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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While Henry Farrell probably didn’t intend this CT post from last week the way I’m going to respond to it, I still think it’s interesting to consider his suggestion that election junkies had bigger, faster, and better access to news and information during this campaign.

Eszter Hargittai’s research would suggest that for most of us it’s not how much information the Internet makes available, but rather the accessibility of the information that counts. So was the information Henry talks about accessible?

The best answer probably depends on who you ask. Like so many others, I loved me some Nate Silver simulations throughout the last few weeks, but I don’t pretend to understand the ins and outs of Silver’s computational wizardry. Similarly, I religiously followed the composite polls at Pollster.com, Daily Kos, and RCP, but balk at the fine points of curve smoothing and best fit graphing techniques.

In this sense, I wonder how Joe-Internet-Surfer coped with the Habermasian equivalent of TMI?

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)

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.

NYT takes a nice long look at the global shipping industry, which has been adjusting to soaring fuel prices.

The punchline

The cost of shipping a 40-foot container from Shanghai to the United States has risen to $8,000, compared with $3,000 early in the decade, according to a recent study of transportation costs. Big container ships, the pack mules of the 21st-century economy, have shaved their top speed by nearly 20 percent to save on fuel costs, substantially slowing shipping times.

The author, Larry Rohter, uses similarly anecdotal evidence to argue that something like “near-shoring” may be making a comeback in response to the situation.

Scholars of economic globalization will recognize this as the typical global integration story moving slowly in reverse – or at least sideways – towards regionalization. Appropriately enough, the piece concludes with a quote from economist Jagdish Bhagwati, an evangelist of global free markets, expressing ambivalence about what the regionalization trend heralds for the US economy.

I couldn’t help noting that the discussion about shipping is all about tangible goods, though. What role would the Internet play in a (hypothetically) regionalizing world? Already the lowest means of moving intangible assets across vast distances, digital ICT’s were as much a cause as a result of the earlier era of economic integration. Certainly, a regional environment would look a lot different with pervasive broadband and satellite networks making it virtually costless to move information and ideas around the globe.

Catching up on my RSS feeds, I followed one of Eszter Hargittai’s links to this thought provoking chart from Dave Eaves at the SEO Company that looks at the inlink/outlink ratio for major traditional news media sites.

The creators of the chart suggest that the deep inequality in inlinks/outlinks among the oft-villified “MSM” reflects some sort of scandalous refusal to play by the rules of the blogosphere. They have a point, but I want to think this through a bit more.

As Yochai Benkler, Matthew Hindeman and others have discussed in their writings, citation links (in-text links to other sites – contrasted with “static” blogroll-type links) function as key structural determinants of popularity and visibility on the Internet. Even though Hindeman’s notion of a strict “googlearchy” whereby citation links create search engine rankings which create power is overly stated for my taste, the fact remains that the structure of the net drives large masses of eyeballs in predictable directions along the pathways set by hyperlinks. For my money, Benkler does a more effective job in not overstating the case by situating his argument about the structure of discourse on the Internet in relation to the structure of discourse in the era of traditional broadcast media (see ch 6 and ch 7 of The Wealth of Networks).

Similarly, as the recent attempt by the Associated Press to squelch Fair Use for bloggers makes clear, many traditional news organizations do not want to play by the rules of the Net. Hell, in some cases, it seems like they and their shareholders would be happier if the Internet had just never happened.

For some organizations, the dearth of outlinks reflects the standard aversion of traditional journalistic writing style to the use of hyperlinked citations in stories. This is consistent with the widespread perception that the “MSM” has a willful disregard for Netiquette. It also makes Eaves’s conclusions (applying an equation to calculate the Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient) that out-linking behavior predicts in-links in return that much more suggestive. If the out-linking practice truly predicts in-linking, these news organizations risk slipping into the dustbin of information history as the rest of the Internet slowly ceases to pay attention to them.

The truth, I suspect, is more complicated. While traditional news outlets may not yet take advantage of the practical benefits of out-linking, they enjoy a comparative advantage in terms of social status and network centrality (among politicians, news organizations, businesses, intellectuals, etc.). This social status and network centrality should (I predict) translate into a steady stream of hits and in-links from other sites no matter what standard practices predominate across the rest of the networked public sphere.

To put that in less abstract terms: even if CNN and the Washington Post continue to refuse to use out-links in their primary coverage, their corresponding level of in-links is unlikely to decline to zero simply because they are still CNN and the Washington Post.

Whether this is the case or not, the fact remains that the traditional media are all scrambling to figure out why they can’t seem to stay afloat on the Internet. By identifying another potential factor in the equation, Eaves’s study makes a useful contribution to the debat