Anna Wahrman

Media | Technology | Culture

Why the Journatic controversy is a good thing

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The Journatic fallout continues, and apparently the story has legs. On the heels of the controversy around it systematically faking bylines so its offshore labor could appear to be nearby to its clients (that is, local newspapers) and named “Jimmy” and “Ann,” one of its biggest clients, TribLocal, discovered plagiarism (from Patch, no less!) and suspended its use of Journatic indefinitely, saying:

“[Fake bylines and plagiarism] are the most egregious sins in journalism. We do not tolerate these acts at the Chicago Tribune under any circumstances, whether from a staff member or an outside supplier like Journatic.”

But Tribune Co. is actually also a Journatic investor, so that’s a bit of sticky wicket, innit?

Then one of Journatics’s high-ranking (and quite recently hired) editors, Mike Fourcher, quit, on the grounds that Journatic is attempting to “treat community news reporting the same way as data reporting”:

Inevitably, as you distribute reporting work to an increasingly remote team, you break traditional bonds of trust between writers and editors until they are implicitly discouraged from doing high quality work for the sake of increasing production efficiency and making more money.

Cutting through the noise, it sounds like he tried to argue for paying people more for better quality stuff, and Journatic’s owners balked.

As I have said, hyperlocal, algorithmic journalism at scale is such a tough area, and one that’s evolving all the time (actually, at a very quick rate, if you take the long view). But the Venn diagram of quality, quantity, turnaround time, local expertise, ease of assignment, keeping readers happy, keeping writers happy, keeping staff editors happy, data-mining technology costs, platform costs, actually making money — and, you know, not lying about any of it — it’s not an easy nut to crack, and that’s why no one’s done it yet.

My dabblings in this area at now-defunct Seed certainly didn’t pan out as planned. But nonetheless I agree with Fourcher, the ex-Journatic guy, on this:

Journatic’s core premise is sound: most data and raw information can be managed much more efficiently outside the traditional newsroom; and, in order for major market community news to be commercially viable, it needs be conducted on a broader scale than ever before.

For Journatic’s part, it released a statement saying: “We are in the process of conducting a thorough review of our policies, software, technology and personnel. We are immediately and forcefully addressing the issues we find and making changes where necessary. Until we have completed our review we will decline any further comment.”

So all of this being said, now that TribLocal is back in the hands of “real” journalists, what will happen? Will the quality of coverage be so amazing that readers demand it continue? Will they even notice? Will the cost of paying writers who can write well in the first place be less than Journatic’s current model of paying editors to correct the writing of non-native English speakers, then selling that as a third party to TribLocal and others? Will the other papers who use Journatic’s service (the Chicago Sun-Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle) also balk amid the controversy? Will there be a resurgence in hiring actual journalists to cover local news?

All remains to be seen, of course. But it’s exciting, because at the very least this kerfuffle has people (lots of them!) talking about this, and publicly instead of in back room deals and investments about which local readers are unaware. The Fourth Estate is actually weighing in on a controversy, doing their jobs — reporting on it, ruffling feathers, making waves. And ultimately that is a very good thing for us all.

Written by Anna Wahrman

July 16th, 2012 at 1:18 pm

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