Journatic: I Don’t Get It

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Sitting here lakeside on vacation, I keep thumbing through articles on my phone about fallout over This American Life‘s exposée on Journatic, the hyperlocal news service now bailing water after revelations it falsified bylines and plagiarized stories — on top of the fact the reporting it actually did sounded terrible.

I’m alarmed at the very idea of Journatic, sure. But there are also a lot of things I just don’t get.

I don’t get the premise behind Journatic’s business model, for one. Yeah, there are some really big buildings burning in the newspaper industry — New Orleans, Seattle, Denver all have had major casualties. I can’t undersell all that’s wrong with newspapers right now, and I’ll give Journatic that. 

But after a huge shock to the industry’s system, from where I sit, the news business appears to be doing — weirdly — okay. A survey just showed TV news hiring and production is up. Warts and all, public radio is investing in local news (and Kickstarters are investing in public radio). Even newspaper paywalls appear to be having a positive effect. Yet to hear the sales pitch of Journatic CEO Brian Timpone on TAL, a lot of local journos oughta be grabbing buckets and bailing water:

“I would posit that it’s better to have somebody [do journalism in small or suburban communities] than to have nobody look at them,” Timone told reporter Sarah Koenig (my personal fave on the show). He went on:

You know what? Newspapers are firing people. Newspapers are struggling. They’re going bankrupt. We have a solution that helps solve the problem, right? Cutting staff is not the way to growth. But empowering a reporter with people in the Philippines– that’s a really smart thing to do. The criticism’s fine. But at the end of the day, what’s a better solution?

Um, Patch? It’s arguably doing hyperlocal news better and with more fidelity than Journatic. (The next question is whether Patch will be able to do it for a profit, granted.)

I do get Timone’s argument — and, frankly, I see merit to the idea — of outsourcing and aggregating the tedium of newspapers, like “bowling scores, school lunch menus, real estate transfers, and holiday trash pickup schedules,” as TAL reported.

The idea that local reporting can be done remotely, however; the idea that Journatic can cover small communities in Texas by phone from the Chicago suburbs, and thereby, as Timone suggests, fulfill a watchdog role on local government… I mean, it’s too preposterous to even merit argument. Data can tell you a lot. Human beings in communities can tell you even more. At this point, my thoughts join the criticisms many others have penned.

But there’s another thing that I don’t get: our response to the story. I don’t know why writers in the Philippines doing local reporting in America has touched a nerve. It’s like journalism’s form of auto-industry protectionism — not my American job, not at my paper, no way no how.

The reality, though, is that outsourcing has been going on for a long time. Important news stories are getting “outsourced” to wire services as national bureaus shutter. The Indianapolis Star‘s front page gets designed in Louisville now, after Gannett Co. consolidated design and copy editing at its metro papers in several design hubs across the nation. The arguments for these things’ efficiency and usefulness are much more plausible than defenses for Journatic, of course. But I still can’t fathom journalism that isn’t grounded in the communities it’s supposed to benefit.

Brian Timpone wants us to believe that bad things happen in small communities because ‘nobody’s watching.’ Maybe now, we’ll start watching the newspaper industry. That’s where the bad things are really happening.

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