Five Lessons from Journatic

If you follow the news innovation space then you know this month’s focus has been on Journatic.

For those that missed the drama: Journatic is a new media startup that takes local data points and outsources re-writing to places like the Philippines. The obvious reactions of “pink slime journalism” in response to anything “outsourced” isn’t newsworthy. We’ve been there with Demand Media and others. But the revelation that Journatic was faking bylines - that tread new ground.

Two weeks ago a U.S. based Journatic-er gave a tell all about life writing for Journatic. The major bomb that dropped – the organization was using fake names to make content appear as if it was being produced locally.

The Houston Chronicle alone ran 350 articles written by folks like “Chad King” when in truth these articles were written by any number of people from various parts of the world. The follow up punch was evidence of plagiarismA doubly-credibility whammy.

Since then newspaper customers like the Chicago Tribune (originally an investor in Journatic) have dropped their contract. The head of editorial quit after just 10 weeks because he “fundamentally disagree[d] about ethical and management issues.” Meanwhile Journatic claims they were going to fire him anyway.

Let’s clear the air: The news industry loves to talk about its own demise, its future and when traditional or new media companies have lapses of judgment. I’m less interested in the gawker-factor of this and more keen on seeing what lessons we can take away… and lessons abound right there on the surface. Not unlike the takeaway from NewsTilt.

Lesson #1: Don’t Teach a New Dog Old Tricks

Journatic fundamentally changed the process of journalism. Their output, however, was altered to fit the expectations of their customers (newspapers) who wanted something familiar. Hence Bylines, which didn’t belong on these pieces, were fabricated.

John Bethune was the first to point out this flaw.

“The real issue was not that the company used fake bylines on its stories, but that it used bylines at all. Journatic screwed up because the company wanted to have it both ways: to embrace new-media principles while trying to disguise them. Instead of looking forward, it looked backward.”

Or to use a big word - it was skeuomorphic journalism.

It’s not the outsourcing that killed Journatic – it was the lying, or at best the “dressing it up” to make it feel familiar. It wasn’t even a lie of substance, it was just to make the end product look and feel like an old school newspaper article produced in an old school way. If they had just left the bylines off I suspect most readers wouldn’t have noticed.

It’s something we are thinking about regularly at Circa. We are changing the process of journalism. We are also changing its form. I joke that currently Circa is metaphysical journalism. We are taking the concept of news and creating an entirely new form for it.

Lesson #2: The Premise of Journatic Is Not the Blunder

If we take lesson #1 to be true – then it would seem the premise of Journatic isn’t what caused the drama. As Heather Billings notes - the core of Journatic is based on data. Data is still a solid foundation for a news enterprise. Hopefully we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Mike Foucher said the same thing in his resignation announcement and others agree.

“Journatic’s core premise is sound: most data and raw information can be managed much more efficiently outside the traditional newsroom; and, in order for major market community news to be commercially viable, it needs be conducted on a broader scale than ever before.”

The notion of taking data and building a process oriented to creating output has tons of merit. Taking that information and shoving it back into the form of an article because it’s familiar is questionable (see lesson #1).

Lesson #3 Some Old Values are Timeless

The question of fake bylines can go either way. Some might argue that lacking a byline would always be a breach. I would argue it’s perfectly fine for certain articles to be devoid of a byline. They simply could have put “Journatic” ala the Associated Press we are akin to seeing. But plagiarism and fabrication crosses a different line. Any way I think about it – it’s just not cool, new form or no. Some things change and some things will stay the same. Indeed the fake byline probably made Journatic wince. That it was followed so quickly with plagiarism – that’s the kind of thing that can knock a new media company out for the count.

Lesson 4: Local Data is a Tough Nut to Crack. 

It’s just a fact. Many hyperlocal players I talk with argue that Patch’s biggest problem is in the cookie cutter nature of their approach to local. For the moment Patch’s approach seems like a natural way to scale, but it immediately calls into question the “local” nature of a reader’s “local” content.

Journatic was a decidedly local play. It’s not impossible for a data driven approach to work at the local level. But I do believe there are more pitfalls. Speaking directly to this point – I can imagine many situations where lacking a byline is 100% kosher (see #3) but at the local level it might be more expected.

Lesson #5: Know your Team

This is more of a general startup lesson and one I personally wrote about when NewsTilt fell apart. I noted a conversation I had with Paul Graham where he said (not an exact quote)

Bottom line, it’s important that they [founders and early staff] have a strong and trusting relationship. Things WILL get tough and you need to be able to lean on each other. The analogy Paul used was that of soldiers. They form a bond with each other such that they don’t want to let each other down. Marines go through hell during training to become “brothers” so that in the thick of battle you don’t show a tint in your armor. It’s not because you aren’t scared – but because you don’t want to cause concern for your other brothers. When things are tough, you smile and carry on, usually bearing more than your normal load. The startup world moves so fast that if both founders feel that bond, they’ll both smile, carry more than they can – and will often come out of it with a stronger startup than when they entered the tough times.

Whether Mike was fired or quit – it happened in 10 weeks. Somehow from the start they were on a different page.

6 thoughts on “Five Lessons from Journatic

  1. Mike was not one of the founders so the last point about knowing your team doesn’t seem to apply. The company has been around for I think 6 years already and Mike just came on in the past few months. If his account of what happened is correct (and I, knowing him personally, have no reason to doubt it), then it was a matter of management not caring what their newest manager thought. Very odd indeed. Usually one hires people one hopes will improve upon the enterprise. To not listen to their ideas is thus totally counterproductive.

    Also, you said about the plagarism: “Any way I think about it – it’s just not cool, new form or no.” My question is, why do you have to think about it so hard? Why not declare outright that this is WRONG. Maybe it’s just my impression, but it felt to me like you were trying to find a way to justify it. And why? Because it’s a new media startup! That means they must automatically be good people. Um, no. Not everyone who it the helm of a startup is a saint. I’m not saying Brian Timpone is a bad guy. But neither is he an awesome guy. We shouldn’t be inclined to automatically believe one or the other.

  2. @Anna – I did know Mike wasn’t a founder (although I didn’t realize the company was 6 years old). But as you noted – the lesson still stands – just replace “founder” with “manager.” Bottom line – the team was not on the same page. It took 10 weeks and a “crisis” to figure it out. A crisis should be when, because you are all on the same page, everyone steps up. That’s not what happened.

    As for the “Any way I think about it” – it’s partly a figure of speech. So your assumption about me thinking about it “hard” or trying to justify what they did is wrong. As I noted – some values are timeless.

    That said – I do like to think. I believe thinking to be a good thing. Whether I am thinking about a startup’s plagiarism or an established media entity like CNN getting the SCOTUS ruling wrong (http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/top-stories/179341/were-cnn-fox-news-mistakes-on-supreme-court-ruling-part-of-process-journalism/#comment-572481735).

    If I were a betting person – I think you like to think as well and will defend the activity ;)

  3. I do indeed like thinking, as you well know. But my point was that some things don’t require being thought about. Like if I leave my car unlocked and someone steals it, that’s wrong. I don’t need to think about it. It’s just wrong and that’s it. Someone might actually say, no, let’s think about it. Maybe that person needed the car more than me. Maybe they needed it to get to a job and couldn’t afford their own. But that’s called equivocating. Stealing it is wrong, period. See what I’m saying?

  4. Completely disingenuous for a media company to not only hide who is writing news articles, but for companies to also manipulate readers by pretending these people are not writing from abroad.

  5. @Anna – I agree stealing is wrong. It’s a moral issue. Plagiarism is also a moral issue (though shalt not bear false witness kinda stuff).

    But in your example – you left the car door unlocked. So thinking about what just happened would still be a GOOD thing – so that you could avoid doing it in the future.

    I struggle to imagine examples where thinking about something is wrong/bad. I also will say again – you are reading WAY too closely to take a figure of speech and assume I’m being apologetic for Journatic or plagiarists.

    @BayReporta
    I agree re: manipulating readers to think one thing or another. But I also think if they left bylines off and just had “By Journatic” or “By TK News Service” (whatever they come up with to represent their work) that would be okay. It would lack a traditional byline (a human being’s name) but it wouldn’t be a lie itself. It would be transparently them.

  6. One of the things that’s gone missing in this post is the fact that, according to Brian Timpone, the use of fake bylines was a means to game SEO. So what we have is, once again, Google not only wagging the journalism dog, but also getting a free pass in doing it. Seems to me this is the more systemic problem.

    For those who might not have been paying attention, Google now collects around 40 percent of all online ad revenue, and only four other companies (Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, and AOL) collect an additional 30 percent. And for the most part, none of the five generate much in the way of original content. Until there’s a workaround for that concentration, the Timpones of the world are likely to become the norm, and not the exception.

    As a matter of perspective, bylines as a matter of routine is a somewhat recent invention. In the past, the normal use of a byline was as a recognition for exceptional work or writing along the lines of, say, a Nellie Bly or Richard Harding Davis. It can be argued that the current use of ubiquitous bylines is not always such a good thing because when you have bylines everywhere it pretty much amounts to having them nowhere.

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