The debate over outsourced journalism has been reignited by the revelation that Journatic, a company that produces local media content for publications including Newsday and the Chicago Tribune, has been providing its clients with articles written by workers in the Philippines.
Ryan Smith, a Chicago-based freelance journalist, began to work as a copy-editor for the organisation in January of last year. He became concerned by the quality of the work being produced for Journatic’s clients after noticing that much of what he was editing contained basic spelling and grammar mistakes. When he informed a senior editor of his misgivings, Smith was told to “cut [the writers] some slack” as they were not native English-speakers. By checking the by-lines of several of the articles he edited, Smith discovered that their authors did not actually exist. Instead, Journatic’s offshore freelancers from Brazil, the Philippines, Africa and Eastern Europe were given a selection of aliases to choose from. This meant that readers located in a small US suburb would have no idea that the local news article they were reading was actually written by someone thousands of miles away. The company also uses writers based in the US, but they too are complete strangers to the local communities that they report on.
Journatic (a combination of “journalism” and “automatic”) applies production-line principles to reporting. Data from local websites, police reports and official registers is collected and processed. A lead is then generated and an article written, sometimes by a computer algorithm. The articles are then checked by an editor before being passed on to the client. In an interview with This American Life, during which he was challenged over the issue of outsourcing, Journatic’s CEO Brian Timpone claims that even though the company is a provider of ‘hyperlocal’ news - short pieces written about the events taking place in small communities - there would be no advantage to having this content written by a local reporter. Timpone argues that his company does valuable work by monitoring the frequently neglected communities of suburban America and insists that the offshore wing of the company is in the “information collection” business, rather than concerning itself with actual news reporting: “We use offshore resources to gather information– which helps us produce more news and do more journalism, in places where there is often little or none.” Nonetheless, when one of the company’s Filipino employees was asked by Sarah Koenig if he wrote articles as well as gathering information, his answer was a very simple “yes”.
Outsourced journalism is not a new phenomenon, but it continues to divide opinion as to whether it could be part of the future of newspapers or sounds the death knell for quality reporting. Though most of us are accustomed to speaking with call-centre workers based in Asia, many are reluctant to see journalism going the same way. The main problem with Journatic’s system is that it relies entirely on the gathering of facts, with little-to-no analysis or comment. Breaking local news will often go unreported, and the reader is instead presented with seemingly irrelevant information, like the lunch menus of local schools. Smith claims that he contacted This American Life, the radio programme that highlighted the issue over the weekend, because he felt that Journatic’s business model was a violation of some of the fundamental values of journalism.
However, as previously reported, the issue is not as black and white as it may seem. An increasing number of respected publishers, including Telegraph Media Group and Independent News & Media, are known to outsource sub-editing at many of their titles. Outsourcing’s appeal is growing at a time when news organisations are obliged to become more streamlined and cost-effective. When The Tribune co. (The Chicago Tribune’s parent company) signed a deal contracting Journatic to produce content for its weekly publication Triblocal, the ensuing job losses led several media commentators to criticise the move. However, Tribune co.’s Brad Moore defended the decision, saying that Triblocal’s 18 journalists did not generate enough articles. Through the partnership with Journatic, Triblocal now has three times the amount of content, for less money than it was previously paying to hire 18 members of staff. Web traffic for the Triblocal site has subsequently increased.
Besides the issues it raises about its effect on journalism standards, the salary Journatic pays offshore employees is troubling. The company's Filipino workers receive just 35-40 cents per article, a pittance by any standards, but particularly worrying when one considers that the India-based writers doing similar work for Pasadena.now receive between $7.50 and $10 for each article they produce. Per capita income each year in the Philipines is around $3,100USD, meaning a Filipino writer working for Journatic would have to write at least 8,857 short 'hyperlocal' stories to meet the average national wage, or around 37 a day.
Of course, newspapers will have to find ways of cutting costs and becoming more efficient if they are to have any financial security. Outsourcing aspects of traditional journalism may have an important role to play in this process, but this should be done in a way that does not affect the quality of news, or exploit under-paid workers.