Last Friday, the Chicago Tribune announced that it was suspending its use of Journatic for coverage of news in its hyperlocal markets. Journatic offers newspapers an option to outsource reporting, but the firm had recently been accused of fabricating bylines.
The story had been percolating for a couple of weeks, reviving a debate about the wisdom of trying to outsource journalism. The Journatic controversy erupted at a time when independently owned hyperlocal news sites are said to be "maturing", leading me to wonder what old age might look like.
On Streetfight, a web site that covers "the business of hyperlocal", Brian Farnham, founding editor-in-chief of Patch.com, weighed in with a response I found both informed and direct. Farnham is abundantly familiar with the challenges of hyperlocal coverage, and his advice for Journatic is at once simple and far-reaching:
"If I were to prescribe Journatic a fix for this recent ailment (beyond, you know, not faking bylines anymore), it would be to show a real investment in journalism, in all senses of that word. We get that you’re “-atic” — cost savvy and operationally slick. How bout showing everyone you can also be “Journo”, and slow down and do some meaningful work? It might be money well spent."
This harkens back to the core implications of "context first", particularly one that claimed “because publishers are competing with businesses that already use low- and no-cost tools, trying to beat them on the cost of content is a losing proposition. Instead, they need to develop opportunities that encourage broader use of their content.”
In a presentation at an OCLC event, I went on to say:
Prices, already under pressure as the popularity of digital content grows, are likely to go lower. Offering content that can be shared and loaned may help sustain a certain level of pricing, but the current practice of editing content for a single use, even a single format, is an expensive and unsustainable approach.
In the future, tagged content will be recombined, reused and in many cases sold as a component or chunk. We already see this in textbook publishing and in some STM markets.
In a different, parallel example, Bloomberg’s media efforts are built around extensive deployment of “write once, read many”. As with the arguments for agile content, not every market is equally attractive, but publishers should be challenging themselves now, as any book created in the old order is one they will likely wind up retooling in the new one.
For local news coverage, the idea is this: quality journalism costs more money than you can get back in a single use. Managing costs carefully makes sense, but it is folly to try to drive them down to the point at which a single use can be cost-effective.
Press+, a unit of R.R. Donnelley, has uncovered at least a correlation between story volume and site traffic. The tentative conclusion is that quantity matters, but the jury is still out on quality. That finding alone can encourage publishers to pursue the wrong solution.
Investing in journalism makes the archives valuable (though getting there takes time). Building tools (as Bloomberg and Thomson-Reuters have done) that make content searchable at a granular level develops a revenue stream that is not traffic-dependent. Neither approach precludes outsourcing, but I think outsourcing only to save money is a mistake the Tribune, among others, can't afford to make.