What's the Answer to Outsourced News?

When it comes to outsourcing news, says Ernie Smith of the ShortFormBlog, “Journatic is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Smith has compiled a fantastic overview of the Journatic controversy, adding a good deal of context and background to the debate over how news organizations outsource local, national and international news. In his post, Smith shows how newspapers have historically used wire copy, freelancers and syndication as modes of outsourcing.

However, as he notes, these practices have nothing to do with the approach taken by Journatic. “This is quality content,” Smith writes, “and it’s paid for at quality prices and given play similar to if you were paying these journalists top dollar. Wire copy was never intended to replace content — but to expand reach.”

If Journatic’s model of quickly produced, low-quality local news produced by unnamed, underpaid and offshore workers is not the answer — and I’m quite sure it is not — then what is? 

 Journatic CEO Brian Timpone has argued that "Cutting staff is not the way to growth. But empowering a reporter with people in the Philippines — that's a really smart thing to do." But is it really a smart thing to do? In a recent post, Mathew Ingram of GigaOm asks, “Is faking hyper-local content the answer? Probably not.” But Ingram also challenges the critics of Journatic to start talking about what might be the solution to dwindling local news coverage.

Having recently spent a weekend at the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference, where many sessions focused on building the capacity of journalists and editors to build data journalism into their work, I can say that people are hungry for new tools and resources for data-driven reporting. This isn't just about investigative journalism. Journalists, programmers and nonprofits are developing projects that help media organizations cover everything from traffic and crime to in-depth investigations of local policymakers.

Many journalists are already partnering with websites and organizations that focus on helping reporters process enormous amounts of data — the kind of work Journatic says must be outsourced to be affordable. For example, SeeClickFix and OpenBlock connect citizen reporting, data journalism and traditional investigations to address neighborhood issues large and small. Investigative Reports and Editors is working with Document Cloud and PANDA while Jonathan Stray at the Associated Press is developing the Overview. These are all efforts designed to draw meaning and context out of huge sets of documents.

This is just a fraction of the projects that are out there. Each of them share a recognition that we need to lower the bar of entry for newsrooms that want to use more data-driven reporting and expand local news coverage without lowering standards. Adapting local news to the new media environment is not just about providing low-cost content; it’s about shifting the culture in newsrooms to help journalism adapt and grow, instead of outsourcing innovation to third-party companies.

There are great resources right in our communities that can help media organizations do better local news. Chicago — home of Journatic and the Chicago Tribune — provides a great example of this. A recent report for the Chicago Community Trust found that non-traditional news providers like local nonprofits, arts and neighborhood groups “bring quality and dimension to community news.” The report’s authors suggest that “partnerships of professionals and non-traditional information providers hold promise for local community news.” Another alternative to Journatic would involve newspapers working with local bloggers as Steve Buttry did at TBD.com before the site closed.

Even in the wake of all the controversy surrounding Journatic, a number of papers, including the Chicago Tribune, are sticking with the service. In the end, Journatic’s model of outsourcing local news is rooted in an industrial vision of journalism that equates newsrooms to assembly lines. The linear assembly line model doesn’t work anymore. Newsrooms need to become more like networks that provide a service to local communities. As such, we need newsrooms to invest in local communities, building deeper engagement and collaborating to strengthen the information infrastructure around them. 

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people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good