Journatic, a company that provides hyper-local stories to media outlets, was called out by This American Life this weekend for using fake bylines on stories on their Blockshopper.com. While that is surface-level bad, the whole operation seems deeply sinister for supporters of shoe-leather journalism.
In an episode called "Switcheroo," This American Life producer Sarah Koenig talked with a freelancer working for Journatic, Ryan Smith, who noticed that stories he had edited were attributed to made-up people when published — the stories were actually written by people in the Philippines, where Journatic outsources work and pays minimal fees. This is how Koenig (transcribed by Jim Romenesko at his blog) describes the labor at Journatic:
The engine of this [Journatic] endeavor is data, tons of data that the company mines and sorts and enters into databases — public information and also harder to find records. It works like an assembly line: one person does research, another generates a lead, another writes it. Sometimes a couple of paragraphs might be written by a computer, using an algorithm, and someone else edits it. The goal is to create the largest local news machine ever. In the next few months they want to quadruple their output to produce 100,000 stories a week.”
Brian Timpone, the founder of Journatic, told both Romenesko and Poynter's Anna Tarkov that Blockshopper.com real estate stories used what he called "aliases" for reasons which included protecting employees against angry sources and their lawyers. According to This American Life, after Koenig asked about the fake bylines Timpone said that they got rid of that practice. The Chicago Tribune, which uses Journatic for TribLocal, also jumped in to say that they would not be using the fakes and the stories written by Filipino workers would be credited to "Neighborhood News Service."
Today, the Tribune's Robert Channick wrote that the fake bylines "prompted an investigation by the Chicago Tribune" and Journatic "acknowledged its mistake and said it would discontinue the practice." Timpone told Channick that only Blockshopper.com stories had the fake bylines, other stories they provided on local news did not. Andrew Beaujon, also of Poynter, explained that Smith took to Twitter to counter statements made by Timpone.
But the worrisome part about all this is that places like the Tribune use this service in the first place. The Tribune fired 20 members of its staff and replaced them with Journatic. Timpone's theory, which he explained to Mathew Ingram of GigaOM in April, is that this hyper-local news is essentially comprised of press releases and doesn't require an actual reporter on the ground. He said:
The base of community news is what they call in the industry ‘process news,’ and it doesn’t really require a reporter, it just needs some cleaning up.
But, as This American Life's Koenig notes, the reporters Journatic does have — even the ones like Ryan Smith — get paid so little that it is worth more for them to churn out as many stories as possible without reporting or any other due diligence, and local newspapers are no longer sending reporters out to do the old-fashioned work. She ends the piece by explaining that while newspapers are firing, Journatic is hiring.
The old-guard, calling someone one the phone, reporting from the scene, way of journalism has had a hard time in recent years. The line between reporter and blogger has blurred, and its not getting any easier for newspaper companies. But this Journatic controversy brings up mostly uncharted territory in the future of journalism question: What happens when the discussion is not about reporting, blogging or even citizen journalism, but about outsourcing nationally or internationally?
The whole This American Life segment can be heard here.