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.

The UC System is Burning

November 20, 2011

OccupyCal Balloon Tents - 2011 - Cary Bass - cc-by-sa

The past two weeks’ protests and police-led violence at UC Berkeley and UC Davis signal both the expansion of the occupy movement as well as the extent of the leadership vacuum at the country’s most prestigious public university. Participants and observers much more eloquent than I have offered thoughtful responses to the situation. However, after reading about the events and media reactions to them, I thought that some recent history behind these campus movements could clarify how things got so bad in California and what they might mean in the coming months.

Most news reports have depicted the protests and confrontations as an outgrowth of the occupy Wall Street and Oakland protests, but in fact, the campus movements has much deeper roots. Four years ago, UC President Mark Yudof and co. responded to the financial shortfall brought on by the California budget crisis with a series of highly unpopular initiatives designed to centralize administrative authority, slash funding for a variety of programs, and avoid any sort of public accountability or debate over these actions. The following year, the union of graduate students and academic staff faced a lengthy, contentious budget negotiation in which the university negotiating team repeatedly undermined the collective bargaining process. Around the same time, a series of unilateral tuition increases provoked rage across many of the campuses and, at Berkeley, culminated in a violent showdown between police and student protesters seeking to occupy a classroom building.

The resulting climate around the campuses has become tense and polarized as the mutual distrust between the administrations on one hand, and an alliance of highly mobilized students, faculty, and staff on the other, has escalated.

The student organizers at Berkeley made a smart tactical decision to harness the momentum of the occupy movements and, in particular, the widespread resentment against the violent police response to the occupation of Frank Ogawa plaza in Oakland. With the November 9 protests, they sought to keep the pressure on their campus administrators as the UC regents planned to approve a new round of tuition increases last week (the meeting, planned to take place in San Francisco, was canceled in the wake of the Berkeley violence).

Chancellor Birgeneau (Berkeley) and his staff, in contrast, failed to learn anything from either their own past mistakes with the budget crisis protests or the errors of mayors across the country in responding to the recent occupations. Faced with a group of students opposed to further university budget cuts, tuition increases, and the widening inequality gap in California and across the country, the administration deployed the UC and Alameda County police departments. In doing so, they chose to enforce the letter of campus rules at the cost of student and faculty safety. The resulting violence was predictable, avoidable, and (from the point of view of building a climate of constructive public debate on campus) counterproductive. Birgeneau’s subsequent defense of the brutality was inexcusable.

The Davis protesters looked to build on the momentum of their Berkeley peers, joining in non-violent solidarity against budget cuts, police brutality, and inequality. Somehow, Chancellor Katehi managed to respond in an even more ham-handed manner than Birgeneau. Not only did she deploy the police – who, along with their pepper spray, proceeded to make national headlines – but she didn’t even plan on facing protesters when she called a press conference later that evening. Not surprisingly, her actions provoked righteous anger (and a poignant, silent confrontation as she left her office) on the part of students and faculty alike.

Today, UC President Mark Yudof entered the fray, delivering slaps on the wrist to his colleagues along with some bland comments condemning the excessive use of force against students and professors. Announcing that he will hold meetings and convene committees to review the events, Yudof delivered what many have come to expect from him in times of systemic crisis: bureaucracy.

In this sense, Yudof’s response is not only inadequate to the situation, but fails to address the complete breakdown of trust that has now occurred between the UC administrators and their respective constituents. On both campuses, the interests of the administrative elite have become so far removed from those of the students and faculty that the two groups are, perhaps a little too literally, at war. As a result, both Birgeneau and Katehi should go. They should be replaced with leaders who understand how to adopt creative responses that defend free speech and student safety at the cost of bending a few campus restrictions. These new leaders should also undertake an immediate overhaul of UC police crowd management techniques.

To close with a speculative prediction: I suspect that the intensity and extent of the violence on two UC campuses this past week will galvanize support for the students and, by proxy, the occupy movement with which they have aligned themselves. As James Fallows notes, the images coming out of New York, Portland, Oakland, Berkeley and Davis have much in common with those from Selma and Birmingham half a century ago. For many Americans, this sort of violent repression of protest speech will not resonate as either a legitimate or democratic use of state power.

WSJ + Net Neutrality = Mess

December 15, 2008

This just in, the Wall Street Journal’s story on Net Neutrality is a disaster. Google hates it, Lessig hates it, and it even appears to get a bunch of technical details wrong.

Steve Schultze (a colleague at the Berkman Center) has the details of the story on Managing Miracles (his blog) where he’ll be following it as it unfolds.

Following up on my earlier post in response to this Guardian story that offered an un-attributed claim that Brazil was appealing to the IMF for loans, it now looks like the Guardian wasn’t so much wrong as just a little inaccurate fuzzy on the details. Whereas the original Guardian story had spun the situation as though the wealthy nations of the Global South had come to D.C. with hat in hand, it looks like a totally different situation is in fact unfolding. The new liquidity fund is meant to offer stable “A-list” economies of the South the chance to strengthen their currency reserves in the event that foreign investment flows continue to run dry. According to the WSJ:

The IMF’s new program, called the Short Term Liquidity Facility, would be used largely to pad a country’s reserves, which could help the recipient defend its currency. But the funds could also be used to help recapitalize banks or cover import bills.

The IMF plan is its clearest recognition that its insistence on tough conditions is driving away potential borrowers that might need its help. But the new plan also puts the IMF in the position of deciding who can have money with few strings attached, and who can’t.

The attempt to draw a bright clear line between “responsible” and “irresponsible” borrowers is certainly new. It will be interesting to see where it leads.

Back to Brazil, though.

Reuters (via the Economic Times of India) actually found someone in Brasilia to do some reporting and added the following:

Brazil welcomes a new liquidity fund proposed by the International Monetary Fund to help emerging markets but does not see a need to draw on the funds for now, a source close to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said on Wednesday.

“I don’t know if we will draw (on the fund) in the future. But we don’t need the money now,” the source said on condition of anonymity. The IMF board is considering a proposal for the Fund on Wednesday and an announcement is expected later in the day.

The Folha de São Paulo added even more critical details in its coverage, also noting that the IMF actions came in conjunction with an announcement that the US Federal Reserve will begin offering Brazil currency swaps at no cost in an effort to help the Lula government pump liquidity into the national economy:

The Central Bank [of Brazil] noted that, “these central banks of emerging economies with responsible fiscal policies and systemic importance,” will now be included in the global network of currency swaps.

The central banks of Australia, Canada, the Euro Zone, Denmark, the U.K., Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.S. Federal Reserve are currently part of that network. (my translation).

The Folha’s account was reiterated by Bloomberg as well, although the New York-based financial news agency did see fit to print at least one offensive, infantilizing quote that portrayed the poor countries of the world as naughty elementary school students:

“The Fed is there to support large emerging markets that have done their homework over the past several years like South Korea, Brazil, Singapore and Mexico,” said Alonso Cervera, a Latin America economist with Credit Suisse Group in New York.

If the central bankers of the world just needed to do their homework in order to build stable economic systems, I’d like to think that Alan Greenspan wouldn’t have had such a hard time.

Anyhow, if I understand this correctly, the actions taken by the IMF and the Fed signal an effort to treat these four middle income countries with an unprecedented level of parity in response to a crisis that has far exceeded anyone’s expectations. The implications for the post-election day Global Financial Summit are intriguing: will the members of the G22 now have a more substantive place at the bargaining table with an embattled Europe and U.S.? If so, will the Southern super-powers use their authority to defend the interests of their less well-off neighbors or will they merely seek a bigger slice of the pie?

Stuff White Pundits Like

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.

More recent contributions include pieces on The New York Review of Books, Hawaii, and Literary Bequests.

xx (illustration by christo.bakalov cc-by-nc-sa)

Didn’t see this story until after I had posted earlier today. The lede from the Guardian:

Asian and European leaders today called for more international regulation and a stronger role for the International Monetary Fund in response to the worst financial crisis since the 1930s.

No surprise there. All the questions I outline in my post below still apply.

Meanwhile, the story goes on to include at least the second mention I’ve seen that Brazil is considering going to the IMF for funds in response to the crisis.

The problem is there is no attribution for this assertion, which (if it were true) would constitute a major about-face for the Lula government and a big news item in Latin America’s most populous nation and most globally integrated economy.

So, did the author just make it up? I don’t know, but I can’t find any evidence to support his claim in the financial section of Brazil’s most reputable paper, the Folha de Sao Paulo. Similarly, other English language publications, such as the Christian Science Monitor, have run stories suggesting that Brazil is among the best prepared countries to weather the crisis in terms of its cash reserves.

Given the sensitivity of global markets right now, I hope the Guardian editors will consider investigating this rumor before it gets out of control. Bond rating agencies read this kind of stuff and they won’t like it even if it is just an irresponsible slip.

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.

What if we just gave them all laptops?

Maybe if we just gave them all laptops... (by Olivander cc-by-nc-sa)

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.