Is Journatic's cheap labor saving journalism or just a lot of money? | Bleader

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Is Journatic's cheap labor saving journalism or just a lot of money?

Posted By on 07.03.12 at 09:34 AM

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Brian Timpone
  • Brian Timpone
Click here for This American Life's terrific report last weekend on Journatic, the outfit now providing the Tribune with its hyperlocal suburban news, much of it coming by way of the Philippines.

Sarah Koenig's skeptical report ends with the sort of argument that can sound unassailable when times are tough: you got a better idea?

"Newspapers are firing people. Newspapers are struggling. They’re going bankrupt," Journatic's creator, Brian Timpone, says to Koenig. "We have a solution that helps solve the problem. Cutting staff is not the way to growth, but empowering a reporter with people in the Philippines—that’s a really smart thing to do. The criticism’s fine, but at the end of the day, what’s a better solution? Do you have one? Tell me if you have a better idea. I'm all ears."

"I don't have a better idea," Koenig concedes. Newspapers are laying people off by the tens of thousands, and Journatic's hiring. Not only that, according to the gloss Timpone nimbly puts on the situation, Journatic is old-fashioned journalism's new best friend.

"All we're saying," narrates Koenig, paraphrasing Timpone, "is if you want to do community news, cover places you’ve never coverd before, Journatic can get you started. And if Journatic does the busy work it frees up real staff reporters at places like the Trib or the Houston Chronicle or the Hartford Courant to do more substantial hard-hitting work."

Last April, when the Trib turned its TribLocal operation over to Journatic, Timpone gave me the same argument.

This American Life called its Journatic segment "Forgive Us Our Press Passes," and the theme of the show was "Switcheroo (People pretending to be people they're not: sometimes it's harmless, sometimes it's harmful and sometimes it's hard to tell)."

In this case the pretenders were the Journatic folk in the Philippines turning out stories for Journatic at 35 cents a pop and putting phony bylines on them.

On Monday the Tribune's Robert Channick reported that the bylines had appeared with "several stories that ran in TribLocal online" but that the Tribune put its foot down and Journatic was discontinuing the practice. Timpone said it had been a mistake, that the bylines had actually been concocted for a sister site, Blockshopper.com, that did not pretend to be journalism, but that the occasional Blockshopper real estate story had migrated over to Journatic.

Reported Channick, "Timpone said the use of aliases has been discontinued on Blockshopper.com, and any content 'cross-posted' to TribLocal or other newspaper sites going forward would be identified only as coming from the Neighborhood News Service."

This assurance is not entirely comforting. A reader wrote me, "Interesting that instead of using fake Americanized bylines on 'neighborhood' reports written by a content mill in the Philippines - Journatic - The Tribune is now just going to attribute the stories to a made-up entity called 'Neighborhood News Service.'"

In other words, instead of a made-up byline a made-up news organization. Some improvement! But is this fair? I asked a Tribune spokesperson if Neighborhood News Service is something that actually exists.

"Neighborhood News Service does not exist as a standalone entity—it was created for the TribLocal partnership [with Journatic] and has been in use since this affiliation began," I was told.

It is what it is and what it isn't it isn't. Starving philosophers can debate ontology forever, though in the end they often side with whoever hands them a slice of bread.

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