Some staffers at the Chicago Tribune are concerned over the paper's relationship with Journatic, a content provider accused of messy ethics. We discuss Journatic and the future of hyperlocal journalism on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Chicago Tonight spoke with Mike Reilley, a journalism professor at DePaul University, Barbara K. Iverson, a journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago, and Bastiaan Vanacker, the Program Director for the School of Communications Center of Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University, about the future of journalism.
How viable are business models like Journatic?
It’s very hard to scale local journalism. It’s difficult to take a story about a debate in a neighborhood over what business should go in a storefront, to scale that for a national story. Unless the neighborhood has terrific breaking news, you’re not getting the traffic you need to scale those advertising dollars and be profitable online. It’s a big challenge to scale national numbers, and get the type of traffic that national sites get. You can get numbers on a smaller scale and tailor advertising dollars to that traffic. You have to find new avenues of ad revenue. Give people something to do on the site, search or do some type of activity, a news app you can work advertising into.
Barbara K. Iverson:
The idea of being able to draw in content automatically is clearly something that’s here to stay. Automation to speed up handwork is going to be a part of journalism. At Duke, they’re doing research on this, and how can a machine and computers do grunt work, so reporters don’t have to go through files and records, and making sure they’re all inputted properly.
I think if I would know the best business model for papers to survive, I could make a lot of money. Certainly the idea behind it, if you want a newspaper to produce investigative journalism that’s time intensive, like papers like the Chicago Tribune want to do, you have to cut costs elsewhere. In hindsight, it wasn’t a good idea. I think that as a media organization you rely on trust, not just a high and lofty ethical idea, but there’s economic value too. The notion that when something big happens, people still go to mainstream media. I do think rather than try to cut costs left and right, papers ought to keep the bigger picture in mind. When trust erodes, like what happened to a certain degree with stories like Journatic, they risk to lose some trust and that is economically detrimental.
Do you think outsourcing is the way of the future for journalism?
I’ll be frank, outsourcing is an absolute joke. I've worked at newspapers for 15 years and started out at a small community newspaper, and the great thing is you’re in or near the community that you’re covering. You heard what’s going on, you see what’s going on. I live in North Lakeview and there are four empty storefronts, and I’m looking into what’s going to happen with that property, it’s very interesting. Is someone in the Philippines with a boss in St. Louis going to know about that? No, it just doesn’t work. The ethical and accuracy level will just be a complete failure. When you live in the community, you know a lot and know what to fact-check. Halfway across the world, you can Google and search till you’re heart’s content but you may not be able to find the answer. Journatic’s sloppiness came from trying to turn stories over too fast. When you don’t have knowledgeable journalists in control, you end up with shoddy, unethical journalism that’s poorly executed.
What about outsourcing for grunt work?
It’s a nice concept but why can’t that be done on a local level too? There’s still a high unemployment rate, so hire local people, students, people out of work, who will also pick up new database skills. It’s not hard to train, and put them to work locally to do the heavy lifting that will free up journalists. A lot more errors will be caught and you inject money back into the community- reinvesting in yourself, which is what local journalism is all about. Local content, local employees and local advertisers.
Barbara K. Iverson:
I think the idea of writing a full story, and taking factual info, you need to have someone that’s in the neighborhood-- closer than the Philippines, to put stuff in context. If you’re just pulling from public records, it’s OK. But writing about neighborhoods, you need to have somebody who’s a journalist but also someone who is involved in the community. Outsourcing, having other people write it who aren’t there, could work for editing. There’s a thing called Mechanical Turk that Amazon has. Say I have 10,000 records from a city and I need to check them and input them. I can go to Mechanical Turk and I can find the lowest bidder. And they probably won’t be in another country. They’ll have all the information input and verified, that’s OK, but writing a story based on records and making it make sense, I don’t think that can be outsourced. Theoretically outsourcing mechanical stuff, lower level stuff, would save money which you could spend on local journalists.
I think you need to be careful not to have a knee-jerk reaction here, in experiments with computers writing stories. Certain stories aren’t complex, like if you had to do a write-up of the Dow Jones, you could program an algorithm to write a report on this. I think it lends itself to certain content, whether it’s a computer, someone across the country, in a city, in the Philippines. But to me, that’s not the point. The point is transparency. I think if you’re forthcoming with readers about this and explain it, and you of course have a system in place to guarantee that the same editorial standards are maintained, then I wouldn’t automatically say in all instances that this is wrong. I think for certain types of journalism that this would work.
What does the future of hyperlocal content look like?
I think it’s (hyperlocal content) still very promising, but it’s taken a bit of a hit. Newspapers are struggling along with the communication industry and hyperlocal has gone through those growing pains. Cover on a block by block level that mainstream media outlets don’t have resources to get to. TribLocal was outstanding before Journatic. It was great work, they were doing great journalism. Then they dumped the model, got a little greedy and wanted to save money and it bit them in the back.
Barbara K. Iverson:
I think there will be more input. You have reports from CNN and various other things, trying to get content from people in the community, I think that will become stronger and stronger. People are learning about sharing content. I think one of the things about community journalism though is you have to be in the community. I could be over in this community and write stories and replicate that model, but a lot of those models leave out that you need to have a passionate center, whether it’s one or a few people, you need to have a tie to the community.
There’s the continuation in the belief of hyperlocal content to be the end all and be all for newspapers. I think around 2005, you heard a lot about that. Papers were not going to try to cover the world over but just focus on what is happening in the suburbs to attract more local advertising. I think that has happened, and they [Chicago Tribune] have engaged in that effort and had to keep it going, so that took that extra step of going to outsourcing.
In my opinion, it’s an example of an industry that’s in economic trouble-doing better recently- but in the last decade it’s taken some major blows, and trying to stay afloat, so I’m not surprised that you see examples like this emerging. But it’s not ethically or economically viable in the long term.
Part of this idea was that it’s going to rely on contributions from members of the community. If somebody has the urge to write something about their own community and that person has an entrepreneurial spirit, they’ll start their own blog. I do think you have these blogs or other venues outside of traditional newspapers where people can write and read about local communities. There definitely is a need for local news, and I understand how major media organizations try to capture that.
What are your thoughts about Journatic and the future of local journalism? Post your comments below or sound off on our discussion board!