Last week an NPR story on the program This American Life revealed that a company called Journatic has begun contracting with some of the major newspapers in the country. The company employs writers from all over the world who are contracted to the newspapers for local stories, even though they may never set foot on local ground. Interviews are conducted over the telephone (or not at all) and the writers pretend to be operating locally.
The issue is economic. Local newspapers have been involved in “cutting back” on personnel for a number of years now, slashing editors, copywriters, specialty writers, and now, even journalists from their budgets in order to stay above the water on their decreasing budgets. It has been clear that the quality of newspaper articles has decreased increasingly as editing disappeared. Sloppy articles, stupid headlines, flagrant violations of journalistic language, and other visible signs of deterioration have discouraged readers who are dumping subscriptions, creating a Catch/22 experience. As the funds decrease, the quality that would otherwise encourage subscriptions decreases.
For journalists watching this debacle, the more egregious aspect of the Journatic enterprise is that the writers use fake names or stolen names on the byline, pretending to be people other than who they really are. I suppose that if you live in the Philippines and your name is Ignacio Buenavista it’s hard to pretend that you are a local reporter in middle America where everybody knows everybody else. Many of the articles, it is reported, are just re-written news releases that pop up on the Internet and are expanded by these contract writers who may be writing from their living room in San Francisco or in a small town in the Philippines.
What is missing in these articles is authenticity and integrity. Legitimate journalists consider the Jourastic enterprise to be no more than a scheme to deceive local citizens. Some consider the writers to be scabs, such as non-union workers employed to replace union workers during a strike. From all reports it is a very lucrative enterprise for Journastic, a Chicago-based operation begun in 2007.
Nobody is unaware of the economic issues which are facing newspapers across the country. Readership is down, attributed primarily to the increased use of the Internet by people looking for the latest news. Television has experienced the same phenomenon, with viewship sinking to all-time lows for once proud news programs. And younger people, wary of newspapers and the companies that own them, have begun to seek their news information through such locations as Comedy Central, where the news is masked with humor.
The ethics issue of news reporting has been elevated by the report on This American Life as the American public has been exposed to an issue that has bothered journalists for some time. Outsourcing of journalism is more than a fiscal policy affecting the employment of legitimate journalists. It has to do with the very nature of news reporting and its impact on the American public. This is only one issue facing the journalism field. But it is juicy enough to have caught the attention of the public. Perhaps it will be a springboard to an inquiry into the nature of journalism and its potential in the years to come. I’m sure this is a topic at journalism schools, but it is now an issue for the public as well.
Photo Credit: janrf.com