Exposing the “‘pink slime’ journalism” of Journatic

If you care about local news, then you must listen to a report on “This American Life,” broadcast last weekend, that exposes a scandal whose importance can’t be overstated.

The story is about a company called Journatic, which produces local content for newspapers using grossly underpaid, out-of-town reporters — including cheap Filipino workers who write articles under fake bylines.

And how great is it that “This American Life,” damaged earlier this year when it was victimized by fake journalism, has now exposed fake journalism elsewhere? Here is the Chicago Tribune — a major Journatic client — lecturing “TAL” on journalism ethics earlier this year.

After you listen, be sure to read the detailed back story, written by Anna Tarkov for Poynter.org.

Unfortunately, the broadcast aired just a few days before the Fourth of July, at a time when few people were paying much attention to the news. I hope it has the impact that it should.

The star of the “TAL” segment is a journalist named Ryan Smith, who kicks things off with a  killer anecdote. Smith tells producer Sarah Koenig that he drew an assignment to write a story about a “student of the week” for the Houston Chronicle. He called the principal, who suggested he swing by the school the next day.

Smith told him he’d rather do it by phone, but he didn’t tell him the reason: he was actually some 1,000 miles away.

Both Koenig and Tarkov interviewed Journatic chief executive Brian Timpone, who apologized for nothing and spewed forth a torrent of rationalizations and excuses: the fake bylines were to protect employees from lawyers; the Filipinos don’t actually write stories (they do); there’s no value to having reporters live in the community for routine local coverage such as police-blotter news and budget updates; and Journatic is providing coverage to communities that would otherwise have none.

Well, none might be preferable to the “‘pink slime’ journalism” (Smith’s felicitous description) that Journatic produces. Moreover, if the Chicago Tribune uses Journatic stories in its hyperlocal coverage in order to suck advertising money out of pizza shops, funeral homes and other businesses, it becomes that much harder for would-be entrepreneurs to start their own local news sites.

Since the “TAL” story broke, we’ve been learning more about who’s using Journatic material. The Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Sun-Times have all made use of Journatic, and are now in various degrees of renouncing it.

Of more local interest: so has GateHouse Media, a national chain that owns more than 100 papers in Eastern Massachusetts — mostly weeklies, but also some dailies, including the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, the Enterprise of Brockton and the MetroWest Daily News.

According to a follow-up story by Tarkov, Journatic copy never made it into GateHouse’s Massachusetts properties. But the debt-ridden corporation is now setting up its own Journatic-like operations in Boston and in Rockford, Ill. Who knows where those honor rolls, obituaries and police logs will be coming from? (The blog post I’ve linked to suggests the centralized operations will be limited to design and layout. Tarkov’s story, though, references 10 “content providers” who will be based in Rockford.)

The media-reform group Free Press has mobilized over the Journatic revelations, with Libby Reinish summarizing the findings and Josh Stearns offering some advice on how to tell if what you’re reading is the real thing. Inevitably, Free Press has started a petition drive as well.

Unfortunately, the forces that make something like Journatic possible are very real. It’s expensive and labor-intensive to do local journalism right, and the crisis that has befallen the newspaper industry in recent years has made it that much harder. But this is truly beyond the pale. Even Patch, with its top-down, cookie-cutter approach, has journalists in each of its communities.

Ultimately, though, the solution will come from the bottom up, community by community, as is already the case with enterprises such as the New Haven Independent, the Batavian and dozens of others. Have a look at Authentically Local, an umbrella group of independent local sites organized by Debbie Galant, the co-founder of Baristanet in northern New Jersey.

Another potentially interesting experiment in local journalism will get under way later this year. The Banyan Project, begun by veteran journalist Tom Stites, will launch a test site in Haverhill to be called Haverhill Matters. The secret sauce is cooperative ownership, similar to a credit union or a food co-op. You’ll be reading more about Banyan at Media Nation in the weeks and months to come.

At one point in the “TAL” broadcast, Koenig says to Smith, “You are so fired.” It is perhaps a sign of how little the Journatic folks care about their reputation that, in fact, he hasn’t been. In an email to Jim Romenesko, Smith says it’s been business as usual, and that he’s received new assignments from his editor, who recently relocated from St. Louis to Brazil.

“I’m going to work the rest of the week,” Smith wrote, “and then resign.”

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23 thoughts on “Exposing the “‘pink slime’ journalism” of Journatic

  1. Tish Grier

    Dan,

    A couple of years ago, when I did a story on content mills for Poynter, I found that Associated Content was producing local journalism–sports stuff, weekend things-to-do columns. There was a lot of complaining about that, but Assoc. Content reporters were people who lived in the areas they were reporting on, and had their own bylines, etc.

    What happened, I wonder. Did Associated Content, already inexpensive, become too expensive?

    Journatic has turned out to be the McDonalds of journalism–where the registers have to have pictures of the food so the low paying employees don’t even need to speak the language.

    BTW, Assoc. Content is still doing local. A friend of mine was recently re-assigned from her local weekend things-to-do column to something else. I haven’t reported on AC in awhile (I first interviewed founder Luke Beatty in 2006) but even after their buyout from Yahoo, they still seem to be doing ok. (I think they provide local content to Starbucks–or that was a deal they had in the works back in 2010…)

  2. Aaron Read

    Well, I’d say about 1000 public radio stations just got their newest selling point for their next fundraiser.

  3. Adam Riglian

    “Content is the currency of digital advertising” – what a slogan!
    You don’t need news or really even any value, you just need to make sure you rank in Google so you can generate enough traffic to warrant ad sales or, as Dan rightfully put it, suck money from pizzerias and funeral homes etc. The rest is irrelevant.
    Journatic doesn’t need journalists or even writers, they need “content creators” which is probably one step above “sentence assemblers.” This is all just low-cost factory work.

  4. Mark Bulger

    First, we have the (journalistically) unfortunate use of ‘pink slime,’ which was fully intended as propaganda when applied to meat processing. I assume that Media Nation would not use the term ‘fetal homicide’ for a particular abortion procedure just because someone somewhere thought it would score points in the greater abortion debate.

    Second, journalistic ethics are hardly to be invoked because reporters do interviews over the phone. And as to bylines, many newspaper articles and editorials have none.

    The truth is that hyperlocal reporting just doesn’t pay in the digital age. Count up the number of ‘real’ reporters, editors, etc, that YOU think would be needed, list salaries YOU think would be fair for such highly trained professionals, and then tell us where you think that money is going to come from.

    By the way… tell us about the last great story from the Globe about a Boston City Council meeting. Hello…. is there anyone there? Hello….?

  5. Rick Peterson

    “Junk thought”, what a concept. Begs the question of how computers and the web will change the process of how our brains work (and should we allow it). I’m old enough that I remember nuns forcing me to memorize Kipling and Shakespeare, (much of which still rattles around inside my head). I suspect that’s less common today, with kids unable to go an hour without texting friends about minutiae. Using Journatic for news is like eating all your meals at McDonald’s. Somewhere, due diligence is required by real people, or our intelligence will go the way of our waistlines.

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  7. L.K. Collins

    It’s a holiday weekend, and Dan needed something over which to be indignant without having to do much.

    How many times, Dan, have you done the same horrible thing…interview over the phone?

    Did it really matter where you were?

    Do Howard Owen’s comments here diminish because he is posting over a cable that is at least 500 miles long? After all, its quite similar, isn’t it?

  8. Josh Mamis

    We saw where this was headed a few years ago, when I was with the Advocate newspapers. We produced one week’s issue almost entirely written by freelancers in India. Other than some language awkwardness, it was an interesting experiment, given that the critics are right: most stories these days are reported by phone (or even email). Our editor at the time, whose idea the project was and who quarterbacked, Andy Bromage, told me that the hardest part was putting together the assignment memos — they were almost the full stories, without the quotes. You can read about it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/01/nyregion/01towns.html, but thanks to corporate stewardship I have a feeling you won’t be able to find the package itself online. After a few clicks through Google without success, I gave up.

  9. Matt Kelly

    Can I get more information about how an editor runs his department while living in Brazil?

  10. Kevin Wesley

    “Newspapers using grossly underpaid, out-of-town reporters … ” In the old days, we called these people “interns.”

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  12. Larz Neilson

    The missing link is knowing that something has happened and getting the details correctly. Someone has to write knowledgeably about local events so that the lunati — I mean — journatics can copy his stuff. That person will not be found halfway around the world. This discussion has missed one important function of journalism: watchdog. I believe that government functions a whole lot better when officials know that someone is paying attention, really paying attention.

  13. James Craven

    “given that the critics are right: most stories these days are reported by phone (or even email)”

    Reporters have always used phones, primarily for secondary interviews or those considered supplementary to the main story. There is no journalist, however, who doesn’t know that being there – in person – is the only real way to get the true story.

    As a former Gatehouse employee (laid off), I know my former newspaper now farms out a lot of work to freelancers and is in the process of moving all copyediting to another state.

    What the corporate heads and beancounters will never understand is that while reducing staff may seem the best course for enhancing profit, the stories produced by phone-in freelancers and distant copyeditors do not ring true with readers. Thus, less subscriptions and less profit which equals more layoffs and additional cuts to the heart of journalism.

    The debacle in New Orleans is a prime example of this. Cut your staff in half, and then tell people there will be no change in either the quality or quantity of work. I suppose, in some Orwellian way, if you say it enough you begin to think it is true. It is not.

  14. Julie Brooks

    Dan raises some very good points as do the commenters. But they’re all dancing around the elephant: When it comes to online news, popularity (unique visitors and page views) does not equal profitability. Trust does not equal profitability. No one has yet figured out a way to profitably and sustainably sell and monetize stand-alone online news. Not the big guys (Patch) and not the little guys (Batavian.) I’m not talking about a retired newsman running a news site out of his house which pulls in $20K a year in advertising. That’s a paid hobby, not a business. Google local and web 2.0 (Yelp, Trip Advisor) have annhilated the local ad market – it is possible for many SMB’s to thrive without a single paid online ad now. It doesn’t matter how well respected or trusted a local news site is, the advertisers are not going to sustainably support a site unless their ads produce tangible performance results, and neither Pulitzer Prize journalism nor pink slime can do this.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Julie: Why do you say the Batavian hasn’t figured it out? Granted, it’s a small operation, but it’s making money. Also: If for-profit journalism is dying, maybe we ought to be looking at alternatives to for-profit rather than alternatives to journalism.

  15. Julie Brooks

    @Dan. Because the Howard Owens/Batavians of the world are few and far between. There are oodles of people who *think* they can do what the Batavian does, but they can’t. You have to have a unique combination of passion, 24/7 work ethic, salesmanship, and managerial skills to do it all. Is he producing a great community news website? Yes. Is he getting rich? He says he isn’t.

    That’s what business is about, getting rich.

    That’s why the term “online news business” is practically an oxymoron.

    The Internet has been around for 15 years. If it were easy, or even possible, to get rich in the online news business, there wouldn’t be just this one guy, Howard, making an okay living after all this time. There would be thousands of Howards making a really nice living.

    But there aren’t, because it isn’t possible in the present or near future.

    I do agree that we as a nation seriously need to look at alternatives to for-profit news. We would wind up with a news culture far superior to what we had pre-Internet and cable TV news.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Julie: One point Howard likes to make is that anyone who’s willing to work hard enough to run a Patch could do it on his or her own. Although I’m sure they would have to go to boot camp to get up to speed on business/advertising operations.

  16. Dan Hamilton

    When I worked at CNC some years ago, they were headed down this slippery slope. Under orders from HQ, we had office people with zero journalism training or experience transcribing police logs for the papers. As an editor, my strong feeling was that if somebody got their arrest and charge publicized, they deserved not just their day in the actual court, but in the court of public opinion as well. That requires reporting, not stenography, and news judgment, not rote transcription.

    The problem here is not phone interviews; it’s the fundamentals of community journalism that are at stake. It’s dying fast enough of natural causes without operations like this gunning it down in broad daylight.

    -dan

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Dan: An important First Amendment case in which the Supreme Court ruled that newspapers have the right to publish the names of rape victims, BJF v. Florida Star, came about because the Star named a rape victim in violation of its own policy. The police had made the name available, an inexperienced reporter wrote it down, and you can guess the rest. The Star successfully argued that though what it did was unethical, it was not illegal because it was constitutionally protected speech. Anyway, sounds like we could be heading down that road again.

  17. Larz Neilson

    @Dan Hamilton: You nailed a good one: fundamentals. Having someone with no training write the police log is poor policy. You have to pay close attention to details and get the facts straight. (Did I say “fundamentals”?) You’re reporting on people doing bad things, and one wrong i.d. can result in a libel suit — no fun, even if you win.

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