July 17, 2012

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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Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
Craig Silverman

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