How low can you go?

Beware, the outsourcing; newspapers in the US are outsourcing parts of the local news under fake bylines.

Office with clocks (R390) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Office with clocks (R390)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A couple of weeks ago, I sat in a business meeting with representatives from a new start-up company to discuss services I could potentially provide them. A key element for any such meeting is, of course, preparation. Therefore, I had previously sifted through the company’s website to see what information they had already made public. To my dismay, much of the material in English was poorly written.The texts were clumsily formulated with many instances of misspellings or incorrect word use.
When I asked one of the representatives about this, the answer shocked me. They told me that through a website they had employed the services of a “professional” writer, based in the Philippines, to write up materials based on a brief provided by the client. After asking around, it turns out that this is not an uncommon practice and that are other Israeli firms which do something similar. Well, you get what you pay for. The question is why go all the way to the Philippines to get texts written up in English when there are many people who could do a much better job right here at home? The answer is twofold.
First and foremost they want to save money. Even with a certain commission to the go-between, a Filipino writer is about 80 percent cheaper than an Israeli one. This is a byproduct of the other reason: There are still many Israelis who foolishly believe getting the language right isn’t worth more than the bare minimum investment.
The reason I’m sharing this anecdote is that it is indirectly related to a recent story which upset many media watchdogs in the United States, especially those who follow the newspaper industry.
It turns out that there are quite a few newspapers in the US which have been outsourcing parts of the local news. They are using a company called Journatic which culls information on specific cities/areas and then delivers it to the newspaper. The operation is simple: freelancers are hired to gather data on sporting events, real estate sales, council meetings, etc., which is then published by most daily and weekly papers.
The outsourcing itself isn’t what has caused the uproar, but rather the fact that Journatic disseminated some of these local news articles under fake bylines. In other words, they changed the names of the people who wrote the articles. One of the reasons they did this was that the writers were Asian. Journatic also uses people based in – you guessed it – the Philippines to write stories.
Major papers in Chicago, San Francisco and Houston all ran the false bylines and were “shocked” that such a thing was done. Some have suspended use of the service while others have vowed to reduce the amount of stories they take from the company.
Hypocrisy, it seems, knows no bounds.
I find it unlikely that a newspaper would care about the name of the writer of a piece coming from a subcontractor.
It’s more likely that Journatic's unethical practice automatically demands public condemnation, even if the paper is really indifferent. What’s interesting is that the incident is being used to draw attention the issue of the erosion of the newspaper industry.
It’s important to point out that using external material is an old practice in the news business. Wire services like the Associated Press and Reuters were founded on the premise that news outlets needed information from around the world. The system has worked for decades. When you see an international news article in an American newspaper or website, chances are that they got a good chunk of the information and/or video from the wires.
The reason some newspapers in the US are farming out local news is the continuation of the economic downtrend which has forced severe cost-cutting measures. According to numerous financial reports, income has dropped a staggering 50 percent since 2005. Shifting revenue streams and stiff competition from other sources, many of which are free, have left industry reeling. In a very short time the entire financial model has changed, but newspapers must still fill their print and web pages. That needs to be done on the cheap – but cutting costs leads to cutting both coverage and corners.
Solutions must be found on a case-by-case basis. Journatic didn’t start out as a local news provider but became one due to demand. It’s been so successful that media empires themselves have invested in it. The model is being seen as the wave of the future, and I reluctantly have to agree.
Outsourcing nuts-and-bolts stories like police blotters, real estate sales, common obits and other run-of-the-mill information should not be taking up newspapers’ resources. I think it would be a better idea for all the news organizations in a certain area to split the cost of employing a group of people who would be in charge of gathering and disseminating the “public access” information. That’s how it’s done in other industries (i.e. financial, farming etc.), so why not in the news? As for public outrage over the Journatic story, it is completely unjustified. For better or for worse, the way news organizations are run has completely changed. I’m not sure how many people actually noticed, but over the past few years in many cities across the United States newspapers have either shut down completely or have drastically their page counts. With more and more people turning to the Internet to get their news for free, the niche for good journalism is getting smaller.
However, you get what you pay for. Don’t be surprised when even more types of stories are outsourced – the kind that should never be written by a third party, namely features and investigative pieces. That’s when the free press and what’s left of journalistic ethics will be in severe danger of extinction. It might not be that far off.
The writer is an independent media consultant.