newsroom panorama by David Sim (http://www.flickr.com/photos/victoriapeckham/)

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.

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Image from BoingBoing (cc-by-nc).

In the midst of all the excitement about the Higgs Boson, I’m not the only one who has been fascinated by the metaphors that different people use to try to explain what’s going on to us non-physicists.

Depending on who you ask, the Higgs field might be better imagined as a giraffe or paparazzi or a swimming pool. The best explanation anybody’s encountered was a hand-drawn animation. Meanwhile, the Higgs particle itself has been compared (figuratively) with God. The research project itself has even been set to song .

All of this led me to think a little more about the fact that metaphors are among the best linguistic tools you can imagine when it comes time to explain a complex idea to someone who is (relatively speaking) clueless about the topic in question.

So that (and the more general notion that academics ought to put Malcolm Gladwell out of business <link>) got me thinking about some big sociological ideas that could do with a bit more metaphori-ification (?) in order to make them more intelligible.

First on my list is the notion of social structure – or maybe any of the big, structural social forces that contribute to the reproduction of social inequality (e.g. class, race, gender, etc.).

Even though it’s important to continue to think and argue about exactly how these phenomena operate, it’s critical to communicate that, in general, social forces are often invisible and never equally experienced by everyone, even though they effect everyone to some extent or another.

In other words, socioeconomic structure could be thought of as a sort of Higgs field in its own right — conditions of birth, early childhood, culture, and socialization impart a certain, relative amount of “mass” (poverty? oppression?) to individuals, who are then generally able to move more or less easily through the social world as a result.

Does this make sense? Are there other, better ways to explain complex sociological notions in a manner that do not involve the words habitus, governmentality, hegemony, institutions, etc. but that also do not deviate too far from the way sociologists use them? For someone who has never encountered such theoretical jargon, these terms can be literally meaningless and it’s up to someone else who understands them to provide some sort of conceptual bootstraps so that the rest of us can haul ourselves up.

Following up on my last post on the tie between Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh in the qualifiers for the U.S. women’s 100 meter team, I thought I would briefly revisit the subject and, in the process, respond to Hal’s comment.

The reason I thought this story merited a second post is that, amazingly, Tarmoh withdrew from the run off, thereby conceding her spot on the Olympic team to Felix!

You can watch Tarmoh explain her decision in this highly unusual SportsCenter clip.

The video is pretty interesting – as is Tarmoh’s choice to make the statement at all! She reveals a number of additional details about her experience as well as her interactions with Felix after the race. After watching it, I came away thinking that her overall manner had suggested that she felt conflicted about her decision.

While I don’t think it makes sense to draw too many conclusions about what happened from Tarmoh’s statement, the events that have transpired since the original race suggest that it may make more sense to approach the whole situation from a game theoretic perspective (like Daniel Lametti started to do) rather than from the sort of statistical vs. moral fairness point of view I tried to articulate in my post.

That brings me to my response to Hal’s suggestion that a run off would (assuming it was announced ahead of time) represent the most “morally fair” way to settle a tie (at least more morally fair than a coin flip).

I think I actually agree with most of Hal’s points – especially, insofar as moral fairness does seem to be more important than statistical fairness when it comes to how most people view athletic contests. I should have clarified that the kind of fairness I had in mind was more statistical than moral. Given the rise of statistical tools in sports and the fact that it is possible to think of athletic contests in terms of the probabilities of particular outcomes, I think my argument is more focused on the fact that the probabilities of victory are never equal and that (at least in the case of many sports) that doesn’t seem to bother many fans.

In any event, I love Hal’s idea for a world-wide coin flip tournament! We should make sure to incorporate the descendants of Paul the Octopus somehow.