June 30, 2012

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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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…
Anna Tarkov

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