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Forgive us our Press Passes.


Ohanian Comment: They call this new journalism hyperlocal content. The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Houston Chronicle, and San Francisco Chronicle, among others, have admitted to using it.

The Tribune has done more than use the content. April 24, 2012, the Tribune Company announced that it has made "a strategic investment in Journatic, LLC, a provider of extensive local content to media companies and advertisers, and that the two companies will have a significant operating relationship going forward. Journatic will use the investment to expand its ability to meet the rapidly growing demand for its services from publishers, advertisers and agencies. Terms of the investment were not disclosed."

Significant operating relationship.

The Tribune's leading daily newspapers include the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, Sun Sentinel (South Florida), Orlando Sentinel, Hartford Courant, The Morning Call and Daily Press.

The basic model is the feeder outfit collects lots of public data which can be plugged into a "news" item, which may be a refried public relations handout. The refrying takes place in the Philippines, where journalistic labor is even cheaper than in the U. S. (where, this story shows, it's dismally low), and then edited in the U. S. and given a fake byline.

The story below from This American Life mentions just one fake education story, but certainly much of what we see these days follows this PR handout conversion model. This method is the creation of Journatic, which is "a mixture of journalism and automatic." Cute, no?

In September 2010, Forbes carried a story about Blockshopper and Journatic founder Brian Timpone's tactic for real estate stories on Blockshopper about the "pampered wealthy," noting Timpone wants to start publishing stories about "pampered professionals" based on parking ticket, divorce and bankruptcy records.

This journalistic method works well with the Obama/Duncan education policy, which is all data and no essence.

According to Poynter Ryan Smith, who blows the whistle in this story, contacted This American Life because "People didn't think much about the beef they were eating until someone exposed the practice of putting so-called 'pink slime' into ground beef," he said in an email. "Once it came out, the food industry moved quickly to change it. I feel like companies like Journatic are providing the public 'pink slime' journalism."

You can read the Ryan Smith's account here. He is the journalist who blew the whistle on this scam. Note that his article is published in The Guardian.


Ira Glass:

Forgive us Our Press Passes. You know how when you call someplace for customer service, and you're on some 800 number, and somebody answers the phone and says her name is Jill, and at some point the thought crosses your mind-- this person's name is probably not Jill. This person is probably sitting in a call center in India or somewhere. And you have that thought, what other jobs can we possibly outsource to people far away at this point? Well Sarah Koenig tells this story of a fairly recent addition to the list of jobs.

Sarah Koenig

Back in November, a newspaper reporter named Ryan Smith got an assignment from his editor. Write up a student of the week story for the Houston Chronicle. The student was a senior at Bellaire High School outside Houston.


Ryan Smith

So I ended up calling the high school. And it was kind of interesting. Because I talked to the principal a little bit. He was sort of vetting me. And he's like, well why don't you just come by the school tomorrow? And--

Sarah Koenig

Why is this even vaguely funny to Ryan? Because Ryan doesn't work for the Houston Chronicle. he's never read the Houston Chronicle. He's never been to Houston. He's never been to Texas. When he made that phone call, he was sitting more than 1,000 miles away in the Midwest. But, of course, the principal of Bellaire High School can't be expected to know that. He probably pictured the newspaper business the way most of us picture it, that Ryan was from the area, that he worked at some crummy office, drove around in a beat up Honda Civic to cover local stories.

Ryan Smith

And it was a little awkward for me. Because here I am in Chicago. And he's assuming that I'm a reporter in Houston for the Houston Chronicle. So I was like um, why don't we just do this over the phone?

Sarah Koenig

You didn't tell him?

Ryan Smith

I didn't tell him. I just pretended I was from the Chronicle. I was like hopefully that they don't ask. Because I don't really feel like explaining it. Because I don't even understand it completely.

Sarah Koenig

What Ryan doesn't understand completely is the brave new world of journalism he's entered. Ryan works for a company that pays people in, say, Chicago, Raleigh, or Boise, to create stories for papers in California, Virginia, or Connecticut, which means embedded in major newspapers all over the country are local notes and stories produced by people who might not know how to pronounce the names of the places they're writing about. They call it hyper-local news. The stories are mostly short, just a paragraph or two sometimes-- the Sheriff's report from York [? Pecosine ?] County, Virginia, who died in Poughkeepsie, New York, and who got a marriage license in Pearland, Texas, the names of all the kids on the headmaster's list at Trinity Preparatory School in Winter Park, Florida.

They do bowling scores, and school lunch menus, and real estate transfers, and holiday trash pickup schedules. Nothing is too small. And the engine of this whole endeavor is data, tons of data that the company mines, and sorts, and enters into databases, public information, and also harder to find records. It works like an assembly line. One person does research. Another generates a lead. Another writes it. Sometimes a couple of paragraphs might be written by computer using an algorithm. And someone else edits it.

The goal is to create the largest local news machine ever. In the next few months, they want to quadruple their output to produce 100,000 stories a week. The company behind this vision is called Journatic, or maybe Journatic. Ryan himself isn't sure.

Ryan Smith

I've honestly never actually heard it said. But I've always said Journatic.

Sarah Koenig

Why are you assuming it's Journatic and not Journatic?

Ryan Smith

I mean the way you are saying it, it kind of sounds like heretic. Journatic sounds more like journalism.

Sarah Koenig

It does sound like journalism. But what makes Ryan uneasy is that he's not sure it is journalism. Ryan went to journalism school, has been a reporter for newspapers in Missouri, and California, and Chicago, for a dozen years. He got the Journatic job about a year and a half ago when he saw a tweet about it. He emailed his resume. But he was never interviewed. Eventually he got an email offering him some work.

And in fact in all the time he's worked at Journatic, he's never spoken directly to his supervising editor, who sits in St. Louis. They communicate exclusively through the computer. When Ryan has a question about how to do something, his supervisor sometimes answers by posting a private video on YouTube. That's the only time Ryan's ever heard the guy's voice. It's all very future.

After he got the student of the week assignment, Ryan was put in charge of editing death notices and little business briefs for Newsday, a newspaper on Long Island.

Ryan Smith

And my job was just to copy edit it and again, put it in the database.

Sarah Koenig

And where were these stories coming from? Like who was doing the writing that you were editing?

Ryan Smith

I was told, actually, that they're located in the Philippines.

Sarah Koenig

That everything you were editing was coming from the Philippines?

Ryan Smith

That's what I was told at the time, that these obituaries and these business stories were all written in the Philippines.

Sarah Koenig

I know, right? In the Philippines-- which means when you look up the death notice, say, of a man named Eugene Squeleney Jr. on newsday.com, you see a story about him. But there's no reporters name attached to it. It just says special to Newsday under the headline. But the story was actually written by someone in the Philippines. Journatics internal records listed her as Diana D. and say that Diane got the story from the obituary website legacy.com and just slightly rewrote the information there.

I called Newsday's newsroom to ask about this, why they would use Journatic for this work. I didn't get too far. Mostly I learned that Newsday has exciting hold music. I talked to an editor who didn't want to go on tape. When I pointed out the Squeleney story with no reporter's name on it, just special to Newsday, the editor said, quote, "I am totally unfamiliar with this. I don't know what it is."

Then I talked to a company spokesman who cheerfully said he'd look into it. But a few days later, I got an email saying he "could not provide any information on this." He wouldn't even say whether Newsday was working with Journatic. Ryan says he learned about the Filipino writers after complaining to his supervisor that the copy he was getting was rife with basic grammar and spelling errors. That's when his editor told him to cut the writer some slack. They weren't native speakers. So Ryan wondered, why do we have these writers at all?

His editor wrote back quote, "well someone has to summarize the obits for the death briefs. And it's cheaper to pay an outsourced writer than to have an American writer editor do it. Unfortunately they're basically paid pennies for these. I have Filipinos asking for better pay on a regular basis. I wish I could do something for them." An ad Journatic placed seeking Filipino writers offered 0.35 to $0.40 per story. I confirmed with a Filipino writer that they are paid $0.35 to $0.40 a story and more for longer stuff. But wait, there's more. Here's Ryan.

Ryan Smith

When I ended up looking at the names on a lot of the stories-- and the names on the stories that were published weren't the ones that I saw that had written the stories.

Sarah Koenig

Here's what he's talking about. In the Chicago Tribune's local site covering the towns of Homewood and Flossmoor, for example, you can see that Eric and Joan So-and-so have listed for sale their 4 bedroom, 4.5 bath home on such-and-such a street for $695,000, that Eric is a general manager of a building company, that he attended Roosevelt University. And there's a picture of him.

The reporters name on the story is Jenny Cox. But there is no Jenny Cox. Or even if there is a Jenny Cox somewhere out there, she didn't write the story. The writer was someone named Giselle Bautista in the Philippines who works for Journatic. Again, looking at the computer system the company uses to manage its stories, it seems that when Giselle worked on this real estate story, there was a button called Select Alias. When she clicked on it, she had a choice. She could either be Jenny Cox or Glenda Smith.

Journatics real estate stories come from a real estate website it also owns, called BlockShopper. Some other fake names that have made their way onto the news sites of Journatics clients in the real estate sections-- Carrie Reed, Amy Anderson, Jay Brownstown, Christine Scott, Bettie Verdoon, Sam Andrews, Carla Andrews, Deana Andrews, Sienna Andrews, Cindy Valens, Angie Barrett, CJ Marx, John Simon, Shania Samson, Scott Johnson, and my favorite--Who is Jimmy Finkle?

Ryan Smith

I have no idea. He sounds like a game show host kind of.

Sarah Koenig

I feel like he sounds like a Jewish gangster. You talk to Jimmy Finkle, the Finks. He'll straighten you out. So you don't know who Jimmy Finkle is.

Ryan Smith

I have no idea.

Sarah Koenig

Yet you have edited a story with the byline of Jerry Finkle.

Ryan Smith

Correct.

Sarah Koenig

So who wrote it?

Ryan Smith

Well--

Sarah Koenig

All of this seems wrong to Ryan, which is why he doesn't tell most people where he works. He's embarrassed.

Ryan Smith

It's sort of a tattered product that's being written overseas, and half-heartedly edited, and just kind of slopped on the page. And journalism is supposed to be sort of like a local institution, and written by people that care about what's going on there. When I was a reporter on the Daily Beat, sometimes it was hard. Sometimes you had to agonize over things. And sometimes you had to make tough decisions. And you didn't always get things right, and things like that. And you actually cared about it.

With this, I was writing stories. And I don't know those communities. And I have no stake in them. And so it didn't matter to me that I found out all the information and I got it right. And so there is just something inauthentic about the whole process. And the picking of fake names for these writers in the Philippines is just a symptom of that. The whole thing--

Sarah Koenig

When Ryan agreed to this interview, I didn't realize he was going to be quite so frank.

Oh my god. Ryan, you are so fired.

Ryan Smith

I am.

Sarah Koenig

And are you OK with that?

Ryan Smith

Um, yeah.

Sarah Koenig

When he agreed to do this interview, Ryan figured he'd be fired afterwards. But he says it's worth it if he can do something good for journalism. He says the work he does at Journatic has been weighing on his conscience. But there's another side to this, one that turns everything Ryan thinks about local reporting on its head.

Brian Timpone

I personally think that we're saving journalism with our approach.

Sarah Koenig

This is Brian Timpone, Ryan's boss's boss's boss, the founder and CEO of Journatic. And it is pronounced Journatic, by the way. Timpone says it's a mix of journalism and automatic. When I first spoke to him on the phone, he began talking a mile a minute. First of all, he loved our radio show. I'm not kidding. I'm president of your fan club. And I'm not saying this just so you'll give me favorable treatment. I mean I know you're going to make me look bad. But I don't care. I'll deal with it. Because I believe in what we're doing. We're doing God's work. We're not, like, evil. I used to be a reporter.

Needless to say, I liked him right away. And I wanted to understand how what he was doing would save journalism. Timpone's premise is that what he calls the single reporter model, the old way of doing local reporting, that Ryan used to do and that I used to do as a local reporter-- that it just doesn't work, and that it hasn't really worked in 30 or 40 years.

Brian Timpone

It's going to get better if we do it this way. That's my belief.

Sarah Koenig

What's going to get better?

Brian Timpone

Journalism is going to get better.

Sarah Koenig

How?

Brian Timpone

We need to see more things. No one covers suburban America. No one covers all these small towns. Look at that story in-- was in Dixon, Illinois, that lady stole like 30 million bucks?

Sarah Koenig

It was actually 53 million bucks in the end. The town controller had been siphoning taxpayer money off the budget for 20 years before another city worker filling in for her stumbled on it.

Brian Timpone

How'd that happen? No one was watching. And I'm not saying we're the solution. But we're certainly on the road to the solution. We're going to look at that stuff and help our partners. And there's 400 people or something in the Chicago Tribune newsroom. And they couldn't cover Dixon. They had enough on their plate. There's a darn daily newspaper in that town. I live in River Forest. There's a weekly paper there. And Maywood, next to me-- there's nothing-- literally nothing.

Sarah Koenig

Yeah.

Brian Timpone

Not a single paper covering the town. Isn't that scary? So how is that going to get solved?

Sarah Koenig

The most radical part of Timpone's pitch, at least to me, is that if you're trying to cover a town like say, Flossmoor, south of Chicago, being on the ground is actually a hindrance.

So you're saying it doesn't matter. It just does it matter. You don't need to be there.

Brian Timpone

What I'm saying is go to Flossmoor. We should go together. Let's go walk the streets of Flossmoor together. And tell me what you learn by being there. Let's go live there for six months and tell me if you feel better equipped to cover the budget. You won't be. That's the kind of--

Sarah Koenig

Really?

Brian Timpone

Yes, really.

Sarah Koenig

Really? You really believe that, that after six months of living in Flossmoor, I would have no sense of the community or what was important to the people who live there if I actually talked to human beings who live in Flossmoor?

Brian Timpone

Here's what I'd say is if you looked at the content we produce, in most cases, you wouldn't even notice it's from a reporter who lives somewhere else, who is writing the same story. It's just done more efficiently.

Sarah Koenig

You almost said the word cheaply, didn't you?

Brian Timpone

[INAUDIBLE].

Sarah Koenig

I heard it start to come out. I heard a ch--

Brian Timpone

It is cheaply. But it's not. You got me. Yes.

Sarah Koenig

As for the source of that cheap labor, Timpone said, yeah. They've got 100 freelancers offshore, not just in the Philippines, but in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Republics, Brazil, and Africa. In the US, they've got 200 more, plus 50 US staffers and growing. If you want to see what Journatic can do for a big metro paper, look at the Chicago Tribune. About five years ago, long before they hooked up with Journatic, the Tribune decided to get into the community news business. Brad Moore, vice president of Targeted Media for the Tribune Company, told me that they were looking to bring in money, same as a lot of big metro dailies.

The notion is that if you can capture local advertising dollars, then you're not so dependent on big national accounts which can cripple your finances if they pull out. So under the title TribLocal, the Chicago Tribune launched 90 websites and 22 weekly print editions covering towns all around Chicago. To staff the sites, Tribune hired 18 reporters. But Brad Moore told me that model just didn't work. Reporters weren't generating enough stories to keep people coming to the websites. And hiring a bunch more reporters was too expensive.

So this spring, Tribute higher Journatic. It actually bought a share in the company to run TribLocal. As part of the switch over, the Tribune laid off about half of its 40 person TribLocal staff, including seven reporters. Another 11 reporters were sent to Tribune's larger suburban bureaus. Here's Brad Moore from the Trib.

Brad Moore

So far, we're very happy with what Journatic is doing for us. We're getting a lot more content.

Sarah Koenig

And when you say you're getting more content, how much more content?

Brad Moore

It looks from a sheer volume standpoint, about three times the amount of content pieces that we had before.

Sarah Koenig

And for cheaper, for less money.

Brad Moore

In most cases, yes. And then we're already looking at ways to reinvest those savings into more towns. We've actually launched two additional towns in TribLocal that we weren't in before, Homewood, and Flossmoor, and Oaklawn-- actually three towns. We're looking at the city of Chicago to see what neighborhoods we might want to launch into. So yes, it's more content. It's at a savings. But more excitingly, we hope to take that savings and reinvest it into more coverage.

Sarah Koenig

Brad Moore said the TribLocal local sites are getting more web traffic now the Jounatic has taken over. And Moore says he has no problem with out of state or offshore workers generating news briefs and small stories. But the subject was sensitive enough that he didn't want to discuss on tape who was writing what and under what name. Because no newspaper wants the story about them to be Tribune Fires American Writers, Hires Filipinos for Cheaper. All he would say on tape about it was this--

Brad Moore

Just to be clear, all of the writing and editing of everything that Journatic is doing is happening by professional journalists here in the US.

Sarah Koenig

I went around and around about this with both Brad Moore and Brian Timpone who insisted that Filipinos were not writing stories. They were more like typing information, assembling it in paragraph form, which sounds to me a lot like writing. Brian Timpone told me this was a semantic confusion I was having.

Brian Timpone

Really what they're doing is assembling and copy editing a bunch of facts, right? So they write the lead. If there's a paragraph about a person, the paragraph is technically written by someone in the Philippines, but not written. It's like they have to type out who the person is, right? So they have to know how to write to send it over. I mean but to say oh, it's written in the Philippines-- I mean there might be a paragraph of it that the first draft is written in the Phillipines.

Sarah Koenig

Timpone declined to put me in touch with any of his Filipino employees. But I reached out to half a dozen of them on my own.

Sarah Koenig

You yourself are writing those stories, right? You're not just gathering the information and sending it along to an American writer or editor. You yourself are writing those.

Man

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

That one word is all you're going to hear from this particular worker at his request. He's got a full time professional job. But he told me his Journatic work pays better. And he needs the money to help pay his family's expenses. Plus he likes the work. Back in April when the Tribune announced that Journatic would be providing stories for TribLocal, some readers and media watchers instantly began to grumble about the job losses but also about the product. It was canned, they said, barely rewritten press releases and daily stories under the news section about top DVD rentals in town or where to find the cheapest gas according to gasbuddy.com. No context, no analysis.

Chicago Media columnist, Robert Feder, wrote, "I used to look forward to receiving TribLocal, the weekly hyperlocal news insert in my Chicago Tribune. But now it's become a worthless piece of garbage. Major news stories in my suburb are completely ignored. In its first three weeks, I've seen nothing in this new rag but press releases, computer generated junk, and of course ads. What passes for a police blotter is a long list of street names, one and two word descriptions, and a time and date," unquote.

Journatic does longer stories too that actually require real reporting. But even there the quality is questionable. Take this story Ryan Smith wrote for TribLocal about the Flossmoor village budget. Flossmoor is one of the towns the Trib started covering when Journatic took over, a small upper middle class town south of Chicago. Ryan had never been to Flossmoor. But he looked at the budget online and called the village's finance director. His lead was at the village board had passed the budget, quote, "which the board says reflects a healthy state of the villages finances."

But Ryan didn't know whether there was any argument over the budget or taxes beforehand. Again he had never covered the town before.

Ryan Smith

I'm sure there was a public meeting. And there may have been people that were upset about the way that they were spending their money. Maybe they were upset that $500,000 is being used to replace the streetlights. But I didn't see those people. I didn't know if there were any objections.

Sarah Koenig

And you weren't going to call around and find out was there any dissent? Was anybody at the meeting?

Ryan Smith

I wasn't told to. I was told to talk to one source and then just get a couple quotes basically, and then just plug it in. I just had to talk to some city official, who is going to want to paint the city in the best light possible. So you don't get the other side with this kind of reporting.

Sarah Koenig

Of course Ryan could've made a few more calls to find out if there had been any controversy. But it wasn't worth his while.

Ryan Smith

Especially for a reporter, for a freelance writer, if you're only getting paid $12 for a story, it's not really in your interest to do a proper reporter's job on it.

Sarah Koenig

Is that what you got paid, $12?

Ryan Smith

For this story, yeah, I believe it's $12 or $14.

Sarah Koenig

Ryan spent three or four hours on the story, which means he was paid something like $4 an hour. At that rate, it makes a lot more sense for you to churn out as many $12 stories as you can as fast as you can, which means you don't call more than one source. And you might miss the meaning of your story. There actually is a suburban paper which covers Flossmoore. It's called the South Town Star. I called its managing editor, Joe Biesk. And he said they sent a freelancer, who lives in Flossmoore, to that budget meeting, which Ryan never attended.

The freelancer told her editor that the budget passed by the village board was a continuation of the one already in place, and there was nothing that stood out to her. So Biesk said, we made an editorial decision not to run a story.

That's the old way. Go to the meeting. Consider the context. And then decide whether it's newsworthy. Journatics' way is just the facts, lots and lots of facts.

Journatics founder, Brian Timpone, understands that his company doesn't do perfect reporting. Stop comparing us to the New York Times, he told me. All we are saying is, if you want to do community news, cover places you've never covered before, Journatic can get you started.

And if Journatic does the busy work, it frees up real staff reporters at papers like the Trib, or the Houston Chronicle, or the Hartford Current, to do more substantial hard hitting work. And it gives these reporters access to all kinds of data they might have had before. All those school board minutes, and village budgets, and city council agendas nobody wants to look at-- Timpone's saying we'll look at them.

Brian Timpone

I would posit that it's better to have somebody look at them than to have nobody look at them. 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?

Sarah Koenig

Yeah.

Brian Timpone

I mean do you have one? Tell me if you have a better idea, I'm all ears.

Sarah Koenig

I don't have a better idea. And the newspaper business as a whole doesn't seem to have a better idea, not unless consumers want to start paying properly for their news. So many newspapers are floundering and bleeding staff. According to the website Paper Cuts, something like 35,000 people have lost newspaper jobs since 2008 because of layoffs and buyouts. Unlike most newspapers in America, Journatic is hiring.

Ira Glass

Sarah Keonig. She's one of the producers of our program. After she asked Brian Timpone about the fake names on certain stories that Journatic publishes, Timpone told her that Journatic decided to eliminate the fake names. Brad Moore of the Chicago Tribune told us that the Trib is not going to allow them any more either. The stories that Filipino writers work on will be credited to the editors of the stories. We will get a generic byline like Neighborhood News Service. The real Filipinos' names will not appear in the paper.

— Ira Glass, Sarah Keonig
This American Life

2012-06-29

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/468/switcheroo?act=2

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