Bygone bylines

July 7, 2012

Media & Culture

The past week’s news that several major U.S. newspapers — including the Houston Chronicle, where I once worked — have been using the services of an “outsourcing” news organization that often provided stories with fake bylines for writers based overseas is, sadly, not that surprising.

The story first gained national exposure from the public radio program This American Life in an episode called “Switcheroo.” The second segment, “Forgive Us Our Press Passes,” begins with a vignette of a freelance writer/editor for the outsourcing firm, Journatic, writing a story about a high school student in Bellaire, a small city in the greater Houston area, for the Chronicle’s community news sections.

The writer, Ryan Smith, was working out of the Midwest, where Journatic is based. According to the story, he’d never been to Texas, much less worked for the Houston Chronicle.

Smith started to become concerned about how his work was undermining good local newspaper journalism and contributing to the massive wave of layoffs of reporters and other journalists across the country in the past several years.

I am one of those journalists. Although I lost my job (with about 89 others) one day in 2009, roughly a year before my former department at the Chronicle started using the services of Journatic, my layoff was a harbinger of the tidal wave to come.

The radio piece later details how the Chicago Tribune, which also used Journatic “content” and later invested in the company, had previously begun its own in-house “hyperlocal” endeavor called TribLocal.

At about the same time, I was recruited by the Chronicle (after working several years in smaller local papers in the Houston region) for its own hyperlocal push. I was an online editor and night copy editor. As it was described to me when I was hired, the Chronicle was going to get into community coverage in a big way, devoting a lot of resources into the targeted sections and websites.

For about a year, it seemed to be working. Along with a handful of others, I pushed photo galleries onto the sites, with lot of pics of community meetings, local fairs, high school graduates, football games and the like. I sweated out late-night deadlines waiting for stories from local (that is, people who lived in the area) writers covering small-town city council and school board meetings.

But, just over a year after I began at the Chronicle, the signs started to go bad. The paper dropped two of its zoned weekly editions. The budget for freelance writers and photographers was  cut in half. A few fulltime staffers were let go in a slow trickle. And then came the big day, when I was shown the door just two days shy of my two-year anniversary.

As the radio piece quotes a Chicago Tribune executive, the hyperlocal model “just didn’t work.”

Brian Timpone, the founder of Journatic, says his business model is going to “save journalism.” A former TV reporter and community newspaper publisher himself, he says his cost-cutting, data-driven approach to local news coverage is a more efficient approach than the old “single-reporter model.”

If “saving” journalism means keeping newspapers financially solvent, Timpone may be right. As the latest news from places like New Orleans shows, newspapers are still in dire straits, with no end in sight.

But I do know that local community coverage has suffered, and that’s only a small part of the bigger problem. No matter how much companies like Journatic slice and dice their databases, they can’t provide the context that a good reporter, who lives in the area and covers all those interminable city budget hearings, can.

I was more fortunate than many of my colleagues. I was able to continue to work in newspapers for a time. I recently left for another brand of journalism. But there will always be a part of me that says, “I am still a newspaperman.” For our communities’ sake, I hope there will always be others who feel the same.

UPDATE:  Since this post was first published, the Poynter Institute on July 17 uncovered information showing that the Houston Chronicle’s Ultimate neighborhood sites published hundreds of stories or news items with false bylines. On the same day, the Hearst Corporation,  which publishes the Chronicle, released a statement saying it was “reviewing” Journatic content on its sites.

NOTE:  More coverage on the Journatic story and its implications for the newspaper business can be found here,  here, and here.

Copyright © 2012 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.

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About Ken Fountain

I'm a journalist and writer based in Houston. My areas of specialty include law and courts, local government and industry and environmental issues. You can follow me on Twitter at @twitter.com/kenfountain and email me at kenfountain1 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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7 Comments on “Bygone bylines”

  1. Tom Rugg Says:

    Unfortunately it is a rare day indeed when I get to visit face-to-face with one of the few local reporters here. Not so long ago there was actually an office in the courthouse where there was always at least one reporter. But then I think it may well just mirror the pervasive ambivalence that seems to permeate my community in this time. Despair may be a better word. I’ve taken more and more to the on-line community to have semi-intelligent discussions about politics, criminal justice, social justice and other issues that ought, it seems to me, be an the forefront of the local written news. But as the number of those interested in such topics wanes the demise of the printed page seems certain.

    Reply

  2. Betty Martin Says:

    Thank you, Ken, for pointing out what seems to be a growing cancer in journalism, one self-inflicted by newspaper management trying to do more for less and ending up with products no one wants to read or advertise. A long-time devotee and contributor to community journalism, I mourn the death of neighborhood news. I hadn’t heard the news about Journalistic, but I too am not surprised. It’s hard, though, to read the writing on the wall when the wall itself is crumbling.

    Reply

  3. EastEnder Notes Says:

    Reblogged this on The EastEnder Notes and commented:
    this week from Ken Fountain — a thought about Journatic, from the outside inside.

    Reply

  4. tony bullard Says:

    hey ken – i don’t know if you accept links to other stories but here’s another interview of this guy in the guardian –

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/06/adventures-journatic-new-media-outsourced-hyperlocal-news

    i’ve highlighted a few quotes –

    ‎”I was more offended, meanwhile, by the kindergarten quality of writing I witnessed from the Blockshopper writers.”
    “My stomach turned and my guilt grew. The company I was working for was harming journalism: real reporters were getting laid off and were being replaced by overseas writer-bots.”
    “It would pay off to have you both write and edit these stories only if you could write the stories in about 90 seconds.”
    “For an 800- to 1,000-word news story, I’d get $24. For a 500-word story, $12. The Q&A would net me a measly $10.”
    “How could news stories with the Chicago Tribune’s banner on them follow journalistic practices that would make a high-school newspaper reporter blush?”

    Reply

  5. Brandon Says:

    I was among the ‘handful of others’ who worked with Ken at the Chronicle at the height of its “hyperlocal push.” I too, came from small-town newspapers in Texas and was eager to help publish and edit local news and photos of Houston’s 16 largest suburban areas to an online audience. But, it was hard to gain traction and a consistently high online audience in such a crowded field. A mere link for each of the 16 areas on the homepage of the Houston Chronicle’s chron.com website was not enough to keep the bean counters interested in the hyperlocal endeavor. Since the layoffs (I was spared, at least twice, then jumped to begin a new job focusing on web development), coverage of those suburban areas have suffered in the biggest newspaper in Texas, which seems to be smaller and smaller every day.

    Reply

  6. Rad Sallee Says:

    It’s like you know I mean who wants to read a newspaper? Especially if it writes stuff they disagree with.

    Reply

  7. gold account Says:

    The Tribune would be better off going back to using freelancers rather than Journatics for hyperlocal content. Who knows the areas covered better than those who live in the area? It’s just another example of being penny wise and otherwise foolish to keep journatics. So many outstanding but displaced journalists are now in the field and the trust level among readers is going down due to shenanigans like this. Sad state of affairs for a vital American industry! After all, strong reporting is the foundation of democracy!

    Reply

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