What Journalism Majors Can Learn From the Journatic Debacle
Updated July 12, 2012 — Corrections: Patch.com does not use Journatic to supply its content. Also, Ryan Smith’s article appears in The Guardian; he was not interviewed by the U.K. newspaper.
Have you heard of Journatic? If not, you haven’t been paying much attention to the news lately. Or, perhaps, you weren’t aware that the source of hyperlocal news serving your community might be supplied by Journatic, an American-based commercial provider of media content.
Journatic was in the news this past week, because one its American journalists exposed a very unethical practice by the company to supply fake bylines to its customers. Those customers include several well-known U.S. dailies such as the Houston Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Sun-Times, among others.
A segment on “This American Life,” a Chicago public radio broadcast produced by WBEZ-FM, revealed this past weekend that a number of stories produced for TribLocal, a subsidiary of the Chicago Tribune had alias bylines. That’s a violation of most newspaper editorial ethics policies including the Tribune.
At the heart of the matter are contract workers, mostly people working overseas and based in the Philippines, a low-cost market where Journatic can use cheap labor to craft stories based on news stories in America. Those workers gather information online and format it for U.S.-based writers and editors, with stories built from that news.
What readers are supposed to find is news that is bylined by a real person. Instead, fake aliases have been used for several years, prompting newspapers to go back and check hundreds if not thousands of articles to make corrections. The newspapers have also apologized to their readers, but the chatter is far from over. Indeed, earlier this week Twitter was alit with comments about Journatic with media watchdog Poynter Institute tweeting, “Controversy over Journatic’s outsourcing of local news has been a boon for newspaper columns.” And Ryan Smith, who blew the Journatic’s cover, expanded on his story through a write up that appears in The Guardian.
Today’s journalism student is keenly aware that this media has shifted from print to digital, although the shift is not complete. Indeed, local news continues to provide an avenue for journalists to take local information and follow up with stories that are unique and compelling. However, much of that information is gathered abroad, picked apart, shipped back to the United States and made into a story. Some stories are spot on, but with fake aliases in play, you have to wonder if the story itself is accurate.
What we have here is an example of a dying industry, one that cannot possibly support journalism as we once knew it. Certainly, there are some good sources of media, but much of that is online, on television and in some cases on the radio. Some newspapers have a strong presence online, but the best sites for media information are those that were founded in the digital age including “The Huffington Post” and “TechCrunch.” Local news sites such as “Patch” have sprung up, funded by AOL, but its content is sourced by local writers. Indeed, in 2011 Patch may have lost $147 million with each site earning just $15,000 per year according to Bloomberg Businessweek. That’s enough to cause AOL shareholders to insist that Patch be dropped altogether, a prospect likely to happen if pressure mounts.
So what lesson can journalism students take away from the Journatic debacle? A few things, but one in particular — journalism is a tough career to pursue. Instead, a career in corporate communications especially as a public relations manager or specialist may be a better avenue to pursue. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics supports that contention too as as it forecasts a 21 percent increase in job openings for communication specialists, but a 6 percent decline for reporters.