Despite ethical concerns, some papers continuing relationship with journalism outsourcing company
Monday, July 30, 2012 - 11:03 AM
Journalism outsourcing company Journatic uses outsourced labor–often from overseas–to provide "hyperlocal" content to newspapers. The Chicago-based company launched in 2006. By 2012, the company provided research or written content to several big newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Sun-Times.
This June, a radio segment on This American Life called "Forgive us our Press Passes" raised questions about how Journatic does business. The piece described an assembly line process in which people in remote locations around the U.S.–and sometimes abroad–churn out hyperlocal news briefs and small stories for newspapers. The story revealed that overseas workers in the Philippines had written local news stories under fake bylines (more 'American-sounding' names). They were paid 35 to 40 cents per story. The company also at times used a computer algorithm to write paragraphs, which were later edited.
The main source for the TAL piece was American Ryan Smith, who worked on Journatic stories that ran in several major papers. Smith was hired without an interview and says he never spoke to his editor except via email. He didn’t earn much per story, so the incentive was to get through as many as possible in a short amount of time. He often didn’t have time to check with more than one source for a story–nor was he required to. As a result, he often missed the nuances of the stories he covered.
In the aftermath of the radio piece, many Journatic clients launched internal investigations, which uncovered more false bylines and other ethical issues like plagiarized and fabricated content. Some newspapers announced they were dropping Journatic. Others suspended their relationship with the company to further investigate.
The Chicago Tribune had hired Journatic to contribute to the TribLocal sections of the paper. Journatic was cheaper than hiring local reporters, and allowed the paper to provide more local coverage in more local areas than the Tribune might otherwise afford. After finding fabricated and plagiarized elements in a TribLocal story by a Journatic writer, the newspaper announced on July 13th that it had indefinitely suspended its relationship with Journatic. In a Chicago Tribune article, Senior Vice President and Editor Gerould Kern said,
These are the most egregious sins in journalism. We do not tolerate these acts at the Chicago Tribune under any circumstances, whether from a staff member or an outside supplier like Journatic.
In a letter to readers that same day, Chicago Tribune President Vince Casanova said,
We take these issues very seriously. We will not use Journatic content until we are confident that it meets Chicago Tribune standards.
Your trust in the accuracy and integrity of our reporting is the cornerstone of our business. We will never compromise it.
But just one week later, the Chicago Tribune decided not to say goodbye to Journatic, but instead to maintain the relationship with the company under modified terms. The paper hired longtime editor Randy Weissman “to help develop and implement appropriate changes at Journatic and the Chicago Tribune,” according to a letter from Tribune President Vince Casanova to staff. He’ll be helping Journatic improve the company’s standards and protocols so that the Chicago Tribune can continue to use the company.
On July 25, ninety Chicago Tribune newsroom journalists responded to the paper’s decision to stick with Journatic by delivering a petition to their editor, Gerould Kern, voicing concern about the paper’s ongoing and prior relationship with the company:
The code of ethics that all Tribune employees must sign makes clear that it is a firing offense to engage in the kinds of practices that Journatic has engaged in again and again. Why then is Tribune seeking to salvage its relationship with Journatic when as a matter of policy it declares zero tolerance for such behavior?
The employees asked for greater transparency about their parent company’s financial investment in Journatic. Tribune Co. made an unknown investment in Journatic in April, and staffers want to know how large a stake Tribune Co. owns in Journatic. The petition questioned the vetting process used for hiring Journatic to begin with. Staff also expressed concern about what a future relationship with Journatic would look like, and how it might impact the paper’s credibility.
The Tribune has spent considerable efforts positioning itself as an exemplar of watchdog reporting, devoting major resources to exposing malfeasance, exploitation and greed. How do you expect customers to believe in our credibility as a watchdog if we don’t demand the same high standards of conduct from our business partners that we do of others?
This begs an obvious question: Why wasn’t the relationship and work of Journatic closely monitored for ethical standards from day one?
Weissman and others at Chicago Tribune declined to speak to On the Media about Journatic. We also made attempts to reach out to the petition signatories but no one would speak on record by the time we published this post.
It’s worth mentioning that the Chicago Tribune isn’t the only paper taking steps to review and improve Journatic’s processes. The Houston Chroniclealso says it is "closely monitoring our relationship with Journatic to be certain that its work product meets the highest journalistic and ethical standards."
For journalists at papers still working with Journatic, we would love to hear your thoughts on what changes would need to be in place for you to be on board with a continued Journatic presence on your pages.
As readers and consumers of news, what rules or assurances would make you comfortable with your local paper using Journatic–or a similar company–in the future?