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.”