When local is not really local: Journatic makes headlines of its own

Update: 7/14/12 > From Mike Fourcher’s blog, Vouchification > Why I am Resigning from Journatic

Update: 7/9/12 > From StreetFightMag.com > Ex-Patch EIC: Journatic Episode Illustrates Cost/Quality Issue in Hyperlocal

Update: 7/6/12 > Fom NPR’s Morning Edition > Fake Bylines Reveal Hidden Costs of Local News

Update: 7/4/12 > From Poynter > More newspapers discover fake bylines and end relationships with Journatic

I don’t know about you, but when I think about outsourcing, I envision people in India or Belize handling customer service calls from frustrated Americans.

The June 29 episode of This American Life introduced listeners to a company called Journatic, which farms out local news coverage to people who are mostly nowhere near the the locality in question, from Texas to the Philippines. The episode specifically looked at TribLocal, an offshoot of the Chicago Tribune which was supposed to provide real, hyperlocal news to communities around Chicagoland: nearly 100 neighborhoods, towns and suburbs.

Chicago Tribune building
Chicago Tribune building (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we learned from the episode, having Chicago reporters actually covering the TribLocal communities proved expensive, and it was difficult for them to produce the volume of content readers expected from an online news source. Enter Journatic, which the Tribune Company actually bought a piece of in April.

I’ve become more intrigued by Journatic. When I visited its website, I saw that it lists an office in St. Louis. Who knew? This map shows where.

The show (Act Two) raises a number of ethical questions that will be of interest to journalists. Throughout, producer Sarah Koenig respectfully presses Journatic CEO Brian Timpone, who seems to truly believe the Journatic model could save newspapers.

Brian Timpone, CEO of Journatic. (Photo credit: BlockShopper.com)

You really need to hear the exchange between Koenig and Timpone (about 43 minutes into the show) about the Filipino workers, who Timpone insists don’t really write articles.

Another very telling exchange comes toward the end, when Timpone–a former reporter himself–asks Koenig if she has a better solution to the problems newspapers are facing. She admits she does not and points out that Journatic is hiring.


When I worked for Patch, I remember grumbles from freelancers about the $50 to $75 an article we usually offered. The Journatic “reporter” profiled by This American Life reveals that a city council story he did for TribLocal yielded between $12 and $14 dollars. Working for  about three hours on the piece, that comes to…. Ouch. It’s actually painful to do the math.

The founding editor in chief of Patch, Brian Farnham, wrote a piece about Journatic for the Columbia Journalism Review in May. It’s a good, balanced read from the perspective of a person who knows of what he speaks.

One of the crazy things about journalism today is that it feels a bit like the Wild West, or perhaps a sort of Gold Rush, in which the nuggets are tiny, few and far between. There’s an “anything goes” vibe of which the following are major themes:

  • Journalists try to figure out the best routes to job security and satisfaction
  • Legacy media try to stay in business and remain relevant at a moment when being “disruptive” is deemed a good thing
  • Scrappy start-ups innovate and experiment, with mixed results
  • New tools and platforms raise the questions: Who is a journalist?  What is journalism anyway?

On the threshold

It’s the best of times and worst of times for journalism. But even with the chaos and anxiety, I think it’s an exciting time. I learned about liminality from another public radio show this weekend (listen to the second hour of To the Best of Our Knowledge). It’s about being on the threshold of something, in a transformative space that will mean there’s no going back. Journalism is not dead. It’s becoming something else, with features of its former self and a great many new, disruptive ones.

Read more about Journatic:

Remember journalistic ethics? Here’s the Society of Professional Journalists Code.


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