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.
Copyright © 2012 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.