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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Bike Lane, 41st Street, Oakland. By Eric Fischer

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.

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.obamalogo

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.

campaign as soap opera

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.

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)

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.

(h/t TPM)

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!