The Future = Now x Acceleration

Flat World Goes Hyperlocal

with 2 comments

It had to happen eventually.

Ever since I read in 2008 about the online newspaper Pasadena Now hiring reporters in India to cover the Pasadena City Council meetings, I wondered how long it was going to be before local news was outsourced – and who was going to do it. I didn’t have to wait long.

As you will find on Blackboard the This American Life story (from the Switcheroo episode) and practically every media-centric Blog this week, a company you have never heard of before, Journatic, is assembling facts and “stories” in places like the Philippines and the former Eastern Bloc and emailing them to “editors” in the US who slap leads on them and sell them cheaply to newspapers nationwide.

Which newspapers? Apparently most of them. Especially for their hyperlocal Websites. Thomas Friedman’s flattened Earth has claimed local journalism coverage.

As a journalist who spent the first half of his professional career as public affairs reporter putting in the time to develop sources;  suffering through meetings long into the night; poring through (actually) dusty file drawers of records; and experiencing the joy of seeing a story come together that would entertain and inform; I can tell you how wrong this affront is in all its myriad ways.

But I will spare you the personal umbrage for now. I do so at the risk of sounding like a luddite.

In 2008, the Pasadena Now editor claimed that he hired reporters in India because he couldn’t find anyone in Pasadena who would do it. (I personally find that extremely hard to believe.) Pasadena streamed its city council meetings live over the Internet and, for the reporters in India, the time zone difference meant that they were working in the morning rather than into the night. If the reporters had questions, they emailed them to the council members for potential follow-up stories.

The Onion

Anyone who has back-covered a story can tell you about the pitfalls of this type of reporting. You are limited to the facts as they are presented to you and not privy to the nuance of the event experienced. Nor can you chase down people who leave early or question audience members who react to the event before them.

The story of how Journatic assembles “content” for once venerable newspapers and news organizations is a textbook example of how Friedman’s flat Earth scenario works. At once I am both horrified and impressed by the audacious absurdity of what this example represents. Filipinos get paid $0.35 to $0.40 to assemble facts from Internet sources that are written in way that may or may not resemble a story and email it to freelancers here who get paid $10.00 to $12.00 to edit it into something resembling a story. These freelancers, themselves, are ‘outsourced’ across the country, far from where their work will eventually appear.

“Stories” then appear in your newspaper’s hyperlocal Website products, giving the patina of local reporters covering your community. Worse  yet, (and perhaps most galling to journalists like myself) the stories appear with fake bylines to hide the true identity of the Filipino workers.

I’ll call  it outsourcing fed by hyperoutsourcing.

Surely, this can’t be the only answer to providing local coverage in one’s local newspaper. This American Life producer Sarah Koenig says that she doesn’t have a better idea.

“Not unless consumers want to start paying properly for their news,” Koenig says.

And the backlash? Lots of huffing and puffing from people like me and major newspapers promising to look into the allegations of fake bylines that appeared in their publications. The Chicago Sun-Times has ended its relationship with Journatic as a result.


Written by digitalanalogues

July 9, 2012 at 5:15 PM

2 Responses

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  1. Thank you for your help and direction!


    September 11, 2012 at 10:27 AM

  2. I really agree with the core of your post. These ideas synch up with my thoughts about this issue.

    I can’t wait to talk about this further in class.


    February 21, 2013 at 4:34 PM

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