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.

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/MSGSE7APEM3OFO2CTTKZN7RX4A Donna

     The Houston Chronicle introduced BlockShopper and drastically reduced its own staff. BlockShopper is not only re-purposed and bogus news, it costs journeyman journalists their jobs, and puts them in the unemployment line. The reporters and editors aren’t the only loses in that deal; so are the readers.

  • Anonymous

    when your “competitor was recently purchased by out-of-towners who are unfamiliar with the area,” did they fire whatever constitured the local staff and bring in people, none of whom ever lived in your  community?

    this popular argument about the evils of owners who do not live in a community is totally bogus IF the publication continues to employ mostly locals and IF there are few or no significant policy changes that have long been in place, which is almost always the case. of course, it would seem that the journatic model would be most likely utalized by new out-of-town owners intent on bleeding the turnip of every penny it could. that, of course, would be incredibly myopic. quality DOES sell in almost everything, which many respectable newspapers seem to have forgotten.

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

    I am not sure that is right, either. The people who developed personal computers, for example, made an effort to improve the product. I guess they didn’t demand improvements, but they worked to make them happen.

    Getting back to print media, though, you could have people working for improvements on a small and a large scale. Just establishing some sort of certification or licensing would be a huge step forward, but whenever that idea is presented, people start ranting about the First Amendment, even though that has nothing to do with the concept.

    We have circled away from my original point, though. As long as people in America squeal with glee about the chance to work for free, newspaper companies will exploit that. THAT is the problem that needs to be addressed.

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

    If you ever want to discuss further, you can email me at tooter2 (at) gmail (dot) com. 

    FWIW, I don’t think “news consumer” and “reader” are interchangeable of course. A reader might be a news consumer and some news consumers read the news while others listen to the radio, watch TV, etc. As to demand for better quality coming from workers, I can’t think of a single example in the history of capitalism where that has happened. If you know of one, please share it. Workers can organize into unions to better their employment situation, but that’s about it. The consumer always has been and always will be the one driving the quality and characteristics of the product. Even in a non-profit system, someone is paying the money and they will naturally want to influence what gets produced.

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

    The formatting makes these comments too hard to read, so this will probably be the last one I add to this string.

    You are talking about readers in general. I make the same points about readers in response to the people (fools) who claim NO ONE reads, so the newspaper has to be exquisitely designed. This wastes resources and time that newspapers don’t have.

    But news consumers and readers are probably not the same groups. If what you say is true, readers left the building a while ago. The news consumers are the ones getting stuff for free online. Neither group is going to demand changes. That demand has to come from the workers, and considering that they fight to the death to have the right to work unpaid internships, just because that’s the way it’s always been, I don’t see them coming to their senses any time soon.

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

    I think you are incorrect. Is what you say true about some people? Sure. But it’s not true of many others and I think we are increasingly seeing the news consumer become empowered. Will people read borderline useless crap online? Sure. But will they pay for it online or in print? Nope. When they shell out money, people want quality.

    Despite all the free stuff out there, people are still paying for print, online, tablet, etc. subscriptions. People are supporting public broadcasting. Some do it out of habit. But again, I believe increasingly people are making these choices more carefully, especially when money is tight. They ask themselves if a publication is really indispensable to them. Why do you think newspaper subscriptions have dropped off so much? It’s not just because a lot of content is free online although that’s part of it of course. It’s because people have come to find little use for a paper or magazine they once read religiously. And why? Because there is a gigantic media ecosystem now and so many choices. And if your paper is giving you the same thing you can get in 20 other places, you’re going to value it less. 

    I could go on, but you get the idea.

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

    The news consumers will never demand them. Right now, they get free information on the Internet. Why would they reject that? Whenever a newspaper erects a paywall, people find a way around it and then post how they did it. If you are waiting for consumers to demand those changes and for the industry to listen and implement the changes, you will be waiting a long time.

  • nobody here

    Brian timpone is a sociopath and scum bag – the son of a disbarred lawyer leonard t timpone (look that up – it’s not hard to find).  The apple does not fall far from the tree & Timpone obviously learned a lot from his father… It’s quite hard to be disbarred in Illinois – but his father’s “moral turpitude” was so excessive that he was disbarred after multiple warnings of stealing client’s money.  His behavior toward the people who have complianed to him about blockshopper has been vile.  He has harassed people who complained and had lawyers threaten them as well.  So, his excuse that “we didn’t want lawyers threatening copywriters making $12 an hour” is a joke. He had lawyers (and worse) threaten PLENTY of blockshopper complainers.  To date, there are at least 200 complaints about blockshopper on the web.  The fact that venerable news companies actually made such a deal with him just shows what a sociopath he is – he can sell water to a drowning man…and has no ethical qualms to prevent him from doing anything.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, Thomas, good point! –Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online

  • Anonymous

    Anna Tarkov, please, please, do not ever use the phrase “kind of” in a news story. It’s glaring in its first use and kind of appalling by its third. To me, this is an incredibly important story but the editing shows a lack of care. This is unfortunate, especially here on Poynter, no “kind of” about it.

  • Anonymous

    Karen, as a former newspaper editor and publisher, and third generation newspaperman, it concerns me greatly that you are “of two minds on this.” That your “ears perk up” when hearing of layoffs of local reporters in favor of outsourced content, I find astounding. It makes it nearly impossible for me to be civil in this reply. Apparently you are of the single mind that editorial content is merely there to fill the spaces between the ads rather than serve its readers and the democratic process. I am thankful I do not live in Fairfield, Texas.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/T6BCPVS2YIDEG7NCOXT4VMA2ZY tpsbmam

    You’re arguing for the extinction of your job — you realize that, right?  Based on your logic, why should your paper continue to pay YOU when it can outsource your job and pay substantially less for the “same” work done in a foreign country with cheaper labor? Guess you better think about finding a new line of work since the logic holds for all American media — your job would be completely outsourced and you become just another member of the unemployed scrambling for any work you can get.

    Your logic then makes it okay that American manufacturing has all but died out in favor of businesses using cheap slave labor in foreign countries.  It’s okay, according to you, that the American middle class is disappearing.  After all, we don’t need them anymore because we can outsource to cheaper labor foreign countries and bring in cheaper H-1B workers where we can’t outsource.

    We can forgive all because these are, after all, businesses and must make the most money possible, no matter what the cost and who they screw.

    That’s the kind of logic that continues to feed the 1% while the 99% suffer from the rampant greed and increasing chokehold of all power in the U.S.  of and by the 1%.

  • http://www.facebook.com/karen.leidy.33 Karen Leidy

    I’m of two minds on this, probably because I wear two hats:  newspaper editor and co-owner of a small business.

    First, newspapers are businesses, and as such, are in the business of making money. 

    So, when the TribLocal states on record that it lays off half of their staffers and ends up with three times as much content, my ears perk up.

    On the otherhand, we have two local newspapers in our community.  Our competitor was recently purchased by out-of-towners who are unfamiliar with the area.

    As a result, we see the other newspaper writing from an outsider’s point of view, missing several important stories and misspelling names. 

    In the last month, we have at least 2-3 people come in our office each week, complaining about our competitor’s news coverage…and taking out a news subscription for our newspaper.

    Yes, people to read these stories, and if there is any competition available, they will migrate to the business that provides what they want.

  • http://twitter.com/NNVC_fraud Bob Wheeler

    Hankscott: If you believe that Timpone gives a damn about accuracy, you haven’t been paying attention. I’m intimately aware of how they do things there, and if accuracy or newsworthiness makes the top ten of what they worry about, one is 10th and the other fails to make the list. Churning out as much crap as possible – and for the most part it is crap – rules the day. Timpone hints at that by constantly talking about “efficiencies” and the Trib cites getting three times as much copy into the paper. Neither talks about trying to do quality work. That’s not even on the radar.

    Journatic envisions being the General Motors of the 30′s and 40′s – running the streetcar lines out of business so that it can force people to use its buses. Of course, this will mean ripping out all the “tracks” (real journalists) that stand in the way of such progress. By the time most people figure out how badly the new “bus systems” fail to meet the needs of consumers, it’s too late to bring the streetcars back.

    The news tracks are being ripped up as we speak. Keep exposing these companies for the frauds they are.

  • Anonymous

    I’m stunned that Timpone doesn’t believe a journalist, no matter how junior, can cover or edit stories about a community without living in it.  I wonder how many times a Journatic editor would see Manhattan’s East Broadway as a part of Broadway, although the two streets are far apart and don’t connect. And what Journatic editor would let pass a reference to the intersection of Fourth and Twelfth streets in Manhattan (yes, they do intersect). I long for the good old days of Gene Roberts, who moved from neighborhood to neighborhood when he was the editor of the once-great Philadelphia Inquirer, believing there was no better way to understand a community than to live there.

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

    Yes, Brian Timpone brought up the Dixon case when I spoke with him. This kind of thing is indeed a problem, but I fail to see how a company like Journatic will solve it. Do you think that woman in Dixon put out budgets and press releases that had real numbers in them? Do you think the agenda item at the city council meeting said “Ms. So-and-So will address her embezzling?” No, I don’t think so. Malfeasance like this can only be uncovered by boots on the ground reporting and even that’s not enough. You have to actually dig and this takes time and effort that yes, even FT salaried newspaper reporters aren’t always putting in the necessary man-hours. Why? Because they’re squeezed to produce as much content as they can daily. And when you’re doing that, you don’t have time for enterprise work. 

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

    Also, “anyone can call a school to make sure a name is spelled correctly.”  Is the “writer” in the Philippines calling the school to ask them to check a name the school, itself, misspelled on a list? How would that filipino know to question the name? You question it because you’re familiar with the local names.

    This transition to skeezy outsourced operations isn’t about passing on grunt work so reporters can spend their time using their talents. News company aren’t “attempting to save journalism,” as you stated.

    The facts bear out that the real reporters are being replaced by these scabs who likely have never been anywhere in the U.S. and for whom English is a second language.

    If the company wants to “save journalism,” it needs to work on the business side of the company to add money to newsrooms, not squeeze newsroom budgets and expect journalists to coddle the powerful instead of exposing them.

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

    Indeed, but “rewriting press releases” is not the job of any news reporter, nor is it the market for any real news organization.

    News media took a wrong turn in the ’90s in its greed for mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money for execs who do nothing to advance news. They scamper about their 1% inner circles who aren’t 99% of our audiences.

    In the days when newspapers were revered, and competed in all urban areas, a press release of interest was merely an alert for the reporter to get out of the office and talk to the news makers themselves. Taking any part of a press release was something of shame. 

    This post makes my point that young reporters are at a lethal loss to sustain real journalism with the mass layoffs and buyouts of the over-50s at newspapers.

    Think about it, Alex. The sender of the press release is pushing one point of view and twisting it in favor of the writer’s employer. Why  the hell would any objective news reporter rewrite it for publication? It makes no sense. 

    Rise up and refuse to rewrite press releases, because that’s contrary to what a newspaper is supposed to do. Editorial clerks working their way up the newsroom ladder should be converting the chicken-dinner press releases into calendar listings, after verifications.That’s their opportunity to enterprise something newsworthy to get attention and respect from editors.

    For example, a clerk who spots that a fund-raiser wants donation checks made out to a person instead of a dedicated bank account might follow up a month or two later to see if the money was spent as advertised.

    Car accidents and other breaking news have narrow timeliness, but much of the most important news that we’re supposed to report is about using your head to put puzzle pieces together about facts that players without clean hands DON’T want you to know, not what they do want you to know in their press releases.

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

    That’s exactly my point. There’s no reason that this has to be “inside information” and journalism SHOULD have these safeguards. Again though, they’re not just going to materialize. The news consumers have to demand them.

  • Patrick Boylan

    We need people to monitor city hall in the big city too PC.

  • Anonymous

    Chicago Tribune is pretending

    The news is homemade but it’s spending

    On Philippine farms

    Which raises alarms

    Each story must have happy ending.

     

    News Short n’ Sweet by JFD8

    http://twitter.com/JFD8
     

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

    I’d rather publish one accurate story that is written with knowledge of the local audience that reaches only 50 people, than an inaccurate one that is useless information reaching 100 people. I’d rather be a hero in the eyes of 50 people than a zero in the eyes of 100.

    What ever happened to the gold standard of accuracy? Automated public affairs and business reporting?  Really?  All you’d be doing is automating stenography perpetuating the propaganda the players choose to self report. We have too much of that already by ignorant or overworked reporters lacking enough editors to teach them how to be a news reporter. News is about digging beneath the obvious, beneath what any idiot can find him/herself online.

    News isn’t about money. It never was. Execs need to stop trying to fit the square peg in the round hole. Their problem is their business model has changed, and they are just trying to bleed the quickest, easiest thing at their fingertips — newsrooms — instead of doing the job they’re getting paid multimillions a year to do, which is developing a new approach to use the conveyance of news to attract consumers of non-news goods and services. The answer exists; they just aren’t smart enough to find it.

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

    My beef is that the scabs (essentially) are gathering the info from the Internet. If a 10-cent/hour worker in the Philippines can find it online, so can our readers, so it’s not really news by definition.

    Granted, data for historic record always has been a mainstay for our newspaper audiences. But, the execs don’t understand how people use that info. At least Gannett made archives next to impossible to use behind its paywall. They laid off every single librarian at every newspaper, so no one is developing that opportunity to offer data as a resource to readers, pay or otherwise.

    The biggest problem is that just because it’s online doesn’t make it true. As a longtime editor, I caught lots and lots of misspelled names in hospital birth and high school graduation lists. We know many of the local names and local families, and we are, were, a useful gatekeeper to ensure that info for historic record was as accurate as humanly possible.

    You get what you pay for, so what you get now is questionable accuracy.

  • poppy coq

    We’ve seen a number of stories recently where government officials took advantage of the fact that there was no local newspaper covering the daily comings and goings at city hall. Bell, California, is at the top of the list. And there was a woman in Illinois who allegedly stole millions of dollars…[[pausing to Google]]…Dixon, IL,….the comptroller allegedly embezzled upwards of $30 million.

    Small towns and villages don’t need someone to compile high school baseball scores, but they do need someone to monitor what’s going on at city hall.

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

    Funny you bring up those things. Journalism has none of those safeguards. Unless a reader has some inside information, the person has no way of knowing if what they are reading is the work of a skilled writer or even if it’s a biased puff piece ordered by a dollar-focused publisher.

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

    You can’t expect anything at all to happen unless you do something about it. You seem to have a fatalistic outlook on this. I disagree. If people demand something different, they will eventually get it. We used not to have regulations about the way food was made, we didn’t have nutrition labels, etc. Now we have all that and higher demand for natural, organic foods as well. I believe that when people are armed with information, they will demand quality.

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

    I wasn’t using existing poor quality to justify anything. I was pointing out that poor quality isn’t just the result of outsourcing.

    The bigger point I am making is you can’t expect big companies to stop lowering the bar when they’ve been doing it for decades. Outsourcing is just the next rung down from what has been happening.

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

    I wasn’t using existing poor quality to justify anything. I was pointing out that poor quality isn’t just the result of outsourcing.

    The bigger point I am making is you can’t expect big companies to stop lowering the bar when they’ve been doing it for decades. Outsourcing is just the next rung down from what has been happening.

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

    Robert, I somewhat agree with what you are saying. Personally I feel the issue of low pay is neither here nor there. There are many, many industries where people are arguably not justly compensated for their work. At least we can say of reporters that these are usually college-educated people with options. So they’re better off than, say, meatpacking plant workers. Does that mean it’s an ideal situation? No. But, and I hate to trot out this old saying, most people don’t get into journalism for the money. 

    Are many American writers not very good? I suppose it’s a matter for debate. Are many newspaper writers not very good? Again, perhaps. It’s up to readers to judge if it’s a product worth paying for. But using existing poor quality to justify more poor quality seems like a bad way to go, in my opinion. Instead, we should work to improve quality across the board, no?

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

    The part about eventually moving up is something you might want to review. And just saying they always paid low is not really an excuse. That is the issue!

    Also, given that article quality is being mentioned here, I have to mention that many American writers are not very good. There are too many submitted articles that are simply not of professional quality. That has nothing to do with outsourcing, either, yet it’s another flaw that’s been accepted for too long.

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

    Some jobs pay $10/hr, some are $12/hr. Page designers may get paid as much as 30k (I saw a listing on Craigslist.com).

  • Anonymous

    A content mill is a content mill is a content mill, regardless of whether or not they are producing hyperlocal content, or marketing content, or whatever.  Journatic apparently wanted to be something else, but has been outed as a content mill. 

    Which, apparently is what they were trying to avoid.  But you can’t sidestep being a content mill when your practices, albeit worded differently, are the same as already established content mills such as Demand Media, Associated Content, etc.

    BTW, some of the types of content that Journatic said it was offering–such as stories on little league,etc–was also being done at Associated Content and I believe at Examiner (although unsure about the latter as a “content mill” per se.)   

    So, newspapers, caveat emptor! 

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

    I’m not sure what issue you mean. The issue of young reporters being paid poorly? I was under the impression this was always the case. People started off very low and eventually moved up, ideally if they were talented and did good work.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/rghanania Ray Hanania

    You quickly see past Journatic’s depthless writing. Unfortunately, I used to read the Trib Local all the time, now I don’t even make it a requirement to read when working as a media consultant. The Tribune prints up a lot of papers but I doubt many people are reading them.

  • Patrick Boylan

    You are in luck! My understanding is that you’ll be paid $12 an hour, 20 percent more than you propose, to destroy journalism. :)

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

    I saw that same point. The issue I am presenting, though, is not one of questioning the facts of the piece. It’s one of wondering why this wasn’t written about long ago, when the issue was not centered just on outsourcing.

  • Anonymous

    I want a Journatic job.  I want to destroy journalism, even if I only get paid ten bucks an hour to do it.

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

    Then you agree with Timpone’s same point. I would say though that even if a reporter is young, they learn on the beat and even in 1-2 years (or less) can acquire more institutional memory than someone dipping in story by story, especially someone who doesn’t have the time or the inclination to dig deeper.

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

    I could reply that communities haven’t been informed for quite some time when the hiring process consists of choosing the cheapest and usually youngest reporter available. Not much different from the current case, except now we can blame outsourcing.

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

    Robert, I think the issue is less the low pay (though that’s certainly not to be entirely ignored) but also whether this type of reporting serves the communities it purports to be informing. I think for many people, that’s the real question on the table, though the low pay and other issues are more “sexy,” so to speak.

  • http://www.fluxresearch.com/ Clyde Smith

     Thanks for a reply worth thinking about!

  • Patrick Boylan

    Clyde,

    Journatic proposes to offer local stories about things like the score of the Little League game, the school lunch menu and to create business stories examining details in corporate reports. It promises to do this through automated writing as well as the use of outsourcing.

    There is interest in this technology.

    Those business stories, even the business analysis reports, have not been common. In part that is due to the small audience involved and the need for a professional business writer.

    You might expect even very small companies to have a lot of people following them closely. However that is not true. For a typical small company, the number of people, who are independent of the company, who closely follow it is probably under a dozen. Find a small company, say under $100 million in annual sales, and look at the material being produced. Much of the material is actually being created by the company as a promotional tool. 

    Sometimes the company uses third parties, paid shills, to produce that material.

    However, imagine as an investor how great a financial advantage it would be to spot a trend in a small developing company prior to it becoming general knowledge. The technology of Journatic and its competitors promises to be able to do that.

    Obviously there is a great need here, a need that people don’t even recognize yet.

    I imagine it can be applied to public affairs writing, that is writing about government, as well.

    On the other hand,consider the audience to read about a Little League game. The number of readers who have an interest in the result of a Little League game is very limited. It is easily under 100, and probably under 40.

    As a publisher, how much value do you have for a story that is of potential (not actual) interest to 40 people? As a small local publisher I have published stories for high schools, grammar schools, minor sports and other small audiences.

    Sometimes those stories only gather about 40-50 views. However, the potential audience is usually in the thousands. I cannot imagine paying more than a dollar or two per story for this copy. And, I can’t see a market at Journatic, or its competitors, for them to sell this to us because of this limited demand.

    You are going to see this technology being put to work in areas such as business and public affairs reporting. However I do not expect this technology to impact local journalism in the form of producing stories such as “12 year-old Timmy Throws 3rd No Hitter” until the cost comes down significantly.

    Finally, the reports in the Chicago Reader and on “This American Life” about the lack of professional transparency at Journatic are disturbing. Journatic may pay the price for such ethical lapses as investors, even more than casual readers, value impartial and objective transparency.

    To the larger question, this use of automated software to analyze data and prepare reports based on that data is a trend that should encourage better analysis among the surviving writers.

    Patrick Boylan
    The Welles Park Bulldog, Chicago

  • http://www.fluxresearch.com/ Clyde Smith

    “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…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.”

    Honestly, if you can be replaced that easily what does that say about the work you were doing?

    Newspaper-related companies had the opportunity to run their local scene.  But I’ve yet to see any newspaper-related company launch a truly engaging and well-designed site that could compete with other entities on the web.

    It’s sad to watch businesses destroy themselves.  And It’s makes me even sadder for my journalist friends and for the young people who want to be journalists

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

    People need to realize U.S. journalists were accepting low pay for a long time before this scandal popped up. So let’s not get high and mighty here.