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)

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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