It was Florida in June 2012 — the wettest June in more than a century — and Ryan Smith was driving the gravel roads of Cape Canaveral, trying to find a radio signal.

Journalist by trade and whistle-blower by circumstance, Smith had spent 18 months working at Journatic, a company that hires writers in low-wage countries to produce local U.S. news. Living and labouring out of his apartment in northwest Chicago, Smith edited these articles and produced his own — student-of-the-week stories and city budget articles — for some of America’s top newspapers.

“I love being a journalist but when you’re doing (this kind of work).” He paused. “I felt like I wanted to be a chef but I was a fry cook at McDonald’s.”

Smith spent six hours a day working through a backlog of unedited real estate articles, community news briefs and calendar items. But now he was on vacation, visiting his girlfriend in Florida — and searching for a signal.

Finally they found it. They stopped in the middle of the road and lay in the back of the car, listening. Over the next 24 minutes, Smith heard his exposé on Journatic go live on NPR’s This American Life.

Within two weeks, four major dailies launched investigations into Journatic’s content. GateHouse Media, which operates nearly 500 American newspapers in small and medium markets, and the Chicago Sun-Times ended their contracts immediately; the Chicago Tribune suspended its work with Journatic indefinitely.

Ultimately, it took an underpaid copy editor to make papers across America look at outsourced stories they had published. Journatic used “journalistic practices that would make a high-school newspaper reporter blush,” Smith said in a subsequent article on AlterNet. Yet these had been slipping into newspapers for years. Why?

News analyst Ken Doctor sums it up in one word: money.

Newspapers’ print advertising revenue has dropped 63 per cent since 2003, according to the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. Even though online advertising is three times as lucrative as it was in 2003, it still couldn’t make up for the losses in print advertising income.

With more than 35 years of newsroom experience, Doctor has seen the effects on newspapers. Payroll is the biggest item on most budgets; consequently, newsrooms in the U.S. are the smallest they have been in 25 years. Papers are consolidating production, sometimes sharing printing houses with rival publications. And notably, they are putting more emphasis on outsourcing.

Outsourcing in journalism isn’t new, Doctor said — it is as old as syndicated wire services, newspaper comic strips and Dear Abby columns. But now newspapers are re-evaluating the meaning of outsourcing. In a 2008 survey by the World Editors Forum, 64 per cent of editors worldwide believed their paper would outsource editorial functions in the future.

Articles aren’t the obvious target for outsourcing: papers are more likely to be looking at page layout and advertising than news briefs. But since the early 2000s, some content has been moving from the U.S. newsroom into places like India and the Philippines.

“The idea that someone abroad is handling (copy) I think gives people pause,” Ryerson journalism professor Asmaa Malik said. “I wonder if it just leads (journalists) to question their own authenticity.”  

Survival mode

In 2007, editor and publisher James Macpherson advertised for reporters for his online publication, Pasadena Now, on the Indian version of Craigslist. By the second week of May, he had hired two — one had even graduated from the Berkeley School of Journalism. By the end of November 2008, he had hired four more Indian journalists.

Less than a month later, the Los Angeles Times published a biting article about Pasadena Now, calling it “a mom and pop operation” where “lively, unique utterances are a rarity.” “The man with the men in Mumbai,” the article said, was operating in survival mode; his decision to outsource reporters to India was laughable.

Altogether, Macpherson said, “it made for an upsetting Sunday morning.

“However, midday Sunday the announcement came that the Los Angeles Times was declaring bankruptcy,” Macpherson said. “The bitter day turned out to be, I won’t say bittersweet, but less bitter.”

The bankruptcy article actually appeared two days later, on Dec. 9. But perhaps a little poetic license is allowed when this Sunday morning critique was only one of many protests against Macpherson’s operation.

The former typesetter and garment manufacturer now runs his online publication with a full-time staff of 13: five are in Pasadena, three are Americans living in the U.S. outside California and five are in the Philippines.

After Macpherson does an interview he emails recordings to his transcriber in the Philippines. By the time he is back at his desk, chunks of the transcript are waiting in his email. It’s like the old system of journalists sending information to rewrite men in the newsroom, except instead of fedora-wearing reporters chasing down sensational subjects, Macpherson has a few Pasadena journalists working from their smartphones. And instead of chain-smoking writers clanking on Underwood typewriters, they are sitting at computers in the Philippines, waiting for emails and watching the web for breaking news. Articles are composites, created by employees on both sides of the Pacific.

“I have to step up to the moment and serve my city as best I can,” Macpherson said. “On a budget. On a nano-budget. If I’m not creative and clever about doing this, then this city will be uninformed.”

Macpherson believes Pasadena lacks sufficient coverage — even though the legacy newspaper, the Pasadena Star-News, publishes daily with a circulation of about 30,000. For him, it’s up to Pasadena Now to keep the city informed. Macpherson says that outsourcing isn’t just a way to save money. It’s the only way to produce the journalism he thinks Pasadena needs, and survive. 

“Would we have gotten to this point if I had not (outsourced)?” Macpherson said. “No. No way. There’s no way we could have lasted this long financially if we hadn’t done what we did.”  

New vision

Brian Timpone thought he found a way to bring that vision to papers across America. Timpone worked as a TV reporter for five years before diving into the business end of journalism, becoming the owner and co-founder of several newspapers. In 2006, he started Blockshopper, a content company designed to produce cheap real estate articles. Later, he expanded into local news with Journatic, providing newspapers with gas price lists, death notices and city council stories.

In 2012, Journatic was working with dozens of newspapers, at least five in the United States and possibly one in Canada. Timpone was quoted in a July 2012 Poynter story as saying Journatic “was to close a deal with a large publisher in Canada.” The company was not named.

Tribune Co. invested in Journatic in April 2012 and began using Journatic’s services for TribLocal, the Chicago Tribune’s network of suburban papers and websites. With Journatic, TribLocal produced three times more content than before, Tribune vice-president Brad Moore said, expanding into three new neighbourhoods. The Tribune cut TribLocal’s local staff in half after the Journatic deal, including seven journalists.

“Journalism enterprises don’t exist to provide jobs to journalists,” Timpone said. “They exist to serve the community.” He said journalists who opposed outsourcing were “union-Luddites,” intent on squeezing “every last drop of bounty out of journalism for their own personal benefit.”

“Their goal was to preserve themselves and not the craft, not the future of the business that made journalism so great,” Timpone said.

Smith, Timpone’s former employee, thinks Journatic was the one squeezing the bounty out of journalism. Smith worked at local newspapers for several years before his stint at Journatic.

“Most of my career I’ve been a journalist,” he said. When Journatic hired him, “I was just freelancing a little bit and I was broke and I was just looking for something. In a way it was like, ‘Here is a way I can hang on to this dream.’ And it was like, ‘This is it?’”

Journatic used writers around the world to write about church chili cook-offs in tiny American towns. Sometimes making as little as 35 or 40 cents an article, they culled facts from websites and press releases, typing the information into online forms. An algorithm would transform it into an article. Journalists like Smith would do interviews if necessary, calling one source for a story.

Smith only started writing stories late in his career at Journatic. Mostly he was a Blockshopper, editing real estate briefs written by Filipinos. The articles described house sales in the U.S., giving in-depth biographies of the buyers and sellers.

Homeowners said these invaded their privacy. “I wasn’t going to have some $12 an hour copywriter be harassed by a lawyer,” Timpone told Poynter, so he gave the writers fake bylines. Blockshopper’s article form had the drop-down menu “select alias,” changing Junbe E. to Jimmy Finkel and Giselle Bautista to Jenni Cox.

Smith didn’t know all this at first. But little by little, his “pinhole view” of the company widened.

“Once I had the whole scope of the operations, I was like, ‘This is not right’,” he said. “I feel like I was part of a company that was just an agent of destruction for newspapers.”

In June 2012, Smith brought the story to This American Life. Within a week, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Houston Chronicle and the San Francisco Chronicle announced reviews of Journatic’s content. All four found fake bylines. The Chicago Tribune also found fabricated quotes and a plagiarized story; shortly after, the Tribune suspended its contract with Journatic.

News organizations engaged in outsourcing

At the end of 2012, the Chicago Tribune began working with Journatic again, now rebranded as Local Labs. Today, Timpone said, Local Labs serves about 14 newspapers. But they are no longer the company’s focus.

After the scandal “we realized that, for the most part, we had unappreciative clients who were going to fight us and try to embarrass us and be bad partners,” Timpone said. “If they come to us we’re willing to help, but we’re not beating on their door like we once were.”

Covert operation

Local Labs hasn’t changed the way it produces articles — “what changes were we going to make?” Timpone said. And it isn’t the only outsourcing company available. Express KCS, a media outsourcing company with offices in Pittsburgh, New York, London and India, also supplies newspapers with content. It doesn’t do local stories — breaking news “is not only created locally, but it’s something that has to be interpreted locally as well,” founder and CEO Robert Berkeley said. Instead it does feature articles, and is already working with “three or four” North American newsgroups.

“I think what we do will grow,” Berkeley said. “The availability of information is so wide now… there’s no reason this should go away.”

Media consultant Ken Doctor disagrees, saying most newspapers aren’t seriously looking at outsourcing. They are looking at new ways to create revenue, not just finding more opportunities for cuts, he said. Outsourcing “is a relatively small piece of what newspapers need to do.”

Doctor added, however, outsourcing may be more prevalent than he knows. Outsourcing — journalism is usually a covert operation. “Very often you’re talking about firms that do this more or less under the radar,” Berkeley said, about newspapers engaged in outsourcing. “It’s done in a discreet manner.”

Many editors and journalists across North America have never even heard of Journatic and Pasadena Now — the two best documented cases of content outsourcing. Those who do talk about it are often highly partisan: either outsourcing will save journalism or destroy it.

Macpherson experienced this firsthand. He used to promote his concept to newspapers, and even started a company to help other publishers outsource. But he’s given up trying to convince them.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m doing what I’m going to do and I’m going to continue doing it. And at a certain point in time, people are going to look back and say ‘Oh my god, he survived. He’s thriving. He’s serving his community. He’s producing quality journalism. And I guess maybe what he was talking about makes sense’.”

Main photo: Ryan Smith blew the whistle on the use of fake bylines in outsourced content from Journatic, bringing the story to This American Life in 2012. Photo by Katie Heupel. Photoshopped by: Grace Kennedy.

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    Robert Allen

    Very well written! I cant agree more that the decline of the written word has never been more evident. The amount of unedited journalism that makes it to my eyes (99% online) is staggering and depressing. No one takes the time to check facts or their english more than they do to sensationalize the headline anymore...
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