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The Death of Quality Local News: Why I Blew the Whistle on Journatic's Practices
I went public about my experience at Journatic because people should know how their local newspapers are being hollowed out
HBO's new late-night series The Newsroom is set in the busy backstage of a CNN-like cable news TV show, but had the creators of the premium cable show really wanted to expose the most shocking behind-the-scenes realities of modern journalism, they'd instead have had to cast actor Jeff Daniels as a reporter for a company named Journatic.
Perhaps not even Aaron Sorkin could pen a compelling drama about copy-editors staring at computers alone in their living rooms, or outsourced reporters silently typing stories on their MacBooks at far-flung Starbucks in St Louis or Manila. Nonetheless, a quiet revolution is happening in the American newspaper industry and it has not been televised. Don't feel bad that you haven't noticed or heard of Journatic – I hadn't either until after nearly a year of working for its sister outfit Blockshopper.
If the best trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn't exist, Journatic's greatest ruse has been to convince the world that the company and its workers barely exist. Google the word "Journatic" and it'll take a lot of digging through search results to find the company's bare-bones website, because the site itself, as one blogger has reported, contains code that eliminates it from Google search results.
That's strange for a company that's had such a large impact on newspaper journalism. Over the last two or three years, the Chicago-based content provider has infiltrated dozens of mid to major newspapers across the country and obtained contracts to produce so-called "hyperlocal" news content. Those deals often lead to a horde of firings of editorial staff at those news organizations, as some full-time office-dwellers cede work to a small army of low-paid freelancers living all around the globe.
In this brave new media world, the face-to-face has been rendered as obsolete as health benefits and vacation pay, leading to a bizarrely disconnected state of affairs between the newspapers and the people putting words on its pages. I've copy-edited or written news stories for a handful of major US newspapers over the past 18 months – the Houston Chronicle in Texas, San Francisco Chronicle in California and Newsday in Long Island, New York and others – yet it's doubtful that any of the editors or senior executives for those news organizations could pick me out of a police line-up. In fact, it's unlikely they could tell you a single personal detail about me or the other journalists behind the bylines of countless stories that appear in their print editions or on their websites, as provided by my employer.
Had editors at these newspapers requested a meeting with the individuals producing this new content, they'd have racked up a staggering amount of frequent flier miles. Journatic's ranks are full of people like myself – home office-based US freelancers located far from the area they are covering. (I've never stepped foot in the Lone Star state once, much less visited the offices of the Houston Chronicle.) A second group of the company's workers have been recruited from beyond the North American continent in developing countries like the Philippines and various African nations.
A final group of Journatic workers would be literally impossible to track down. Why? Because they don't actually exist. They're as fictional as Sherlock Holmes or the Sasquatch.
Working with fake co-workers feels like the icing on the cake of my chaotic journalism career.
For most of the last decade, I've worked as a full-time staff reporter for small-town weekly and daily newspapers in central Missouri – embedded in the type of journalism that Journatic is working hard to get outsourced. I'd attend and write about overlong city council or school board meetings for a newspaper in Mexico, Missouri and dictate the police blotter and occasionally work a big-time murder as a crime reporter for the Jefferson City News Tribune.
Then, a weekly paper in West Los Angeles I worked for folded in dramatic fashion, and I was left jobless and broke. I moved to Chicago in the fall of 2007, at a time when journalism jobs were drying up and blowing away like tumbleweed. I managed to land a steady freelance writing gig with Chicago Tribune's RedEye edition writing the Dr Fantasy sports column and random news features, but my finances were hardly the stuff of fantasy.
Considering I'd spent a lot of the last few previous years supplementing my writing with odd jobs like video-game testing, soul-sucking office temp work and even working for a media data company turned Ponzi scheme, I was ecstatic about when offered the copy-editing job from Blockshopper shortly before Christmas 2010. The lack of an interview or vetting process felt bizarre (though I did previously take a brief editing test), and the offer of 40 hours a week for $10 an hour with no benefits or vacation pay wasn't exactly ideal. But I immediately replied to the short email titled "Job Offer" from a Blockshopper managing editor that asked just one simple question: "When can you start?"
I officially began working for Blockshopper in January 2011 and immediately learned that the lack of real communication between employees was standard. My supervisor would only speak to me via instant messaging or emails, and more detailed instructions were parceled out via private YouTube videos. I never once had contact with any of the Filipino writers or researchers crafting the stories – instead, having to go through my boss to communicate with them. It felt like I was part of either a secret spy network or a terrorist cell group.
The work itself was more tedious than most other copy-editing jobs. Each story is a four or five-paragraph brief about a personal property real estate transaction, with colorless headlines like "Cardiologist sells 6 BD for $1M in Uptown." The stories include information gleaned from real estate records, as well as biographical information about the buyer's or seller's employment history and alma mater ripped from LinkedIn profiles or biographies on corporate websites.
Unsurprisingly, the idea of posting individuals' names, addresses, and biographies in a very public way on the internet didn't sit well with a lot of people, leading to lawsuits and histrionic websites calling Blockshopper execs "scumbags". The suits and threats were the impetus, according to Journatic CEO Brian Timpone, for the fake bylines to begin appearing on the stories in 2007.
"We were writing things that were controversial," Timpone told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Our writers were being threatened individually by the subjects of stories. We did it to protect them from the threats."
The writers weren't the only thing protected by Journatic's fake name policy. Even their director of customer service listed on their Blockshopper website – someone named Scarlett Simpson – was a fictional character.
I noticed the alias system on the stories almost right away – a Filipino writer named Junbe, for example, could become Jimmy Finkel and Gisele Bautista might have a byline with the porn star-sounding moniker Jenni Cox. It struck me as strange and a little unethical, but at the time, I figured all of this information was appearing only on Blockshopper.com, which seemed to me little more than a content farm dumping ground. I wasn't aware that some of these stories also appeared in Hearst newspapers.
I was more offended, meanwhile, by the kindergarten quality of writing I witnessed from the Blockshopper writers. The most basic rules of spelling and grammar were violated and tortured on a regular basis. Some writers didn't even understand the concept of inserting an article like "a" or "an" before a noun. I emailed my supervisor to complain and was told I should give them a break because they were from the Philippines. English may have not been their first language.
It was for these reasons and more that I kept my shameful secret of editing for Blockshopper in the closet. Or at least, I would until the end of 2011.
In November 2011, I got asked by Frank, a co-worker I'd never heard of, to write a story for the Houston Chronicle. He'd heard I had reporting experience and assigned me to interview a student at Bellaire High School for a "student of the month" blurb. Sprawled on a couch in my apartment in Chicago, I picked up my iPhone the next day and called the principal, while trying to suspend my own disbelief that I'm that reporting on a local news story from 1,000 miles away. The facade doesn't last long.
"Hey, how about you come down to the school tomorrow and go ahead and do the interview then?" the principal innocuously suggested. I stuttered something to the effect of: "Umm … how about we just do it over the phone."
The Houston Chronicle story was needed for a sister company called Journatic, I was told by Kathryn, the editorial director with whom I'd been friendly. It was the first time I'd heard of the operation. I instantly Googled it and found employment ads seeking reporters on JournalismJobs.com and, more importantly, a disturbing story involving my hometown newspaper. According to an article by the Illinois Times, the State Journal Register was laying off staff and making a nonspecific deal with Journatic.
My stomach turned and my guilt grew. The company I was working for was harming journalism: real reporters were getting laid off and were being replaced by overseas writer-bots. So I decided to put my Blockshopper job in jeopardy and get the truth out about the company. I wrote an email to Chicago Reader media blogger Mike Miner offering inside information about Journatic off the record: the outsourced Filipino workers, the fake bylines and everything.
"It's pretty sad, it's like the death knell of the local newspaper," I said in the email.
Miner didn't immediately write a story, but did makes inquiries of executives at Journatic. That led to a group email Journatic editorial director Peter Behle sent to all of the freelancers:
"Reporters will be sniffing around – and they are not authorized to talk with anyone about Journatic under any circumstances. Better yet, if you receive a reporter inquiry and tell us about it (without responding), we'll pay you a $50 bonus."
I immediately forwarded the email to Miner. Oops, there went my $50.
After the Tribune Company announced it had made an investment in Journatic, which was going to take over production of the suburban TribLocal newspapers and websites, Miner wrote a story about the deal and quoted some of the information I'd provided. The info on the $50 bounty and the outsourced workers got passed around a few media blogs, but I was disappointed by the overall lack of outrage.
Meanwhile, the nature of my work changed at the beginning of March 2012. The entire production of Blockshopper stories, I was told, was in the process of being completely automated and my copy-editing work for the site slowed to a crawl. I got posted to a new project: copy-editing stories for Newsday. Journatic had recently negotiated a deal with the New York-based newspaper and needed me to help smooth the rough edges off the stories.
Rough is an understatement. I recognized some of the names of the Filipino freelancers from Blockshopper, who were now writing death notices and business stories for Newsday, and they were inept at these new formats. I had to rewrite almost everything. In frustration, I asked my boss why we even needed "writers" at all, if the bulk of the work was (poorly) rewriting obits taken from the website Legacy.com, or new hire stories from company websites. The email I got back said:
"Well, someone has to summarize the obits for the death briefs, and it is cheaper to pay an outsourced writer than to have an American writer/editor do it. Unfortunately, they're basically paid pennies for these. (We paid quite a bit more for the BlockShopper work. Now that we're doing different work, I have Filipinos asking for better pay on a regular basis. I wish I could do something for them.)
"The system is what it is. How long does it take you to edit these? And how much longer would it take you to write them? It would pay off to have you both write and edit these stories only if you could write the stories in about 90 seconds."
The local content harvested by Journatic's team of over 200 freelancers includes a hodgepodge of stories and information – the low end consisting of Blockshopper's real estate transactions, local sports scores, crime blotter feeds, and rewritten press releases. Lots and lots of press releases, like the local library hosting a movie night or an announcement of swimming lessons offered by the park district.
But Journatic doesn't stop there. They also write more important local stories – about, perhaps, a park district adding new programs, a city's budget for the new fiscal year, even the Illinois governor's new healthcare initiative. Yet these stories will be little more than rewritten news releases. For instance, here's the exact wording of a press release about the previously mentioned healthcare plan.
"Governor Pat Quinn today visited the new Ann & Robert Lurie Children's Hospital to sign three laws that will help more working families acquire insurance and stay healthy throughout their lives. These measures, all passed unanimously by the General Assembly, will help small businesses save money and provide employee health insurance; allow for CPR/AED training for middle school students; and require Illinois hospitals to promote breastfeeding."
Here's the corresponding passage, as written by Journatic's Matt Russell:
"Governor Pat Quinn visited the Ann & Robert Lurie Children's Hospital to the laws into action that will help working families get insurance and stay healthy. These measures, passed unanimously by the General Assembly, will help small businesses save money and provide employee health insurance; allow for CPR/AED training for middle school students; and require Illinois hospitals to promote breastfeeding."
No other analysis, no context, no sources who might dispute the governor's rosy view of the new law. The story treats the press release like a fundamentalist Christian quoting the Bible.
I learned more about Journatic's idea of local journalism in April, at firsthand. The Tribune deal had just been announced, and the company was desperately seeking someone to write news stories about Homewood and Flossmoor – two small towns in Chicago's south suburbs. One reporter, I was told by a Journatic editor, had been fired for plagiarizing stories from Patch.com, and another had been canned for doing nothing. I was to be an emergency fill-in reporter.
I'd write three stories for the Homewood/Flossmoor section – a news feature on a historic building being redeveloped into a boutique hotel, a piece on the city of Flossmoor's 2012-2013 annual budget and a Q&A with a person with strong community ties. When I talked to the Peter Gallanis, the editor of the section, he told me not to spend a lot of time on each story. For the story about the hotel, he told me to rewrite the press release and "grab a few quotes" from one village official and be done with it. For the budget story, I also only needed to get once source.
Oh, and payment? For an 800- to 1,000-word news story, I'd get $24. For a 500-word story, $12. The Q&A would net me a measly $10.
Also, would I be interested in taking over the beat permanently?
The answer was no, and this phone call was the last straw for me. How could news stories with the Chicago Tribune's banner on them follow journalistic practices that would make a high-school newspaper reporter blush?
That's when I decided to pitch a story to This American Life. I'd just heard Mike Daisey's story on the NPR show and saw the positive impact it was having on Apple's questionable practices in China – even if that turned out to be full of fabrications and exaggeration.
The response to Sarah Koenig's excellent story on Journatic on This American Life called "Forgive Us Our Press Passes" has been dramatic. In the week since the story has aired, many of Journatic's clients conducted internal investigations and several of them found fake bylines. Meanwhile, GateHouse media and the Chicago Sun-Times both announced they were ending their contracts with Journatic. Free Press created a petition protesting the outsourcing of local news that's been signed by tens of thousands of people.
With regard to my job, I assumed weeks ago that Journatic would fire me. I figured that once they learned I had gone to This American Life and given Koenig access to the company's databases and workspaces, and walked her through how to find things she was looking for, including forwarding to her emails from Journatic bosses and other emails of about 30 of the writers/workers from the Philippines, they would terminate my employment.
Journatic CEO Brian Timpone never once contacted me, even though I told him through another staffer that he was welcome to call me. Instead, I got a brief phone call on Tuesday from another Journatic exec, who said they wanted me to stay on as a copy-editor. The next day, I emailed to say I was resigning on Friday.
My primary goal in "blowing the whistle" wasn't to punish Journatic or damage their business. It was to motivate NPR listeners to care more about the state of newspapers – even if that would cost me a $2,000-a-month job. Maybe, the public could be convinced not only to hold newspapers to a higher standard, but also to invest more money in them. Quality journalism doesn't come cheap.
Do I expect that to happen? Probably not, but I hoped it would. The fact that change seems to be happening makes my small sacrifice more than worthwhile.