July 29, 2012
Crowdsourcing, outsourcing, and other sorts of distributed work have long since made inroads into professional journalism, but a recent scandal involving a few major metropolitan newspapers outsourcing their local reporting to a company named Journatic reveals the scope and extent of those inroads.
Since This American Life first broke the story a couple of weeks ago, the details of the Journatic story have made their way all over the Internet (See, e.g., coverage from Poynter, Romenesko, and Gigaom for some of the more thoughtful examples).
The basics are straightforward: Journatic is a company that specializes in generating content for a variety of purposes, among them local news stories (they also have a sister company called Blockshopper that provides a similar service for real estate listings). It seems that typically a client – say, a major U.S. newspaper like the Chicago Tribune, for example – contracts with Journatic, which then hires dozens of independent subcontractors (mainly in the Philippines and the U.S.) who construct and edit hyperlocal news items in a distributed, piecemeal fashion before passing the finished product back to the client for publication.
You can get a much better feel for the process by listening to the TAL interviews with Journatic editor Ryan Smith, or by reading Smith’s tendentious editorial about his experience (has has subsequently quit working for Journatic, although – interestingly – he was not fired or even reprimanded for his efforts to publicly criticize the company’s practices and products).
The stickiest part of the scandal seems to be that the Trib, along with several other major metropolitan dailies (the San Francisco and Houston Chronicles as well as the Chicago Sun Times) , had been printing these stories under false by-lines (such as Jake Barnes – the name of a famous Hemingway character), which violates the paper’s own ethical standards.
I find the story pretty engaging for several reasons:
The fact that Journatic figured out how to crowdsource journalism is actually pretty impressive. Some friends at CMU have been trying for a while now to generate magazine-style writing using workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Likewise, I’d like to develop and test methods for crowdsourcing peer review of academic papers. Apparently, the folks at Journatic have already solved many of the practical problems involved in performing a complex knowledge-based task like reporting using a globally distributed workforce of highly variable skill.
Second, despite the rhetoric surrounding the story, Journatic is neither the end of journalism as we know it nor its salvation. While I share the concerns voiced by Smith, TAL reporter Sarah Koenig, and others over the wages paid to Journatic’s Philippino contractors as well as the confusion about the Tribune’s apparent willingness to buck its own editorial policies about attribution in this case, these issues need to be distinguished from questions about whether crowdsourcing is “bad” or “good” for the future of media. I believe the emergence of companies specializing in crowdsourced journalism is merely another wrinkle in a complex organizational ecosystem where incumbent firms are struggling to retain some sort of comparative, competitive advantage in the face of declining revenues. When you consider Journatic in the context of other experiments in crowdsourced journalism, such as some of ProPublica’s distributed reporting project, CNN’s iReports, or even the political blogosphere, paying workers around the world to assemble stories sounds less like a violation of basic journalistic principles and more like the latest in a long line of process innovations that might or might not help to reinvent the field.
Last, but not least, many of us (myself included) may not like the fact that the cost of local news coverage has exceeded the demand in many places, but I think there’s got to be a more effective response than petitioning Sam Zell to stop outsourcing. Instead, I’d like to see a combined effort to improve Journatic’s models of content production in order to (1) address the ethical concerns raised in the Tribune scandal; (2) improve the quality of coverage in order to correct some of the terrible reporting practices documented by Smith in his op-ed; and (3) more effectively integrate teams of remote and on-site local reporters.
Ultimately, you can’t ignore the fact that Journatic smells bad. They paid off contractors not to talk to the media a few months ago, provide SEO and content farm services on the backs of cheap overseas labor, and when faced with complaints about the fact that their real estate listing service, BlockShopper, violated people’s privacy, they responded by issuing a Zuckerbergian declaration against expectations of privacy online and hiding the identities of their writers. Oh, and they also hide their company’s website from Google’s robots (go to http://journatic.com and use the “view source” option in your browser to see their robots.txt policy).
That said, the whole situation offers a chance to think about what a more responsible, ethical, and constructive version of crowdsourced journalism could look like. For that reason alone, I think Journatic deserves even more attention than it has already received.
This past week, I returned to the East Bay, where I had the honor of participating in the 149th commencement exercises of the University of California, Berkeley. After a week on the road at CHI, a high speed tour of Chicago, and the chaos of graduation festivities, I’m happy to finally have had the chance to catch up on a little email and bike riding this weekend (not in that order). Here are five things I learned about along the way:
My cousin, Megan Cohen, is not only a badass playwright (the most produced female playwright in the Bay Area!) , but also happens to be a badass interview subject. She had me at: “I write, basically, like I’m screaming one last message out before being hit by a truck.”
Carrotmob seems like an intriguing activist application of crowdsourcing aimed at facilitating citizen-driven enhancements of communities and businesses. The basic idea is that if you can find enough people (a mob) to spend their money (the carrot) at a given place and time and for a given purpose, you can encourage a particular business or government organization to change in some prosocial way.
Some friendly editor sent me a pointer to the third issue of Limn a few days ago and it looks interesting. The theme is apparently “crowds and clouds” (with a heaping spoonful of the occupy movement stirred in for good measure) and it features the work of some wonderful and brilliant people. Also, who doesn’t want to read a well-designed, cc-licensed publication that indexes its issues at zero?
While on a brief excursion to the peninsula this past week, I learned about The San Francisco Public Press, an independent, non-commercial web and print publication featuring in-depth reporting about the Bay Area. The website not only features original reporting, but also a feed of curated local news stories.
The photo above was taken in my Oakland neighborhood by Eric Fischer (link to his Flickr photostream). Browsing Eric’s sets of photos, I found several fantastic sets of images related to maps, public transit, and bicycles in the Bay Area. My personal favorite was this gigantic colorful map of places to go on public transit in the East Bay printed in 1965 by the Alameda County Transit authority.
December 16, 2008
President-Elect Obama’s team at Change.gov has posted their first batch of replies to a few of the most popular inquiries submitted via the bally-hooed question tool since it went live last week.
If you really want to read the responses, go ahead, knock yourself out. They’re just like the comment threads at DailyKos/LGF/Wonkette/BoingBoing/Lifehacker except they’re completely dry, soul-less, and snark-free.
Take this stirring exchange, for example:
Q: “What will you do to establish transparency and safeguards against waste with the rest of the Wall Street bailout money?” Diane, New Jersey
A: President-elect Barack Obama does not believe an economic crisis is an excuse for wasteful and unnecessary spending. As our economic teams works with congressional leadership to put together a plan, we will put in place reforms to ensure that your money in invested well. We will also bring Americans back into government by amending executive orders to ensure that communications about regulatory policymaking between persons outside government and all White House staff are disclosed to the public. In addition all appointees who lead the executive branch departments and rulemaking agencies will be required to conduct the significant business of the agency in public so that every citizen can see in person or watch on the Internet these debates.
Can you even remember the question after all that opacity? Turns out the White House press corps might not be out of a job after all.
Be honest, though, who’s actually surprised that the Obama team is sticking to their script and refusing to engage in precisely the sort of off-the-cuff banter that makes conversations on the Internet interesting? I was at an event with a few members of their new media team last week and these folks are at least as disciplined as a Bill Belichik offense.
For all the hoopla about the many wonderful ways in which Change.gov might transform the relationship between the POTUS and the rest of us, it’s going to take more than a few Rick-rolls before somebody mistakes this site for 4chan. (Dear Mr. President Elect, I video taped myself asking you a very important question: please watch it here!)
That said, the first idiot who celebrates the fact that someone in the transition team took the time to answer the question about legalizing pot ought to have their head examined. It may be Democracy in motion, but only in the sense in which Jeffersonian “mob rule” sense. I’m not one to romanticize the high-flown days of the republic of media gatekeeping, but this is just campaigning by other means and a waste of everybody’s time.
It may not matter, though, because unless the Change.gov team loosens up a bit (and opens the door to the risk of a mini scandal or two), I suspect people will quickly forget about this site after the inauguration.
November 7, 2008
I’m slogging my way through Newsweek’s lengthy seven-part series on the presidential campaigns.
Lots of little tidbits and illustrative quotes make these pieces an entertaining read, but the most striking thing is the editors’ attempt to cast the candidates into made-for-TV character molds.
October 26, 2008
Despite taking the UK Guardian to task for perpetuating some unsubstantiated rumors about the Brazilian economy, I am enjoying the series of encomia they’ve been running on their editorial page lately.
Here’s the first one I saw In Praise of Larry Lessig.
October 23, 2008
I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. The quote comes around 2:30 into the clip
McCain and Palin are edgy because they’re reading the same polls as Nate Silver.
October 18, 2008
The fantastic folks at the Citizen Media Law Project of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society got together with the center’s media czar Dan Jones and put together a tutorial on the legal in’s and outs of video recording at polling places on election day:
Congratulations to David Ardia on the spellbinding narration!
October 6, 2008
Much is being made of a false rumor about Steve Jobs’s health that started as a “user generated news item” on CNN’s iReport.com site.
Basically, someone using the handle “Johntw” claimed that Jobs had suffered a heart attack in an iReport posting around 9am on Friday morning. By 10am, when Apple rebuffed the claim, the Cupertino, CA firm’s stock had dropped almost 10% – or $9 Billion in shares.
Predictably, the papers and news services reporting on the incident have rushed in to proclaim this merely another sad example of “the downside” (SF Chron) of “citizen journalism gone awry“(Bloomberg).
Even NYU Professor/Blogger/Media-studies-guru Jay Rosen chided CNN for their naivete, and is quoted by the SF Chronicle:
“I think if you are going to put closed and open systems under one brand, then you have to try to organize the open part so that it does not embarrass you…What the branded news companies cannot do is … create a low-cost open-gate ‘play area,’ where the citizens can do their thing and no one carefully watches over it, cultivates it, takes responsibility for building it or for steadily improving the quality of it.”
Rosen makes a great point – CNN should watch where it places its brand as it struggles to understand the shifting sands of the participatory web.
However, the fatal flaw in the rest of the coverage is that the authors and editors assume responsibility for the incident should be directed at CNN and it’s iReport platform. The sad truth of the matter is that none of the folks who repeated the rumor – and here I’m especially thinking of so-called industry experts such as Silicon Alley Insider’s Henry Blodget, who chose to broadcast the misinformation about Jobs on his influential blog – took the time to call a hospital or consider the very real possibility that information submitted to iReport just might be inaccurate.
Clearly, the fact that iReport uses the CNN brand likely facilitated the rumor’s credibility, but how does that make CNN responsible for the actions of an idiotic, gullible, or malicious user?
Blodget himself had the chutzpah to write, “‘citizen journalism’ apparently just failed its first significant test.”
To say that CNN or “Citizen Journalism” bears the blame for something as irresponsible as Blodget did is about as reasonable as saying Wikipedia is bad because college kids think everything on it is True.
It’s the users of iReport and Wikipedia who need re-educating, not the other way around.
Until information consumers – expert stock-pickers, journalists, and so-called everyday folks who get their news online – learn how to treat what they read with an appropriate level of critical skepticism, it doesn’t matter whether you have the editorial staff of the NY Times or an army of 10,000 monkeys writing the stories. There is always a risk that you will read something false.
If you read a user-contributed news item then make the decision to act on that information contained in that story, the institution of so-called citizen journalism is not at fault, you are.
Am I being overly-defensive here? Perhaps. Nevertheless, I’d like to think the point stands: when the corporate media blows a story they (rightfully) catch hell for it, but nobody suggests that the institution of professional journalism is to blame. Instead, we quibble about whether The New York Times should have fired Judith Miller sooner, or hired an ombudsman before the WMD mess and Colin Powell’s speech at the UN.
So-called citizen journalists and large-scale distributed news sites complement existing media institutions in numerous and valuable ways.
Indeed, the extent to which reputable news sources such as the NYT failed to perform the traditional role of the 4th Estate during the lead-up to the current War in Iraq is exactly what motivated some of the most important bloggers to jump into the fray.
August 25, 2008
Friday’s NYT offered characteristically “meh” coverage of the role of political bloggers at the upcoming party conventions next week.
The piece could have been so much than human interest fluff. Instead somebody opted to bury it in the fashion section.
Wonder if there’s a story about the changing nature of the media and the democratization of party politics in here somewhere?
Guess the editors don’t want to look at that angle too closely.
August 16, 2008
By allowing you to visualize the google search history for a given term across a few geographic and temporal dimensions, the tool lends itself to some wonderful applications – including this one – a glance at social networking around the world by a Swedish firm named Pingdom – which inspired Ethan’s post in the first place.
As Ethan points out, though, the search insights data also provokes a question about what it means to search in the first place (my emphasis):
The Insight data isn’t measuring traffic to those sites, or their number of active members, just the number of folks searching for those sites via Google. That may or may not be an effective proxy for interest in those networks. I’m a Facebook user, and I have the site bookmarked, so I rarely would find myself searching for the site – it’s possible that the search data is a more effective proxy for the strength of a brand in a particular market, or the level of interest from non-participants in a specific site
I had a good time playing with these theories by using the comparative graphing features to consider where different political blogs attracted a greater relative volume of searches. Sorry the maps display a bit small, but you should be able to download the files (or simply re-create the search) to get a closer look.
Here’s a fun, obvious one:
(note: the data is also normalized in relation to the highest value occurring within the query range).
Check out how they both spike after the 2004 election, but then the relative volume of searches for Kos stay consistently higher (peaking after the 2006 mid-term elections) than those for Insty.
Make of that what you will. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess without knowing more about the reasons people turn to the Internet (and Google) to find political information.
I think the story gets even more interesting when you compare the high traffic states for each blog.
And here’s Kos:
If you ignore the ratios for a second and just focus on the states in each list:
- Instapundit: DC, TN, NH, VA, MD, KS, NC, NY, WA, CT
- Kos: VT, DC, OR, WA, NM, MT, ME, NY, WY, CA
Once again, extrapolate at your own risk. All I know is that it does not track perfectly with voting patterns and that the overlaps (DC, NY, WA) are at least as interesting as the extreme mismatches (WY, VT, MT).