A lot has been said, or screamed really, about the This American Life episode that detailed TribLocal‘s relationship with Journatic, which essentially provides data-heavy local news at almost no cost. And I don’t think I’ve really seen any reaction that doesn’t equate Journatic with the end of journalism as we know it.
But here’s some truth, friends: There’s nothing wrong, or new, with outsourcing the news. We’ve been doing it for decades, in the form of wire services. In fact, I had to laugh when the TAL report decried rewriting information scraped off websites, including articles on gas prices gleaned from gasbuddy.com.
If you missed the joke, it’s this: Every Monday, The Associated Press moves a brief on our state wire diligently following the rise of gas prices in Maine. The AP’s source? Gasbuddy.com.
The problem with the outsourcing that most news orgs practice is that it’s damn expensive. At most news organizations, the money paid to the AP would support more than a few extra (local) reporters. Journatic uses modern technology (gasp!) to bring that cost wildly down. And in the end, I think the result is probably more relevant to the readers. I really want someone to tell me with a straight face that this article by Journatic is somehow more journalistically high-minded than this one from the AP.
There’s an oft-repeated quote by
Jay Rosen Jeff Jarvis that goes something like this: Cover what you do best and link to the rest.
Well, news organizations aren’t really great at covering hyperlocal crap. Or, conversely, (hopefully) we’re too good to be covering it. Why oh why are we paying a reporter making $50,000+ a year or a wire service hundreds and hundreds of thousands a year to rewrite a press release for us? Much better to leave it to someone making minimum wage.
I propose a new saying: Do what’s hard and leave the easy stuff to the Filipinos.
Crass, yes, not to mention that it doesn’t rhyme, but if news organizations want to have their cake and eat it to in the form of having enough readership to survive and yet maintaining local coverage in Podunk, America, we’ve got to make some pretty crass decisions.
You might say that news organizations shouldn’t be publishing rewritten press release and hark back to some golden day when every news report was a godly screed handed down from Olympus. And I’d invite you to take off your rose-colored glasses and step into the real world. This kind of journalism isn’t new and it’s here to stay for a long time. We can’t really survive without it, but the simple fact is that we’ve been paying to much for it now.
So here’s what I propose we all do: Scrap the AP, hire Journatic to replace it and with the resulting savings hire a few good local reporters to completely ignore press releases and focus on the hard stuff. I will bet you a significant amount of money your readers will be happy.
There’s one thing I really can’t support in any capacity: fake bylines on stories. That was a really indefensible move on Journatic’s part and their explanation was just plain stupid. That’s all there really is on that.
Let the filleting begin.
P.S.: What would be great is if there was a clearing-house for information and data, where basically everything imaginable would be stored and accessible for every news organization in America. If the AP was in its right mind it would do this, and since it’s a cooperative it might even be able to compel member organizations to contribute to it. But now we’re into a whole different topic.