2012.07.11 Long-distance reportage

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

There are three stories in this week’s Observer from the June 27 village council meeting at Fayette. 

I was not at that meeting. Oddly enough, I had three meetings to cover on a Wednesday night—the night that not so long ago nobody would schedule a meeting—and I managed to be in only one place that evening. 

And so, the reporting of those three Fayette council reports were outsourced to the Philippines.

You don’t believe me? All right, you know better. Karen King from Fayette recorded the meeting for me and later gave me her recorder, the agenda and a couple of other documents.

However, I could have gone through the Philippines, or Eastern Europe or Africa or Brazil. That’s what a company named Journatic does. Many stories published in some large daily papers in the U.S. are written by someone thousands of miles away.

The story of Journatic (as is journalism automatic) was recently told on the weekly radio program “This American Life.” An American Journatic reporter, Ryan Smith, recounted a recent assignment to write a story about a Student of the Week at a high school in Houston.

He called the school and spoke with the principal for information. The principal invited him to stop in his office, figuring it was just a local reporter from the Houston Chronicle who would drive over in his beat-up car for a conversation. Smith managed to get the job done on the telephone. After all, he was calling from Chicago. He’s never set foot in Texas. True, the story was for the Chronicle, but Smith doesn’t work for the paper.

Papers are working hard to keep their readers and one approach is called hyperlocal news. It’s sort of what weekly newspapers do all the time. Honor rolls, students of the month, garden club news, school menus, etc.

Nobody goes to journalism school to spend their time writing up garden club reports, so that’s where Journatic comes in. Pay someone like Smith 12 bucks to do the job.

Smith didn’t know anything about Journatic when he applied for the job. He sent his résumé and was instantly hired. No interview, no phone call. In fact, he’s never actually spoken to his boss. Everything is handled via e-mail. His boss was working from St. Louis; now he’s in Brazil.

Often Smith’s job wasn’t to collect information. Instead, he edited someone else’s story, such as someone from the Philippines.

When Smith complained about the sloppy copy he was receiving, his boss told him to cut the writers a little slack since English wasn’t their native language.

Journatic knows it’s cheaper to pay someone in the Philippines 35 cents a story to “assemble facts” than to pay a reporter from the Chicago Tribune. Journatic claims its foreign staff doesn’t actually write the stories. They’re entering data, writing a first draft for Smith and others to clean up. The Tribune says that Filipino freelancers “cull and format information for stories.” 

The big deal that arose from the radio show is that Smith told his interviewer that fake names are sometimes attached to stories. The Filipino name isn’t used and Smith’s name isn’t used. It’s just some alias that makes matters simpler when lawyers call about the stories written. The fake names started appearing on stories about real estate transfers after complaints arose. Now there will be no names at all.

TribLocal is the name of the Tribune’s hyperlocal website and a lot of TribLocal employees lost their jobs when Journatic came in.

The owner of Journatic says his service frees up time for the real reporters to do good reporting—if they still have a job—so they don’t have to mess with dull matters such as a city budget. Smith spent about three hours on his city budget story for a Chicago suburb and earned about $4 an hour.

“We’re doing God’s work,” said Brian Timpone, CEO of Journatic, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

I wonder what Karen King thinks about the Philippines. She could live cheaper, I could pay her less. And she could write those council stories without the bother of having to bicycle downtown to the village office.

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