The Tribune Company’s decision to outsource the production of TribLocal to the cheap content providing company Journatic sparked controversy when it was announced at the beginning of last week. But more recently, Journatic founder and CEO Brian Timpone has defended the quality of the content his company produces, suggesting that it is more efficient and higher quality than many of its competitors.
Negative reactions to the deal focused on the Chicago Tribune’s admission that “about half of TribLocal's 40 staffers, including copy editors, designers and web producers, will see their jobs phased out during the transition,” of which 11 to 18 TribLocal reporters will be transferred to the Chicago Tribune’s suburban bureaus. Departing staff will be replaced by Journatic content, which, as Poynter explains, is based on large amounts of publically available information. This data is then converted into stories by freelancers, who are paid between $4 and $2 a piece. Journatic writers are expected to produce these items in 10 - 20 minutes each, earning them a wage of around $12 per hour.
Jim Romenesko reposted a letter on his blog from a Patch editor who writes that, although he couldn’t find much information about Journatic, it “resembles a content farm.” Romenesko also quotes a commentor on sportsjournalists.com, who writes “I did a Skype interview for one of these positions last year, and didn’t get the job. At that point, most of their page designers were in the Philippines.”
Mathew Ingram suggested in an article for GigaOm that the Tribune should be careful about investing in “a content-farm style approach” citing the example of Elizabeth Flock at the Washington Post to argue that “asking for dozens of stories a day can tend to reduce the quality to an unacceptable level.”
The Chicago Reader also suggested that Journatic was being unusually secretive in its relationship with the press. The article reported that Journatic Executive Editor Peter Behle wrote to staff last month, warning them, "reporters will be sniffing around—and they are not authorized to talk with anyone about Journatic under any circumstances. Better yet, if you receive a reporter inquiry and tell us about it (without responding), we'll pay you a $50 bonus."
But Journatic’s CEO has hit back against criticism in interviews with Poynter and GigaOm. Timpone tells Andrew Beaujon at Poynter that the human element of the company is very important: “our business is basically elbow grease powered by algorithms and technology.” But effective newsgathering, rather that presence on the ground is what it important, Timpone argues. “Being based in the community is not beneficial,” he tells Poynter.
Talking to Ingram at GigaOm, the core of Timpone’s argument seems to be that his system produces “process news”, i.e. stories based on press releases, and other publicly available information, more efficiently. “It’s like an assembly line, we assemble stories from these different parts; we have people who just source stories, who just generate story ideas, we have people who just generate ledes, and so on. We have 200 different types of stories — some are deep features. But if we re-process a press release, why would anyone pay reporter-type wages to do that?” he asks, quoted by Ingram.
However, despite breaking down reporting into an industrial-style production line, Timpone says he doesn’t feel that comparisons between Journatic and content farms are accurate. “We produce a ton of content, but we are completely different,” he tells Ingram, “we talk to the women’s club or the church or the school — so it’s a lot of elbow grease.” Journatic writers get some of their content through calling people up, filing Freedom of Information Requests or sending emails, he adds.
According to Ingram, Timpone argues that the efficiency that Journatic brings to community reporting frees up journalists from churning out day-to-day process news, and gives them freedom to chase stories. But this is assuming that news organisations still have the money to repay the local news reporters who have lost their jobs. And, as Ingram points out, this is a big assumption.