Another nail in the newspaper coffin

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.

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9 thoughts on “Another nail in the newspaper coffin

  1. In regards to your first questions of whether newspaper reporters are actually being freed up to do weightier reporting, I asked GateHouse VP I interviewed about this. While it’s hard to say if their experience translates to other Journatic clients, here it is:

    http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/top-stories/179813/gatehouse-to-end-journalism-outsourcing-relationship-with-journatic/

    The key moment:

    “I asked Arkin if the deeper, more meaningful journalism materialized in the wake of the Journatic deal. Not really, he said. Not as much as it should have.

    By email Arkin followed up:

    One of the reasons we weren’t able to turn around as much enterprise content as we would have liked: We were spending a lot of time at the local level, looking over what Journatic was posting and still having to manage the content too much, which didn’t allow us to put as much time into enterprise reporting as we would have liked. We were doing content quality control checks and flagging issues.”

  2. Here in New Orleans, we are deeply troubled that the Newhouse Publishing Company, the current owners of the Times Picayune (which recently celebrated 175 years of publication), has decided publish the Times Picayune only on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday starting in October. This has been reported in the New York Times and other publications. In the process, Newhouse is laying off a third of it reporting staff, while claiming that the “news” in the paper will not suffer. Newhouse claims that “news” will be available on the web site – nola.com – which is abysmal.

    It is very sad. The only real hope is that the Newhouse will sell the publication to someone in the city who will prevent New Orleans from becoming the largest city in the United States without a daily newspaper.

  3. My friend Bernd Harzog, of The Virtualization Practice, has this to say:
    As you might guess, I have an opinion on this. At TVP we pay smart and very knowledgeable people good money to write good content. We expect original value-added analysis and have staked our position in the market as “Gartner quality analysis with a Google friendly business model”
    The question that I find interesting is who is on the right side of history. One the one hand, the content generation mills keep getting cheaper and anyone who takes care to produce quality content can feel like an anachronism.

    On the other hand Google’s continued existence depends upon its ability to connect people who do searches with the “right” information. I would think that something that is written by a true subject matter expert in the field has a better chance of being right than a droid at a content mill.

    So our bet is that quality wins out over cheapness and that Google will find a way to differentiate between quality content and content mill content.

  4. I’d like to think that we’re in a frenzy at the moment, where there are many players and lots of noise. I’d like to think that the businesses still offering quality content will ultimately float to the top, but it takes educating readers about where they’re getting their information, and readers caring enough to pay more reliable sources. After working with offshore software models for nearly 6 years, I can say that cheaper labor often costs you more in the end. In this case, that could be making a business decision based on unreliable information.

  5. There is so, so much more to say about the inner workings of Journatic that I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Bottom line: It’s a hot mess, and I’m embarrassed to have been a U.S.-based print page designer (the ONLY U.S.-based designer for quite some time) for Journatic or BlockShopper or Journatic News Services or Suburban News Services — whatever the flavor of byline is today.

  6. I agree with Katie. Your can make big mistake while taking decisions for your business and ending in big loss by relying on some false or unreliable information piece.

    It’s very important to find our genuine news publishers for latest and current updates rather than believing on some anonymous news publisher.

  7. Pingback: Rebchook: The Future of Journalism |

  8. Newspapers are not the only arena where lower cost distribution models are wreaking havoc. Internet retailers are doing a number on their brick and mortar cousins and they also have the advantage of less taxation.

    As long as the consumer of products or content discounts the value of a personal and professional approach, the trend will continue.

    Knowledge, training, analysis, and service might be available on the Internet, but what is easily and inexpensively/freely available is likely to have little value or trust associated with it. Only “trusted” web sites with real analysis and paid staffs can stick around for the long term.

    Free horse shit has always been readily available. Horse sense has been less so, hence the name of my newsletter which is still free (maybe I should charge for it?).

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