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Rise of Journatic reflects journalism’s dark side

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Posted: Saturday, September 8, 2012 12:00 am

The independently owned Lodi News-Sentinel has been published continuously since 1881. I've been reading the News-Sentinel, again continuously, since I came to town in 1986 and also after I moved to Pennsylvania in 2008. In 2001, the News-Sentinel published my first opinion column, which is a regular weekly feature.

I can confirm to readers that the reporters whose names appear on News-Sentinel stories are real people who work in and care about the Lodi community.

You're probably thinking to yourself, "Well, of course they are. What else would they be but real people?"

While your dismayed reaction is understandable, it demonstrates a lack of awareness of one of journalism's latest trends — what's known in the industry as "Journatics," a combination of the words "journalism" and "automatic." Welcome to the brave new world of journalism outsourcing.

In recent weeks, major newspapers in San Francisco, Chicago and Houston admitted that as Journatic subscribers, they published dozens of items in their print editions or online under fake bylines. This practice represents a major ethical violation of long-established media standards.

Some newspapers, citing cost concerns, apologized sheepishly. Others like the Tribune Corporation, parent company of the Chicago Tribune, invested in Journatic and explained that without it, the newspapers could not afford to provide local coverage.

Here's how it works: Journatic has an extensive database of nationwide arrests, high school scores, real estate sales and similar information. Traditional reporting on these events is normally time-consuming and expensive. Accordingly, newspapers financially squeezed can access Journatic and print its output. What that means is that an individual who lives in Massachusetts may write about a murder in Dallas even though he's never even visited Texas.

In the most egregious cases, stories are filed from the Philippines, where Journatic hired about 100 part-time employees which it pays about 50 cents per item. The total Journatic staff is 60 full-time and 200 freelancers. Journatic news aggregators — a clumsy but accurate description — pick their pseudonyms from a computer drop-down menu. Today, they maybe Jennifer Adams; tomorrow, Sam La Malfa.

Critics argue that Journatic's business plan is not only deceptive but also fundamentally flawed. Tim McGuire, Arizona State University's professor of journalism ethics and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune's former editor-in-chief, said that Journatic is a short-term cost-cutting measure that doesn't provide a long-term solution to industry challenges. Readers want community news written by fellow locals who have a stake in the community.

Nevertheless, since 2000 newspapers have been reeling from fewer subscribers and advertisers while digital gains have not kept pace. The Pew Research Center's 2012 Progress for Excellence in Journalism found that total newspaper staffing has declined by 25 percent during the last decade.

Pew concluded that the industry is neither dying nor assured of a stable future. Asked about the cumulative effects of cost-cutting, McClatchy's chief executive Gary Pruitt replied that even though the process has been ongoing for years, no end is in sight.

As a result, publishers and editors have become worn out as they have been "perpetually" asked to do more with less. Many industry leaders including those at the New York Times, the Associated Press and Gannett recently retired for health reasons. But executives who remain committed to publishing a quality newspaper like the News-Sentinel survive by becoming more inventive which, in turn, benefits its readers.

Regardless of how convenient and economical Journatic may be, it has no place in professional journalism.

Joe Guzzardi, a real person, lives in Pittsburgh, Pa. Contact Joe at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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