Recently a small corner of the media world (mostly the internet) has been occupied by a news story about a company named Journatic. For many who take journalism seriously, it has reached the level of a small scandal. Journatic is a company that provides “hyperlocal” news stories to newspapers and news services across the country. Wages are extremely low both in the United States and abroad. In order to keep costs low, Journatic’s business model utilizes cheap labor abroad in order to “assemble” information into a story that can be sold as local U.S. news. Awareness of Journatic broke through with after the airing of a recent This American Life episode in which a former Journatic employee Ryan Smith divulged details on its business practices.
Journatic contracts with workers in the Philippines who troll the internet for a particular community, for example for newsworthy events in Houston or Chicago. After writing a piece, material produced by Filipino workers is sent to U.S.-based editors who proof the story. The finished product does not contain the actual byline of the person who wrote the story in the Philippines. Instead, after writing the story, Filipino workers have a choice of which name they would like to use for the story. These names include Carrie Reed, Amy Anderson, and Jay Brownstown, according to This American Life. Apparently a Filipino-sounding name isn’t convincing enough for the papers where Journatic content appears.
Smith, the former Journatic employee who divulged his former employer’s secrets, also told This American Life that he was tasked with writing a local piece in the Houston Chronicle. Smith lives in Chicago, and he’s never been to Houston. However, in order to complete the story, Smith called the principal of a Houston high school and was put in the awkward situation of explaining that he was writing for the Chronicle while sitting in Chicago. Other Journatic employees were doing countless other stories like this across the country while potentially never having visited the community they were writing about. This is occurring at the same time that local reporters across the country are losing their jobs at their local papers because publishers are looking for ways to cut costs.
As expected, media outlets across the country reported on the bizarre and slightly scandalous nature of the Journatic phenomenon. Yet how surprised should we be? Newspapers have been cutting costs and losing revenue for several years now. Part of problem is adjusting to a new sustainable model in the Internet Age. At the same time, however, the U.S. (and world economy) is drifting further and further toward a system that is obsessed with the profit motive over quality goods or services (or information in this case). Journatic, which is a combination of “journalism” and “automatic” is the latest assault on quality media. Who knows, perhaps journalism of the future will take a completely automated quality and be wholly produced by magical algorithms? I can only hope we wake up before then.