The hard truths of hyperlocal journalism reveal themselves in Journatic trouble

It’s become clear that Journatic has some problems: Using incorrect or fictional bylines, plus plagiarism and fabrication of news.

But what if it didn’t?

Could Journatic’s model of cost-efficient outsourced journalism offer a viable future for hyperlocal news? If its ethics and standards of quality were exemplary, would it otherwise serve a community’s needs?

Most signs say: no.

You can’t be hyperlocal while hyperdistant

Journatic founder Brian Timpone told Poynter in April that “being based in the community is not beneficial” to local journalism.

But when I look around at hyperlocal success stories, many are driven by the will and personal commitment of a local individual. The Batavian is Howard Owens. Tracy Record is West Seattle Blog. That’s not to say others don’t contribute, but the sites wouldn’t exist or sustain themselves without individual dedication.

Of all the factors that shape coverage for West Seattle Blog, Record recently told Poynter, the most important is this: “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.”

Who’s in charge of listening at Journatic?

Many hyperlocal sites do not allow anonymous comments, because they believe online communities are built the same way offline ones are — real people with real identities connecting with each other consistently over time.

Relationships matter. They matter a lot on small sites in small communities.

But you can’t have a relationship with Journatic authors. They don’t know you; you don’t know them. You don’t know anyone in common or go to any of the same places. You can’t email them, and they don’t stick around to reply to article comments.

And then, of course, there’s some news that you really have to be on-location to cover well. Record told Poynter WSB’s most valuable crime coverage is not rewriting police press releases, but witnessing breaking news: “When something big happens, we’re there. In person. And we report on it as it unfolds.”

Each hyperlocal site has to be uniquely tailored to its community

Hyperlocal websites succeed not just by saying they target a specific underserved community, but by giving that community a unique, organic solution to its unique information needs.

This was one of the major lessons from the early years of the Knight News Challenge, which spent spent more than $2.8 million on at least nine hyperlocal community news projects.

“There’s a reason Front Porch Forum is in Vermont, there’s a reason Village Soup is in Maine, there’s a reason DavisWiki is in Davis [Calif.],” Knight Foundation senior adviser Eric Newton told me in 2011. “The thing about citizen media is, it’s all about the citizens — it’s all about the right thing in the right place at the right time, in the right combination for that particular community. One size does not fit all.”

Given these lessons, it’s very hard to see how hyperlocal could ever be successfully outsourced. Perhaps some minor clerical and production tasks can be farmed out cheaply, but the principal editorial decisions, product decisions and voice of the site must be authentically local.

Irrelevant and inconsistent content

Other aspects of Journatic’s approach to outsourcing also raise barriers to producing a successful local news site.

One major flaw is the focus on quantity.

When the Chicago Tribune hired Journatic to take over its hyperlocal sites, editor Gerould Kern said “we think we can do more of it [hyperlocal news] in this way.” When the Tribune decided last Friday to bring on a consultant to work with Journatic, an internal memo said “our goal was to increase the amount of hyper-local content we provide.” (Emphases added.)

Similarly, the content Journatic once produced for former client GateHouse newspapers “was based on an agreed number of stories that would be published each month,” David Arkin, vice president of content and audience, told Poynter by email.

The basic model is this: Newspaper companies pay Journatic to generate a certain quantity of stories. Journatic pays contracted writers to provide a certain quantity of stories.

Nobody is paying anyone anything based on quality.

As a result, Arkin said, “sometimes production goals got in the way of good content decisions.” These are among the problems that he said led GateHouse to stop using Journatic:

Some stories that were selected were of little use and didn’t meet our story-selection standards. Example from an editor in Illinois: A hotel chain has an offer for families, but there’s no indication if the chain has businesses in the community the brief appeared. Another example would be state press releases like “State fire marshal marks elevator safety week.” Not valuable content, but it’s content they would often move.

Some stories were completely untimely. For example, this brief was posted on our site 18 minutes after the event was supposed to start. …

From one of our Delaware newspapers: There were 27 lunch menus posted on one of our Delaware websites on a single day. The volume blocked out all other content and looked a bit ridiculous. We don’t have a fundamental problem with posting lunch menus, but perhaps one post a day that lists all of them, would be more appropriate and would allow Journatic to post other kinds of content.

In some of our communities, they did post police items, but sometimes struggled to be consistent, which is an issue when we would depend on the content in print, which would leave a significant hole in print. We made staffing decisions around what Journatic committed to doing and when we would go without blotter for an entire week in some communities, it was a significant issue.

To understand why Journatic coverage is inconsistent, you have to understand how it is assigned and produced.

Potential stories come in through “lead generators.” They are placed in a pool of story assignments, from which the dispersed army of freelancers each choose the ones they will write.

The writers, paid on a per-story basis, decide what to produce — likely driven by the primary consideration of “how fast can I finish this, get paid, and move on to the next thing?”

As a result, one day you get dozens of stories about school lunch menus, but the next week nothing on the cafeteria culinary scene. One day you get exhaustive write-ups of arrests by local police, but the next week your local bandits and vandals go unmentioned.

Consistency would require an editor in charge who determines the overall coverage needs and assigns each writer. Or it would require experienced, salaried writers who choose the best articles to create the best possible publication. But then you’re basically back to the newsroom hierarchy and planning model, which reintroduces the costs Journatic exists to eliminate.

The hard truth

The hard truth of hyperlocal is that it does not scale.

As Chicago Tribune reporters Peter Frost and Ameet Sachdev wrote this weekend, “Some of the largest, most influential newspapers and media companies in the country have tried it: The New York Times. The Washington Post. The Chicago Tribune. Gannett. AOL. None has succeeded.”

Hyperlocal is the opposite of scale. It is the antithesis of The Huffington Post’s formulaic colonization of every imaginable content vertical (a “Prom” section, really?).

Hyperlocal is news for 100 or 1,000 people at a time.

If you seek scale by making that news appeal to more people, it becomes less relevant to any of them.

If you seek scale by stamping dozens of identitical hyperlocal sites on dozens of communities, they all become too inorganic and inauthentic to take hold.

It’s time for any publisher who wants to move into hyperlocal to say to themselves, “This is the business we have chosen.” There’s some money there, in small chunks, but not a gold mine.

And so it is often produced by someone local who cares more about quality than money. Or sadly it may be produced by the Journatic alternative: Someone who cares enough about the money to ignore the quality.

Editor’s note: Portions of this story appeared in earlier reports on Poynter.org.

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  • Anonymous

    Howard Owens has a strong sales background too. You have to be a unique team or a unique individual to make hyperlocal work digitally. The unique ability to know good content when you see it, the skills to produce the content professionally, and the ability to sell the quality content with integrity is the hard part. If you are relying on Social Media or Pageviews to make enough money without salesmanship it won’t work. I believe with the right leadership hyperlocal is scalable. 

  • Bryan Murley

    “But when I look around at hyperlocal success stories, many are driven by the will and personal commitment of a local individual.”

    This is not any different than the success of any small local newspaper since time immemorial. Local publications have thrived because individuals started them and nurtured them and kept the staff, etc.

  • http://twitter.com/xokasia Kasia Mychajlowycz

    Time to look north for a great example of a scaled-up hyperlocal journalism outfit that works: OpenFile.ca. I’ve written for them a few times, so not totally impartial, but they bypass all the pitfalls of Journatic, and produce real journalism that sometimes goes viral, and often serves the interests of the community in which it’s based. 

  • http://twitter.com/mututemple Digital Journalism

    Good to hear WSB is doing fine financially. I got that pessimistic impression of tough business for hyperlocal sites from a few articles I recently read, including one that tells how a UK journalist eventually gave up his site in favor of a regular full-time job. Could you share what WSB is doing different and better – from a business perspective?
    The article I mentioned is here:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2012/may/25/hyperlocal-media-local-newspapers?CMP=twt_gu

  • http://twitter.com/westseattleblog West Seattle Blog

    Disagree with DJ’s comment – no, it’s NOT difficult, IF you have the quality content and other components that lead your community to find value in your service (it’s not a site, it’s a service – your website, your social media, your “community engagement” [as much as I hate that phrase] etc.) – if they do, then the businesspeople who are part of your community will want to be there to reach their neighbors/customers. 

    But I actually intended to comment to say that while this is an important story – it’s what publishers like Howard and me have been pointing out for years – the “WSB is (me)” comment is not accurate. My husband Patrick Sand and I are co-publishers. He leads advertising, community relations, and on-scene breaking-news coverage. If we had to take a poll, I’d say far more people here know his name/face than mine (and neither one of us cares about anyone knowing our names/faces – since the most important people involved with WSB are the community members, not us – we don’t slap our names/faces  all over our channels, nor our opinions). I just happen to be the one who does most of the editing/writing/social media, so out here in pixel-land beyond West Seattle borders, I’m more visible  - Tracy @ WSB

  • http://twitter.com/mututemple Digital Journalism

    I’ve been reading similar articles and posts about hyperlocal news sites recently, and I’m surprised that few are talking about the business model of hyperlocal sites; instead, most focus on the quality of contents. It is very difficult to sell advertising to local, small businesses; and unfortunately, advertising still seems to be the only viable business model for hyperlocal sites.