Story of the week, from my perspective, is the revelation of just how far our news organizations have fallen in importance. Seems as if we are witnessing the future of America; where industries get outsourced, job by job, and sent to some place where a salary of 50¢ an hour is nearly a middle class wage. Is this the Bain Capital model of the future? I find that depressing, and my connection to journalism is only as a reader, and through genetic history.1
The story has been percolating for a while, a recent piece on NPR’s This American Life was the blow-up event:
ACT TWO. FORGIVE US OUR PRESS PASSES. Producer Sarah Koenig reports on a company called Journatic, that is producing local journalism in a brand new way. Or is it really journalism? (23 1/2 minutes)
(click here to continue reading Act Two. Forgive us our Press Passes. | Switcheroo | This American Life.)
A Better Tribune
Turns out there was an insider, Ryan Smith, at Journatic feeding information because he was concerned.
From the Guardian U.K:
If the best trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist, Journatic’s greatest ruse has been to convince the world that the company and its workers barely exist. Google the word “Journatic” and it’ll take a lot of digging through search results to find the company’s bare-bones website, because the site itself, as one blogger has reported, contains code that eliminates it from Google search results.
That’s strange for a company that’s had such a large impact on newspaper journalism. Over the last two or three years, the Chicago-based content provider has infiltrated dozens of mid to major newspapers across the country and obtained contracts to produc so-called “hyperlocal” news content. Those deals often lead to a horde of firings of editorial staff at those news organizations, as some full-time office-dwellers cede work to a small army of low-paid freelancers living all around the globe.
In this brave new media world, the face-to-face has been rendered as obsolete as health benefits and vacation pay, leading to a bizarrely disconnected state of affairs between the newspapers and the people putting words on its pages. I’ve copyedited or written news stories for a handful of major US newspapers over the past 18 months – the Houston Chronicle in Texas, San Francisco Chronicle in California and Newsday in Long Island, New York and others – yet it’s doubtful that any of the editors or senior executives for those news organizations could pick me out of a police line-up. In fact, it’s unlikely they could tell you a single personal detail about me or the other journalists behind the bylines of countless stories that appear in their print editions or on their websites, as provided by my employer.
Had editors at these newspapers requested a meeting with the individuals producing this new content, they’d have racked up a staggering amount of frequent flier miles. Journatic’s ranks are full of people like myself – home office-based US freelancers located far from the area they are covering. (I’ve never stepped foot in the Lone Star state once, much less visited the offices of the Houston Chronicle.) A second group of the company’s workers have been recruited from beyond the North American continent in developing countries like the Philippines and various African nations.
A final group of Journatic workers would be literally impossible to track down. Why? Because they don’t actually exist. They’re as fictional as Sherlock Holmes or the Sasquatch.
(click here to continue reading My adventures in Journatic’s new media landscape of outsourced hyperlocal news | Ryan Smith | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk.)
Anna Tarkov of Poynter has a good overview of the entire fake byline story which concludes:
“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,” [Ryan Smith] 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.”
(click here to continue reading Journatic worker takes ‘This American Life’ inside outsourced journalism | Poynter..)
Michael Miner has been covering the story for a while:
The Tribune Company announced Monday it’s turning over TribLocal to Journatic—which the Tribune describes as a “Chicago-based media content provider” that “aggregates data.” Not just Chicago-based, it’s Tribune Tower-based, and Journatic’s approach to journalism is to turn it into piecework done at home. For weeks it’s been advertising for writers and offering these terms:
Position: Per Piece Writer Treatment: 1099 Independent Contractor Time: You choose when you work, but we are looking for day availability Location: Remote. As a contractor, you choose where you work Pay: Per-piece, roughly $12/hr. For example $4 stories take about 20 +/- minutes, and $2 stories take about 10 +/- minutes. Interest in Journatic heated up a month ago when it put together a 20-page mock neighborhood section for the Tribune. That’s when executive editor Peter Behle sent employees a notice that said in part, “Reporters will be sniffing around—and they are not authorized to talk with anyone about Journatic under any circumstances. Better yet, if you receive a reporter inquiry and tell us about it (without responding), we’ll pay you a $50 bonus.”
That’s good money for dropping a dime. A Journatic writer would have to write 13 stories to earn as much, and that’s even if they were the important $4 stories.
But now that word is out Journatic’s less guarded, and I just got off the phone with Brian Timpone, the CEO.
(click here to continue reading Tribune Company does deal with Journatic | The Bleader.)
and what do the out-sourced reporters actually write? Miner followed up:
Timpone had told me that data was collected and processed for Journatic in the Philippines but the writing is all domestic. Someone promptly posted a Journatic ad she’d spotted on a Filipino website that contradicted him: it said, “We’re looking for writers to work on events stories.” Journatic wanted Filipino writers “able to commit to 250 pieces/week minimum” at 35 to 40 cents a piece.
What’s the Filipino contribution to TribLocal Homewood-Flossmoor? I asked Timpone.
He directed me to the “Homewood-Flossmoor Athlete Tracker” on a back page. It’s a list of athletes from the local high school now playing varsity sports in college and their latest accomplishments, however humble—such as, “Has started 26 games this year, hitting .232 with nine RBIs.”
“That’s the kind of stuff we do in the Philippines, if you want to know,” said Timpone. He explained that when Journatic came into Homewood-Flossmoor, it created a database of around “100 newsmaking organizations”—such as women’s clubs, churches, schools, and athletes. With the athletes, the schedules of the teams they play for are loaded into the database, and then the teams’ websites are patrolled for results. “In the Philippines they collect the data and put it in the system. You need a program to do it.
“The school lunch menus might be formatted by Filipinos,” Timpone went on. “Say there are 25 school lunch menus released every Sunday. We have someone gather them and put them in the system. It’s not writing. We need people who speak English and are literate. It’s a typist job, but people don’t want to be called a typist.”
(click here to continue reading The burbs’ first look at Journatic | The Bleader.)
Side note: Jack Shafer posted a brief, interesting history of the byline itself:
Where does the sanctity of the byline come from?
Obviously, every news story should brim with the truth. But does an accurate story become unclean if the byline does not match the name of the writer (or writers) who produced it? In even the most professional of newsrooms, editors frequently do sufficient work on a piece – reporting and re-reporting sections, composing long passages without the assistance of the bylined writer, redefining the story’s parameters – that they deserve a byline or at least a co-byline. Yet magazine, newspaper and wire editors rarely receive this credit for their extraordinary interventions. Even so, I’ve never heard anybody claim that the readers of these pieces were in any way hoodwinked.
If bylines are so holy, why do the very best newspapers in the land allow government officials, foreign ambassadors, politicians, captains of industry and other notables claim sole bylines for their op-ed pieces? Almost to a one, these articles are composed by ghostwriters, yet journalistic convention denies the ghosts credit. If Journatic is deceiving the public, so too are the op-ed pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and many other newspapers. See also the books that unacknowledged ghostwriters write for their celebrity clients.
Not to go all Foucault (PDF file) on you, but the meaning of authorship has flexed over the centuries, depending on the direction that ideas about property and authority were taking. In the middle of the 1800s, as the American newspaper gathered cultural force and influence, bylines were still rare ornaments. Their assignment was inconsistent, even to writers who “deserved” them. Karl Marx, who wrote a column for the New York Tribune in the 1850s, complained that his contributions were sometimes published with his byline, sometimes as unsigned editorials, and sometimes not at all, as James Ledbetter pointed out in the introduction to Karl Marx: Dispatches for the New York Tribune. That said, Marx was not shy about submitting 125 columns written by his partner in communism, Friedrich Engels, as his own work.
One early advocate of bylines was Civil War General Joseph Hooker, who imposed them on battlefield correspondents in 1863 “as a means of attributing responsibility and blame for the publication of material he found inaccurate or dangerous to the Army of the Potomac,” as scholar Michael Schudson wrote in Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers. To be technical about it, journalistic bylines didn’t exist in the 1800s, as the term had yet to be invented. Instead, journalistic works credited to an author were called “signed articles” or “signature” pieces, as W. Joseph Campbell wrote in his book The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms.
Signatures and signed articles became more common at newspapers by the late 1890s, as Alfred Balch noted in Lippincott’s Monthly (December 1898), conveying the growing status of journalists. “[I]t is the experience of every man who writes that signature makes him more careful,” Balch wrote, and this was good for publishers, too, he added. Yellow journalists Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst enthusiastically promoted their best writers (Richard Harding Davis, Sylvester Scovel, Ambrose Bierce, Nellie Bly, Stephen Crane and Eva Valesh, for example) by rewarding them with bylines, making celebrities out of them or adding to their established celebrity. But many publishers still disdained bylines because of the attention they focused on the writer at the expense of the publication. New York Times publisher-owner Adolph Ochs led the resistance, as Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones wrote in The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times:
Adolph had an ironclad policy on who got individual credit at the New York Times, insisting that “the business of the paper must be absolutely impersonal.” Bylines on stories were virtually nonexistent, and no editor, reporter or business manager was permitted to have stationery with his name on it.
(click here to continue reading How the byline beast was born | Jack Shafer.)
For the record, speaking only for myself, I have no objection to paying a reasonable price for online access to news. I pay the New York Times, pay the WSJ, pay some trade publications (Ad Age, for instance), and I’m ok with that. I don’t think news has to be free. But then I’m old.…Footnotes:
- My grandfather was a newspaper man his whole life, and several of my relatives have made a living in various parts of the news industries, though as far as I know, nobody is currently employed thus [↩]