As someone who has been a tech journalist for more than 25 years, I have watched our industry go from startup to cool down. The latest in the melding of journalism and technology came across my email with a series of linked pieces about Journatic.com, a company that is trying to bring about a new way to deliver hyperlocal news to traditional daily newspapers.
It is no secret that newspapers are in their sunset years, or at least being transformed from profitable ad-driven enterprises to something else. Newsrooms around the country are shrinking or disappearing altogether. Freelance rates per story are dropping. And many pubs are being run by a single editor, or with minimal copyediting and other production staff.
Sure Web pubs are cheaper to produce than dead trees’ versions. At least, you think so until you start to add up things such as buying the right domain name, hiring SEO mavens, adding database tools that can work for lead generation, and other things that are strictly part of the online world.
Earlier this month, Ryan Smith wrote about his experiences as being a freelancer for Journatic. He claimed that the company was using him to edit stories that were written offshore, and contained barely rewritten press releases, or at most superficial washes over online data. The “research” as it were had minimal to no reporting. After all, if you are being paid $12 a piece, you can’t do extensive interviews, or even any interviews.
Journatic’s CEO Brian Timpone, in a piece that ran in the radio program “This American Life” claims that he is trying to make it easier for the struggling dailies to have access to markets, news and data that they don’t have the time or the money or the staffers to cover. If you listen to the episode, it is fascinating, as you hear Sarah Koenig contrast what they are doing with the traditional journalism model that she (and I) spent most of our careers doing.
In the program, Timpone mentions that the “single reporter model” is dead. This means that I, as the reporter, am paid to do the following tasks: research the story, interview the principals, get additional facts, and then write everything up. Each of those tasks in his new model are assigned to different people, people who are working in different parts of the world and who communicate via email and IM. Notably missing from this new model are such things as actually going to the event in person, considering the context, and then making an editorial judgment as to what to cover and report on.
Geez, and I remember not too long ago there was controversy over doing interviews with subjects via email, rather than phone calls. How naïve we once were!
I have some questions about this whole escapade.
Does Journatic give the traditional press access to data that they have never accessed before, and free up their time to report on more important things? Or is it just another Demand Media play to leverage ever-cheaper content?
Without much analysis and context, can we really call what they produce as journalism? Indeed, most people now just call it “copy” which makes my skin crawl.
Is a byline meaningful anymore? Koenig’s radio piece goes into detail about whose name is being attached to which story, and finds out that most of the Journatic bylines are made up names. Since her interview, they have decided not to use the fake names any longer. But still.
Is using a single source for newspaper stories better than not having any story at all? Another way to phrase this: Is it better for a newspaper to have hyperlocal news, even poorly reported news, than no news at all?
It is hard to say. I welcome your thoughts.