The Collapse of Serious Local News

When even a news outsourcing firm‘s criticism of local journalism has a sad ring of truth, one can see how far newspapers have fallen. It’s also why bloggers and other citizen journalists now fill a role that some newspapers have abandoned.

Journatic is a company that provides supposedly local stories to the American media, and it’s the cause of a journalism scandal: Journatic has been using fake bylines on some of its stories, and many of the stories are actually outsourced and written in the Philippines. The NPR program This American Life reported on Journatic’s methods, press critic Jim Romenesko has blogged about it, and the Atlantic Wire’s posted about coverage of the story.

Here’s one of the ways that the founder of Journatic, Brian Timpone justified fake bylines and American ‘local’ stories aggregated by the thousands in the Philippines:

But the worrisome part about all this is that places like the [Chicago] Tribune use this service in the first place. The Tribune fired 20 members of its staff and replaced them with Journatic. Timpone’s theory, which he explained to Mathew Ingram of GigaOM in April, is that this hyper-local news is essentially comprised of press releases and doesn’t require an actual reporter on the ground. He said:

The base of community news is what they call in the industry ‘process news,’ and it doesn’t really require a reporter, it just needs some cleaning up.

But, as This American Life‘s Koenig notes, the reporters Journatic does have — even the ones like Ryan Smith — get paid so little that it is worth more for them to churn out as many stories as possible without reporting or any other due diligence, and local newspapers are no longer sending reporters out to do the old-fashioned work. She ends the piece by explaining that while newspapers are firing, Journatic is hiring.

(From the Atlantic Wire post of 7.2.12, with original quote from GigaOM on 4.27.12.)

Journatic’s unsettling excuse for its own assembly-line product: that local news is hollow, a collection of press releases, needing no reasoned examination of official actions. Perhaps Timpone doesn’t think he’s ahead of the curve: he may think he’s simply profiting from a prior change in many community papers.

He’s all-too-right about that prior change, and it’s been a decline in quality that’s bad for America.

Newspapers’ negligence in allowing officials to act without press oversight — and worse — in turning printing presses into fiddles to be played — has left our country markedly worse off.

We often get closed, mediocre, inefficient, dodgy government as a consequence.

One would rather read than write. The return of a press that reviewed officials’ actions thoroughly (and did a better job of it than ever before) would be a great gain for America. Far from wanting newspapers to decline, I hope (optimist that I am) that the press will become more vigilant of authority.

If newspapers refuse, however, to write about political authority with the reasonable scrutiny it deserves, one is compelled to read and write.

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