Aug 272012

Journtent WebsiteNo one knows where journalism and the traditional media is headed, but outsourcing news writing may be one direction to watch. Journtent, which bills itself as a “publisher’s dream come true,” makes the following offer: you keep local control while outsourcing the writing to lesser paid temporary staff in other countries.

Damien Hirst, Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain' (from: Drawing a Blank Blog)

Damien Hirst, Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain’ (from: Drawing a Blank Blog)

Can it work? First impulse is to say no, but if you look back over the past century, we’ve had this debate about outsourcing before – and in every case, textiles, autos, computers, smart phones are all being done somewhere other than in the United States even though at one point it appeared that the goods could never be outsourced. Perhaps in this case, it goes against what we perceive as the relationship between a writer and his/her words, that one always writes the draft and an editor rewrites (or requires the writer to rewrite) the final version. But what if it was reversed and someone else did the initial draft and it was fact-checked and revised by journalists here? Ultimately who is the author? Who the editor? The roles, as they have in other instances, may begin to break down.

It’s an admittedly strange landscape – freelance writers in Mexico, the Philippines and elsewhere churning out text after watching video streams of local events and sending copy back to be edited, fact-checked and published in the States. But is it any stranger from a broader historical perspective than placing a customer service call that is handled by someone in India?  And ironically enough, in some respects writing is easier to outsource than durable goods – there’s no shipping and inventory issues to contend within.

Perhaps this will get no further than Journtent and a few other attempts, and there has already been an outcry against the use of outsourced writers producing content under fake bylines. But I wonder if the controversy back in July with Journatic was entirely about the outsourcing or if was not more the issue of deception, of people in other countries being given fake American-sounding bylines? Journatic seems unable to recover from the controversy and is laying off staff.  But if the news organizations Journtent supplies are above board and do not deceive their readers will the public resist? If you look at the dynamics underlying the digital revolution, how many other sacred bonds have been broken, or are in the process of being flayed alive somewhat like Saint Bartholomew losing his skin?

Fred Grimm once wrote a satire for the Miami Herald that said in part:

A team of software engineers, call center operators, tax accountants and street urchins now assembles this column in Calcutta, cobbling together 20 inches of verbiage, checking the spelling, writing a headline and transmitting the product to Miami hours before deadline — a feat unobtainable under the old system. All this for a tenth of the cost of employing an aging American journalist. Without the mood swings.  (Poynter)

It may have seemed funny back then but now, “the joke seems a little less funny, and no longer so improbable.

Sadly, one thing we know for sure. Given the wage that freelance writers earn these days, they increasingly need to live in a country like the Philippines as they not making a living wage here.

Apr 292012

Washington PostThere was a time (not that long ago) when text alerts from a newspaper were an innovative form of communication. No more.

People are still texting like crazy – an average of 40 a day – but Facebook, Twitter and new Smartphone apps means that news is everywhere – there’s little need to stay connected to a single media outlet. So the Washington Post is ending its text alert service, joining the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers in bringing to an end what was once a state-of-the-art service.

For the WP, too few people were signing up, leading the Nieman Journalism Lab to note:

The Post wouldn’t quantify what “so few” meant. News consumption is growing more mobile, but with the number of smartphone and tablet users on the rise, it might make sense for newsrooms to abandon text alerts — which can cost money for both sender and receiver — and shift to push notifications and that old standby, email.

But contrary to the above, I would argue that the real catalyst here is a combination of Twitter and the mobile environment. Twitter provides near instant notification if one follows major news outlets such as BBC, Reuters, and perhaps even the WP. If email remains useful for news alerts, it’s not because it’s an “old standby” but because mobile access has transformed how we use email.

But the real revolution here here is that people are continuing to cut their ties to a single news source – in an increasingly global news environment, we’re going to whatever source best suits our needs.

Newspapers beware.

Apr 252012

CitJoCitizen journalism was critical in the Arab Spring over the past year as ordinary people used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and other social media to push new ideas, organize protests, and document the atrocities of long entrenched dictatorships. Now they’re getting a more formal outlet with the start up of CitJo, a portal that will connect bloggers and videographers with official media agencies around the world. While this hasn’t gotten much notice outside the Middle East, it is an innovative approach to a question that remains unresolved in the West (try asking the New York City Police Department who is a journalist). The portal will allow citizen journalists to sell their work under a variety of copyright licenses, giving some of them a potential revenue stream.

According to Mahamad El Tanahy, Managing Director of CitJo,

Our aim is to provide an easy way for citizen journalists to get their word out and generate revenue. We’re looking to provide all the features necessary to make citizen journalists’ lives easier, starting with a migration of the service to Arabic, launching an online payment service, and much more to come.

It will be interesting to see how this develops, especially if some of the participants begin to be noticed for their work. And there are challenges to be resolved – are news agencies going to accept submissions that are not edited, fact-checked, or screened? Will they be willing to pay for videos if other people are making videos of the same events freely available on YouTube? And there may be competition from existing citizen journalism sites – AlJazeera’s Your Media, for example – that take submissions but do not offer payment.

It’s a fascinating experiment. Check out the CitJo website – it’s nicely done and will give you a glimpse of an innovative journalism experiment in action.

Dec 142011
John Knefel being dragged off by NYC Police

John Knefel being dragged off by NYC Police

Boingboing has an insightful piece by Maggie Koerth-Baker on the journalism issues brought up by the OWS protests. Who is a journalist today? How do you issue credentials? We have policies and practices created in another era that no longer make sense given the digital tools available.

She takes the example of John Knefel, a writer and comedian arrested yesterday while documenting an OSW action in New York:

Knefel doesn’t work for a major media outlet. But he’s also not just some random bystander. He’s got a political podcast with new episodes three times a week. Do we only call someone a journalist if they have enough page views? Do they have to have a journalism degree? What’s the line?

Knefel is a biased source of information. But so are a lot of mainstream commentators. We’d call someone from Fox News a journalist. We’d call someone from Reason magazine a journalist. We’d call somebody from Mother Jones a journalist. Having a clear political angle to your coverage doesn’t make you not a journalist. Except when it does. So what are the actual criteria?

Knefel didn’t have a press pass. But, as Xeni has pointed out, the press pass system in New York is incredibly convoluted and contradictory. So what if you can’t get one? Does that mean you aren’t a journalist? This is particularly problematic given the fact that the rules seem to be set up to favor long-standing publications with lots of resources that mostly just cover New York City. How does that fit into a globalized world? Why punish media entrepreneurship?

We live in an age where publishing is easy and the tools to do it are available to a much wider swatch of people. But our standards and rules for who gets protection as a member of the press are based on a paradigm where publishing wasn’t easy and only a limited number of people could do it.

What is even more bizarre here is that the rules for obtaining a press pass in New York essentially require you to break the rules – repeatedly – as pointed out in an article last month by Elizabeth Spiers, Editor-in-Chief of the New York Observer, who ironically cannot get a press pass for herself. Simply put, it’s a form of control by the NYPD and stifling of the First Amendment.

And it gets even more twisted: the current rules are in response to a court settlement with bloggers who had argued that the prior even more arcane rules gave them no opportunity to be seen as legitimate news gathers by the NYPD.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter after all since credentialed reporters have been arrested at OWS gatherings. But it’s time for someone to breech the castle moat and let them know the world has changed.

Dec 132011

The article at sums up Russ Stanton’s departure from the LA Times after four years of grappling with the radical changes in the news industry in the digital era. Most interesting: the Times went to a 24 hour newsroom format since there is simply little alternative if one wants to remain viable in a highly competitive market where you are up against 24 hour online news sources.

LA Times, First Edition, December 4, 1881

A Text-based World: LA Times, First Edition, December 4, 1881

But the first paragraph of the article reads like a postmortem for the industry – cutbacks, cutback, and more cutbacks:

After nearly four years as editor of the Los Angeles Times, Russ Stanton will step down Dec. 23. Stanton became editor in 2008, replacing James O’Shea,who was forced out over disagreements with the Tribune Company about newsroom cuts. O’Shea moved to the Times from the Chicago Tribune afterDean Baquet left his post as editor, over disagreements with Tribune about newsroom cuts. Baquet was promoted to LA Times editor after John Carroll resigned over disagreements with the Tribune Company about, you guessed it, newsroom cuts. Stanton has worked at the Times for 14 years. “During his tenure, The Times’ newsroom staff shrank from more than 900 people to about 550,” the paper reports. Managing Editor Davan Maharaj will take over the top post. 

There’s a lot of out-of-work reporters these days and a lot of people who are essentially doing reporting for free. Not sure how viable this environment is for future; not sure if anyone can grasp what will replace it.