Newspaper readers don’t have the kind of relationship with newspaper reporters that they do with famous columnists, authors or the talking heads on TV. As far as readers are concerned, newspaper reporters are pretty much anonymous. So what’s the big deal, if some of the nation’s best newspapers including The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Houston Chronicle and The San Francisco Chronicle are running articles written by offshore “reporters” and publishing them with a fake byline?
I guess it depends on your point of view. It’s clearly a big deal for journalists. One of the best in the business, David Carr of The Times, notes, “while the rest of us were burning hot dogs on the grill last week, the newspaper industry seemed to be lighting itself on fire.”
Clearly one of the brightest coals in that fire, is the This American Life piece on Journatic, a content farm owned in part by the Tribune Company.
The Journatic employee, Ryan Smith, who spoke to This American Life, describes how he pretended to be from the Houston Chronicle when speaking to a source in Texas for a story. He also describes how much of the copy he was tasked with editing originated in the Philippines and was full of grammatical errors. Smith also wrote a confessional for The Guardian about his experience at the company.
My stomach turned and my guilt grew. The company I was working for was harming journalism: real reporters were getting laid off and were being replaced by overseas writer-bots.
Naturally, Journatic’s CEO Brian Timpone, has another story to tell. “We were writing things that were controversial. Our writers were being threatened individually by the subjects of stories. We did it to protect them from the threats.”
He also notes that the articles in question needed to have bylines so they would show up in Google News results. Uh huh.
In marketing and media today, we talk a lot about the need for authenticity and transparency, because it’s the right way to do things, and because it is so difficult to hide deceitful practices in a culture where one 140 character burst has the power to change the course of a company.
In the case above, a guy who went to journalism school and worked as a real journalist on small town newspapers before joining Journatic, decided to speak up about how local news being written from afar. I think we’ll continue to see this sort of whistle-blowing, as more and more journalists are cut loose or starved by low wages.
Brian Farnham, who was the founding Editor-in-Chief of Patch.com, “sympathizes a bit” with Brian Timpone and company over at Journatic. “This is a hard, hard business to get right. The online space in general favors the fast-moving and cost effective. But to do right, journalism is expensive and requires painstaking effort.”
That’s a tension no one seems to have an answer for. Warren Buffett, who has been busy buying up community newspapers, told his charges recently, “It’s your job to make your paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in your city or town.”
Buffett is famous for getting it right, no matter how difficult the business conditions. It will be interesting to see the progress his team makes. Because to be indispensable, a newspaper must be the ultimate source for community news. But the way things are going, it’ll soon be easier to find out what’s going on in your community from chatter overheard at the coffee shop, than it will be to find a report in the newspaper.