the market forces

“I’m upset because I believe what Journatic was originally conceived to do was a good idea,” Mike Fourcher, who recently resigned as one of the company’s editorial leaders, told Poynter’s Julie Moos this past weekend. “It went off track.”

I agree there are elements of what Journatic was trying to do that make sense and can be valuable to journalism and communities. I also believe they are an inevitable part of journalism’s future:

  • Data. Find a fast and cost-efficient way to grab data that can be mined and made sense of in order to produce information of interest to communities. EveryBlock was the first to show this could work on a local level and be, to a certain extent, replicable across cities. Journatic scaled up the local data scraping approach as a way to discover and process local information. Speaking about the company’s data gathering operation, Fourcher told Moos that “it’s a spectacular system” but Journatic falters when it “begins to go into less quantitative and more qualitative” work. This seemed to happen when the data-driven approach was combined with other factors.
  • Overseas labor. Organizations such as Reuters are already employing people in far away countries at much smaller salaries to help produce certain types of reporting. Journatic’s idea was to use this labor force to perform Mechanical Turk-like tasks in order to help with the processing of the data referenced above. That seems a logical way for a business to utilize less-skilled overseas labor. This is especially true if the cleaned-up data is used in structured formats or provided to writers and editors who can make sense of it and produce reporting. Things have, in part, gone wrong at Journatic because, according to a worker interviewed by “This American Life,” the company also got at least some of these overseas workers to write content. (The qualitative aspect Foucher identified.)
  • Distributed labor. It makes sense to take advantage of the fact that you can recruit and hire writers that live outside of your immediate area. You don’t need to have everyone in a physical newsroom. This is different than outsourcing because it’s a way to source skilled labor. Of course, if you’re trying to deliver local news, you have to account for the fact that this approach has risks. You have to determine which stories can be written from afar, and which must be done by those with local knowledge. And you also need to implement checks and processes that ensure consistent quality. Journatic has been failing on that front with some high-profile customers. These failures come in the form of fake bylines, plagiarism and fabrication, misrepresentation, and content that doesn’t meet basic standards for clarity and accuracy. As GateHouse said about its Journatic stories, “We spent too much time centrally and locally addressing errors with their content.”
  • Mass production. Demand Media popularized the content farm model of using freelancers to execute high volumes of content at a very low price. This was made possible in part because Demand created a formula that writers and editors and videographers could follow. Once they learned the Demand way, they could churn it out. The formula-based approach also provided Demand with the ability to exercise quality control and deliver consistency to clients and readers. Unlike Journatic, Demand also made plagiarism detection part of its workflow.

These inevitabilities are forces in the larger economy and society. They will be part of organizations — including news organizations — because they are simply too important, attractive and potentially useful to ignore. But it’s up to our leaders, managers and workers to establish and enforce quality and standards, to use these opportunities in ways that deliver value to the communities we serve, and to combine them with great storytelling and valuable news and information.

If deployed properly, these changes can help improve the efficiency of content creation.

What an ugly bit of language: “Improve the efficiency of content creation.”

It makes journalism sound like manufacturing.

Which is exactly the point.

Journalism as tainted paint

In 2007, Mattel had to issue a series of recalls for toys that may have been made with lead-tainted paint. Well over 1 million toys were pulled from shelves by the company, affecting legendary brands such as Barbie and Fisher Price.

Now let me rewrite that paragraph in today’s terms.

In 2012, Journatic, a fast growing news and information startup, faced major criticism and business suspension due to use of fake bylines, plagiarism and fabrication, and delivery of undesired content to customers. Major news brands such as the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and GateHouse either ended or suspended their relationships with Journatic. Hearst is reviewing its work in Houston and San Francisco.

Journalists bristle at the idea that some of what they do can be replicated by machines or by cheaper overseas labor. Yes, there are absolutely things we do that can’t be approximated by these operations. I believe that will always be the case. But other things absolutely can and will be. More and more, in fact.

Just as the world of manufacturing continues to grapple with the need to exercise quality control over its offshore suppliers and factories, so too will news organizations that rely on outsourcing for information and news production.

This shift will require constant feedback and perhaps even the creation of new accountability structures to enforce standards and provide meaningful oversight.

The starting point is to establish policies, procedures, and standards to guide outsourced, mass production content operations. Without those safeguards being monitored, enforced and evangelized, there can be no quality control.

The result can be fake bylines spreading from one part of an operation to another; plagiarism and fabrication finding their way into content; workers focused on meeting output quotas, rather than on the content itself, so a local news website published 27 lunch menus in a single day.

That’s tainted product.

No exemptions

When it comes to market dynamics and technology and social trends, journalism is not special. We don’t get an exemption.

We didn’t get an exemption from the digital content disruption that hit the music industry starting in the late 1990s. We didn’t get an exemption from the decline in trust that has hit other institutions in society. We didn’t get a hall pass to skip out on the way the Internet can smash monopolies and disrupt established business models.

We also don’t get an exemption from the economic benefits of outsourcing, the efficiency of applying machines to the processing of information in a data-rich society, or the fact that a distributed-yet-connected labor force enables the mass production of content.

We can stand back and hate it, or we can figure out how to make it work in the best way possible.

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  • http://twitter.com/PressJunket4Me K.Kindred

    I agree. I really enjoyed doing print page design while I was at Journatic. I enjoyed being in “news journalism,” even when I knew it was far on the fringes of what journalism really is. With that said, as a former copy editor and page designer at several dailies, I had to disconnect myself from the copy that appeared on my pages. I knew that the copy was not anything I would have seen being run at any newspaper I worked for. So, I compartmentalized my design job to focus only on design. However, I am not a magician; I only can make pink slime look less slimy.

  • http://annatarkov.posterous.com Anna Tarkov

    From personal experience, it has been difficult to get information on Journatic, period. Thus that means it’s difficult to get both the good and the bad. No company is perfect and perhaps a lot of what has been written here has been negative. If there are positive things, like Julie said, we need someone to talk about them on the record, provide examples. We need to hear from Journatic or BlockShopper employees who like the work they’re doing, we need to hear from the founders, etc. You can’t just decide not to talk to reporters anymore if something less than stellar has been written about your company. 

  • http://twitter.com/Poppsikle Poppsikle

    Well, I sure know how to make it work in the Worst way possible, take journalists entirely out of the equation, like Chris Tolles does on Topix. LMAO. If you want to see total chaos, disinformation, slander, extortion and harassment, visit his “news” forums. they are a total disaster.

  • http://twitter.com/Poppsikle Poppsikle

    Well, I sure know how to make it work in the Worst way possible, take journalists entirely out of the equation, like Chris Tolles does on Topix. LMAO. If you want to see total chaos, disinformation, slander, extortion and harassment, visit his “news” forums. they are a total disaster.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    John, I would be happy to hear about other aspects of the company than the ones we’ve covered. I was intrigued by Mike Fourcher’s praise of the data-driven publishing, especially the crime blotters, athlete trackers, etc., and if there are others parts of the business we should be aware of, I’m interested in those too. –Julie

  • http://twitter.com/Scrappology John Jones

    That’s tempting, but you haven’t exactly been even-handed in your coverage thus far. 

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    John, I would love to hear more. Email me at jmoos@poynter.org and let’s talk. Thanks, Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/YU4BFOVTS3OF7UNBQKSUM5XMRM RB

    Are you sure it’s not “Jim Jones”, since it appears you are drinking a lot of Kool-Aid there. Why is it that the Journatic apologists always use distraction – look over there! Look over there!

    Gatehouse doesn’t hate Journatic? They are only firing them. Fake bylines, fake stories don’t matter… yes. You would fit in well at Journatic.

  • http://twitter.com/PressJunket4Me K.Kindred

    You obviously are not aware of the current inner workings of Journatic. It’s a hot mess of pink slime. I look at Timpone and Weinhaus and thank God I’m not them or living their lives. I’d rather live in a cardboard box under a viaduct rather than being utterly and completely miserable working within a company chock full of chickens with no heads running around. They are their worst enemy.

  • http://twitter.com/Scrappology John Jones

    From: J Jones

    People, 

    Get control of yourselves.  If you insist on writing a long analysis with little or no knowledge, I will write a long response, long on information and perspective.

    I worked at Journatic for years and was there at the beginning of the hyperlocal venture.  I have since left and started my own business.  I use the Journatic founders for advice in raising capital, communicating with financial institutions but other than that, haven’t had much to do with them in 2.5 years.

    Journatic’s genius isn’t cheap labor.  Journatic’s strength isn’t hoodwinking publications.  Its advantage isn’t having a local reporter handing out stickers.  

    Journatic will win because it knows how to produce a local audience at a much lower cost and with higher quality than a traditional newsroom. 

    That’s it.  

    This forum is where the newsroom folks gather.  But it doesn’t matter.  The executives who read this probably understand better than anyone.  The newsrooms have the loudest voice, have the most to say, and the biggest gripes for a group of people who simply don’t bring home the bacon.  

    Let’s face it – the newsrooms are holding the prized hog hostage and feeding it candy instead of caring for it.

    There will not be other companies that do what Journatic does.  There will be corporations that try to mimic it to get help make sure their hog isn’t hostage.  Look at Gatehouse – they don’t hate Journatic.  They are mimicking it to compete with their own newsrooms.  They need Journatic to trick their own newsrooms to lay off their own venture.

    Mark my words, they won’t succeed and their newsrooms will come after them next.

    But I digress.

    I managed resources in America and in Asia – a small team – and I wasn’t the only one.  My team in Asia helped process data, researched it, altered it, cleaned it up so it could be used in a story.  I was in my mid-20′s. 

    The offshore resources don’t write stories.  They don’t edit stories.  They process data.  They help create American journalism jobs.  Keep hating, haters.  

    And who fashioned the story?  American journalists.  Trained ones.  AP Style.  Edited by Americans as well.

    Did they work full-time?  No.  Not enough work back then for most.

    Did any of our writers or editors have an office?  Nope, he worked wherever he or she wanted.

    Was the American journalist well-paid?  For a part-time gig, with formulaic rules, flexible hours and performance pay, it was a pretty sweet deal.

    Since I left, they have expanded the Asia operation by a handful or more people.  But they have grown from 5-10 American journalists to 100′s according to recent reports.

    Were the offshore resources job killers?  Long before I left, the American jobs at newspapers were going away.  Journatic’s American writers, the ones wise enough to keep cashing their checks, owe their jobs to the data being processed elsewhere.

    Now, on to quality.

    I don’t believe plagiarism or fabrication at Journatic is any more prevalent and probably A LOT LESS prevalent than in New York, Bangor or even in Chicago.  I will challenge a wager on that later to the intrepid executive.  

    Since the data team sees raw data and original data that nobody else can gather, errors in data processing are Journatic’s biggest sin – not fabrication, not plagiarism.  And I am sure they make plenty and fix any and all – thats what we did when I was there.  

    Since I have left the journalism industry I can say with some perspective:

    - bylines were fake on real estate at BlockShopper.  They are fixed.  So what.  Bylines didn’t exist 120 years ago in newspapers and don’t matter much now.  Nobody cares except the hog-holding newsrooms – readers basically say, “Who cares?”  Newsrooms, reporters yell back: I do, its my name!!!

    I saw it put best here: https://twitter.com/edyong209/status/224891120365211651

    “This Journatic scandal, with all the fake bylines, makes me wonder if “Daily Mail Reporter” is even that guy’s real name…”

    - the lifted quote by a freelancer for a tiny story in Deerfield is not Stephen Glass even if the town is near his hometown.  We had done some 25,000 stories in my time there.  Guessing they have done 150,000-200,000 since then.  There was a lifted quote in one of them?  OK.  Again, see below about the wager.

    - newspapers who leave Journatic are about to see a dramatic reduction in content and quality because they simply CANNOT AFFORD to match it.  If they can, I will bet Journatic will study you, then beat you. And its not because you have any secrets nor will they.  Its because if they could do it, they would have already and would have been successful and wouldn’t be held hostage by the non-innovative, staid, newsroom staff, looking to protect the status quo.  A stance better suited to teachers who don’t want ipads helping teach in school to prevent job losses than to an operational group of a profit-motivated business enterrpise. 

    I know some of the people there still at Journatic, many of whom I hired, and of course I know leadership.  These people are problem solvers.  If there is a problem, they will solve it.

    And they are not quitters. 

    So if you think Ryan Smith was honorable for never raising his issue with management and going to the press because he wanted to kill Journatic, you have it all wrong.  Ryan was along for the ride fo a LONG time, from just after I left until, well, my friends told me he came by the office to pick up his check today.

    Ryan knows the company will keep doing better and better with or without the patronage of shrinking newsrooms; he intends to keep writing about it.  They are his beat. 

    Are the newsrooms ready for the next surprise?  Because the next time they read about Journatic, after the scrutinizing none of their newsrooms would suffer or pass, it will be much much more painful.

    If any executive is man or woman enough to step forward to ask that their newsroom be investigated like I am reading about for my former colleagues, I can make sure you get a non-intrusive bet that proves that your quality and standards are lower than Journatic’s own when this is said and done.

    Any takers?

    I will check back on the twelfth of Never for your response.

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    Actually, the problem is with companies having a “cut” or “salary chop” quota. Then they take these shortcuts and act stunned when they fail.

    “Journalists bristle at the idea that some of what they do can be replicated by machines or by cheaper overseas labor.” They should have pushed for licensing or certification several squares back. Instead, they screamed about the First Amendment, which is only relevant to government regulation. There was never anything blocking some sort of industry guideline.

    Until there is licensing, certification, and some sort of actual focus on content — a concept that newspapers apparently lost track of a number of years back — these problems will continue. 

  • http://twitter.com/PressJunket4Me K.Kindred

    True journalism has ceased to exist. It’s been dead for nearly 15 years. When everyone says you’re dead, it’s time to lie down. There absolutely is no way to find any truth, whether in print or online. I always assume everyone is full of crap — because 99.9 percent of the time, they are full of crap. And I think most people only read and hear what they want to read and hear anyway — only “news” that reflects their own opinions. 

    Look around … do you not see how much the U.S. population has been dumbed down over the course of time? The dumber, the better and what better way to make the masses completely oblivious to everything around them than to saturate all media with computer-generated police blotters and school lunch menus? And it won’t stop with content that holds no real value — it will continue to explode so that anyone who follows the media will be spoon-fed information that comes from the highest bidder. 

    It’s way too late to try and stop the machines. All that’s left to do is sit back, relax, grab a drink and watch the machines cycle content out to the masses. You just have to block all the noise out and live your life as happily as you can. Be happy in the moment because you may not be here in the moment. 

  • poppy coq

    People develop strong, emotional connections with a newspaper when they see themselves and people they know in stories and photos in the paper and on the website.

    It’s one thing to have a “data-mined” item about an upcoming spelling bee and another thing altogether to have a fresh quote from the winner and a set of photos of the competition. 

    I think that if you are going to commit to a community then your payoff is immeasurably greater when you have actual people writing actual stories.

  • Jamie Leeds

    That’s why