Hyperlocal News and Outsourced Journalism

I heard an interesting story on National Public Radio (NPR) Sunday afternoon just over a week ago. This American Life (TAL) was talking about jourmatic or jourmetic or something similar…a mix of journalism and automatic.

The TAL episode was Switcheroo and Act Two — Forgive Us Our Press Passes — focused on Journatic, a provider of content production services to media companies and marketers. The segnment that I caught on the radio was an interview with Brian Timpone, COE of Journatic. In the interview, Timpone said that Journatic was replacing the ‘single reporter model’ with a better way of doing journalism.

Hyperlocal news

Journatic does hyperlocal news — short local notes and stories that are produced by people who don’t live anywhere close to the communities they’re reporting on. Evidently, hyperlocal web sites are blossoming. Case in point: the Chicago Tribune. The TAL segment reported that the Chicago Tribune hired Journatic (the company actually bought a share in the company) to run TribLocal — local editions covering towns all around Chicago — after launching 90 websites and 22 weekly print editions. They staffed the sites with 18 reporters, but they weren’t generating enough stories to keep people coming to the websites and hiring more reporters was too expensive. No surprise there: generating content isn’t cheap.

This spring, the Tribune laid off about half the TribLocal staff, sent a quarter to larger suburban bureaus, and highered Journatic to produce content for them. A representative from the Tribune said that they’re getting three times the amount of content they had prior to hiring Journatic. Only later as I wrote this post did I realize there wasn’t any mention of content quality, only quantity.

But wait…hyperlocal isn’t blossoming

The funny thing is that the traffic of hyperlocal websites is questionable. A week or so prior to hearing the TAL episode, I read a Nieman Journalism Lab article by Nikki Usher, an assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, that questioned the relevance of online local news.

As my colleague Matt Hindman found using comScore [an Internet analytics and marketing data company] data: Local news gets less than half of one percent of all pageviews in a local market. Hindman finds that local news sites attracted 8.3 to 17 pageviews per person per month. People spend about nine minutes a month with local news, he found. Many local news sites are still struggling, beset by problems — long load time, poor design, retention of top developers and multimedia producers — that make it hard to increase engagement in a fragmented news marked.

In support of this, in May Bloomberg Businessweek reported that AOL’s Patch had big losses on hyperlocal news. Patch, the company’s network of locally staffed community news sites, lost an estimated $147 million while generating just $13 million in ad revenue.

Pink slime journalism

Anna Tarkov (who helped me find the TAL story) covered it on Poynter: Journatic worker takes ‘This American Life’ inside outsourced journalism. It turns out there’s more to the story than what I had heard on the radio, and there’s something of a scandal surrounding Journatic. A staffer for the company compared Journatic to the beef industry, stating that they are providing the public ‘pink slime’ journalism.

Journatic’s sister company BlockShopper, a real estate website, had used fake bylines in place of authentic ones for real estate stories. After all, Journatic works like an assembly line: one person does the research, another generates a lead, another writes the story. Using that type of system, how would you identify the author? Much of Journatic’s content is written by people in the Philippines (or Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Republics, Brazil, or Africa) making $0.35 to $0.40 per story.

To make matters worse, there’s the issue of questionable quality. While some of Journatic’s content is nothing more than republished press releases or computer generated text, those stories that do get a Journatic reporter’s attention only pay $12 to $14 per article. At that rate, quantity trumps quality. The freelancer interviewed in the TAL story was told to “talk to one source and then just get a couple quotes basically, and then just plug it in.” No context, no analysis … Ugh.

I can appreciate the position that local news is important. Indeed, it’s become more important to me personally as I’ve gotten older. I like to know what’s happening in the community I live in. But local news needs to be reported on by people who care about what’s going on. Perhaps those communities where people aren’t willing to support it don’t need local news coverage.

Reducing the costs of printing or distributing news is one thing, but driving down the price of reporting at the expense of quality isn’t the answer.

Walter Jessen is a digital strategist, writer, web developer and data scientist. You can typically find him behind the screen something with an internet connection.

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