Tuesday, July 17, 2012

New approach to covering local news? I don’t think so.

Major newspapers from around the country have discovered a serious byline problem. They include dailies from San Francisco, Chicago and Houston, among others. It seems staff reporters did not write certain local stories in these papers.

They were outsourced to a company called Journalic. In an effort to hide how they did business, Journalic decided to use fake bylines to disguise the fact that people from the Philippines wrote some of these local stories. The writers were paid as little as $4 per story.

I cannot say strongly enough (well, I guess I am) there are so many things wrong with this concept of reporting—from ethics to quality control—media executives should be running far away from this company. Unfortunately, they have not.

Brian Timpone, a former television reporter and community newspaper owner, founded Journalic 6 years ago. He knew there was a need for local information on police arrests, sports scores, real estate sales and other items that can be quite time consuming to report.

So as newspaper executives continued to look for ways to cut costs, but still focus on local news, Journalic became an option for larger papers struggling for a solution. The reasoning was staff reporters would then have more time to cover “important” stories.

This worked because Journalic reporters would comb the Internet looking for local information depending on who had contracted them. These bits of information would be sent to the publication for publishing. Right now they work with dozens of newspapers around the country.

But Journalic reporters are never part of the communities they report on. And in an effort to cut their own costs, much of the work was outsourced to other countries. The company now boasts 60 full-time reporters and 200 freelancers as they attempt to expand coverage.

Once again this is just another classic case of media executives following the flock on something that saves money, yet knowing this is a short-term solution with no longterm results. In other words…readers will figure it out. There’s also this little issue of ethics, trying to pass off local news written by people who work thousands of miles away.

Another area that gets lost in this shuffle is the contacts a local reporter will make when placing calls, checking events and confirming information while talking to residents and city officials. The bottom line is, it takes resources to cover local news accurately and there’s no real way to get around it.

It’s no secret that reporters must have a stake in the community they cover in order to bring quality journalism to readers.

STORY UPDATE: Both the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle are in the process of dropping Journalic not only because of the fake byline issues, but after discovering some news stories were actually fabricated. This is a big pill for the Tribune to swallow given the fact they purchased Journalic last year thinking this was the next great thing for cost costing journalism.

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