Following up on Journatic and GateHouse

GateHouse publications and websites in Massachusetts. Click on map for interactive version at gatehousemedia.com.

The Journatic story keeps spreading. Today David Folkenflik summarizes what we know so far for NPR’s “Morning Edition,” bringing the tale of outsourced local news and fake bylines to many millions more listeners than those who first heard about it on “This American Life.” And Folkenflik has more on GateHouse Media’s decision to replace Journatic with a similar in-house operation — minus the fake bylines, which Journatic itself has said it will stop using.

There have been a few other developments as well. Among the more interesting is a post written by Mathew Ingram for GigaOm, who took issue with critics of Journatic by arguing that the real problem was a resistance to new ways of doing things. Ingram writes (the links are his):

Critics of the Journatic model, including Mandy Jenkins of Digital First Media and Anna Tarkov at the Poynter Institute, seem to want newspapers to continue to produce hyper-local community journalism in the traditional way, with reporters based in the community writing traditional stories. But given the kinds of financial pressures on the newspaper industry, that may simply not be viable for outlets like the [Chicago] Tribune or GateHouse. That’s not to say they shouldn’t devote resources to those communities, but it does mean that looking at alternative models for some kinds of content makes sense as well.

When Tarkov and I debated the issue with Ingram on Twitter yesterday, his first response was, “If I am defending anything, @dankennedy_nu, it’s the idea of experimenting with new ways of doing journalism. Is that bad?”

The problem is that there’s new and there’s new. The low-cost nonprofit, online-only model being tried in places like New Haven and San Diego, rebuilding local journalism through neighborhood reporting and civic engagement, is new. Hiring people in the Philippines to write news briefs for your local paper under Anglo-sounding bylines — well, that’s new, too. Not everything new should be embraced.

Also on Thursday, Tarkov had a follow-up that included a memo to the Journatic troops from chief executive Brian Timpone.

And speaking of memos, I received from a trusted source a memo from David Arkin, vice president of content and audience for GateHouse Media, explaining GateHouse’s decision to stop using Journatic and to replace it with something similar in-house. GateHouse owns more than 100 community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts, though none had any Journatic content imposed on them. The full text of the memo follows:

All,

You may have read recently in industry trade publications that GateHouse Media has ended its relationship with content-producer Journatic.

Journatic creates local content like news briefs, calendar items and submitted education content such as honor rolls for newspapers. We started working with Journatic more than a year ago and had been using the service at nearly 30 GateHouse newspapers.

Since we didn’t use the service at all of our papers, we never communicated our partnership with this vendor to the company.

As you likely have read on Poynter and other blogs this week, we have decided to end the relationship with Journatic and build a similar service with central corporate staff for the newspapers that were using the Journatic service. We are in the process of ramping up a 10-person team that will produce this content for the newspapers.

We decided to end the relationship with Journatic for a few reasons:

— Journatic had trouble providing the kinds of content that our newspapers really needed. They provided a lot of content but weren’t successful in choosing the right kind of calendar items and news briefs.

— We spent too much time centrally and locally addressing errors with their content.

— We discovered we could produce process-oriented content that our newspapers really wanted at a more economical price than Journatic.

We have been working on this move for several months. The news this week that Journatic put fake bylines on stories reaffirmed our decision to leave, but a decision to end the relationship had been made months beforehand.

Bringing the service in-house has helped target the kind of content newspapers really want, and we’re making good progress toward cleaner copy. Producing that content centrally takes great coordination and communication, something we can manage better than a vendor.

We support Journatic’s model, which is to take process-oriented content out of newsrooms to allow our newspapers to focus on high-quality original reporting. We believe handling that community content centrally will put us in a better position to achieve a higher level of enterprise reporting at our newspapers.

Our goal is to transition all newspapers currently using Journatic to our centralized group by August and to ensure the service we’re providing is excellent. After that we’ll evaluate whether the service could be implemented at more GateHouse newspapers.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Thanks,
DA

David P. Arkin
Vice President of Content & Audience / GateHouse Media, Inc.

My source, a GateHouse insider, analyzes Arkin’s memo thusly: “From my perspective, there is a very narrow subset of stuff that could be assigned to a Journatic-type operation that could potentially free up my time for more worthy pursuits. The key to Arkin’s statement, of course, is the degree to which the intent of contracting with a service like Journatic or building a similar operation in-house is to free us up for more enterprise reporting, multimedia, social media, etc., rather than just to ‘decrease the surplus population.’ Time will tell, I suppose.”

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18 thoughts on “Following up on Journatic and GateHouse

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Bill: In this case, though, which would be worse? If the Journatic experiment failed? Or worked?

  1. I hate to quibble about stuff like this, but my reporting on GateHouse preceded Folkenflik’s. That said, I’m glad this is being more widely reported.

    Also, you hit on an important point about our debate with Mathew. I am beginning to realize that there’s an entire group of tech/media people who believe that every technological change in media is automatically good. Every change is NOT good and all should be carefully scrutinized.

    I am finding myself feeling very odd about all this, because until very recently I thought I was one of those people. Disrupt! Destroy! Tear down! Rebuild! New models! New processes! But now I see that everything new isn’t automatically better. Maybe it CAN be, eventually, but it’s not there yet.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Anna: I credited your GateHouse reporting in my post on Thursday. And I said Folkenflik had “more,” not that he was first.

  2. Do we really need an outsource partner to turn data into traditional article formats? Do readers want the traditional article format, or would we be better off finding technological solutions to do more searchable databases, etc., with our journalists providing analysis and insight when it fits?

    I’m just a bit puzzled about what solution they’re really providing here, other than super-cheap “content” that isn’t really that interesting to anyone in the format they’re offering.

  3. Well, I hate to say “I told ya so” but, years ago, I believe I told ya (the news industry) so…

    It’s not about finding *cheaper* providers for local news. It’s about finding new ways of *funding* it. Dave Cohen was onto something with Spot.us, but, alas, few papers wanted to take up an endeavor for that…

    The bottom line is: any sort of innovation, whether it’s in moderating comments or in funding news, needs *someone* in the newsroom to shepherd the project. There’s usually no one to do that. So, the solution becomes to hire cheaper and cheaper news providers. The first of the cheaps were various other newspapers and wire services. As those got too expensive, then came the content mills like Demand Media and Associated Content. Then Journatic came along that was even cheaper than Demand Media *and* Assoc. Content. But if the news industry had really *looked* at Journatic back then, they would have seen that the emperor was missing an article of clothing or two: there was no real business plan, and no real solid info about what and how Journatic was going to do its job…

    Everyone was too busy busting Patch’s chops and not paying attention to Journatic.

    Until it got really, really messy.

    From what I’m now seeing, as an industry observer from the outside, newspapers want fast, cheap, and accurate. Three things that really do not happen in our world and are NOT in any way innovative. Innovation won’t come from inside the newspapers because no one has the time (nor, probably, the chops) to develop *and* shepherd new projects.

    So, it will be a lot of SSDD for awhile, I fear.

  4. Matt, that’s a good point. Also, why can’t Journatic JUST do the data stuff and feed that to journalists? That might be useful. I know the answer to that question though and it’s an unpleasant one.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Anna and @Matt: But what would that data be? I don’t think the hyperlocal efforts we’re talking about wish someone could crunch numbers for them so that they could do computer-assisted investigative reporting. We’re talking about honor rolls, school-lunch-menus, police-blotter items, etc. — the stuff that just gets emailed to the paper anyway. Why does anyone need to outsource stuff like that, which gets minimal processing before being published?

  5. My issue, honestly, is it isn’t a new way of doing journalism if you’re talking about outsourcing this kind of content.

    Basically, instead of paying a local person to type in or reformat all the stuff people want in their community newspaper — honor rolls, obituaries, police logs, wedding announcements, cutlines for photos sent in by the schools, whatever — they would rather send it out of the country where it can be done cheaper. What the heck. One less person to answer the newsroom phone.

    Of course, that person isn’t going to flag the obit of the Local Important Person for the news desk. They’re not going to realize the funeral home misspelled “Hopkington.”

    You can argue this news isn’t important, but I get holy hell if I don’t publish honor rolls the second report cards come out, and God help me if the school accidentally left a student off the list. For some people, that list of agate script is the ONLY reason they’re buying a physical newspaper.

  6. @Dan I think this is where we need to be honest and say that this isn’t about making things easier for reporters; it’s about producing local news at as low a cost as possible. Because if it was really just honor rolls and lunch menus, I don’t think Journatic would serve as much of a purpose.

    Someone who works at a community paper commented on one of my Poynter stories and explained how his paper does all this stuff with minimal staff.

    No, this isn’t about freeing up reporters. This is about content, content, content and at least the Trib VP was honest about that with TAL. He didn’t think there was anything untoward about this. They wanted local advertisers, they had to stick some content around it and they couldn’t produce enough content the “old-fashioned” way to justify the ad rates they wanted to charge and/or have enough room for the ads in print.

    All this is, I think, why some people say that ideally big media organizations shouldn’t be in the local news business. I’m not 100% sure that’s the case, but there’s certainly a case to be made for it. If they’re always going to seek to do things “at cost,” this is the logical end result.

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  8. Patricia Daukantas

    So, what is “process-oriented content” anyway? The honor rolls, school lunches and listings of local events? What is the “process” here? What are meaningless buzzwords doing anywhere near a so-called journalistic organization?

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  11. I am a co-founder of a new, community-supported online communication called The Bedford Citizen. (www.thebedfordcitizen.org)

    Our town is “covered” by GateHouse but there’s a huge swath of local news that never sees the light of day. The goal of The Citizen, primarily, is to report on town government issues as they happen, before they hit the fan–or Town Meeting.

    Love to have your feedback.

    Kim Siebert MacPhail

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