Media critics have been buzzing for more than a week about “Snow Fall,” John Branch’s feature in The New York Times about a tragic avalanche that claimed three skiers’ lives in the Tunnel Creek area of Washington state early last year. Some people say it‘s the future of journalism, and they’re right – in a way. A loud chorus of naysayers who point out that “Snow Fall” is just the Times showing off. They’re right, too.

What’s important isn’t whether this package – which doesn’t fit neatly into the category of article, video documentary or e-book – is a turning point, but rather its importance as an evolution in story-telling. There’s nothing revolutionary about the technology the Times used. It’s the way the elements were combined that makes “Snow Fall” a great experience.Snow Fall Intro screen

For example, some of the graphics unfold as the reader scrolls down the screen, illustrating elements of the narrative in a way that feels seamless and natural. Embedded slide shows appear next to the names of key people in the tragedy, showing them in happier times. It’s a moving tribute to dead and their families that doesn’t seem heavy-handed or maudlin. It’s just part of the story.

Romenesko says the package racked up 3.5 million page views in its first week and that one-quarter of them were new visitors to nytimes.com. Ad Age complains that the ads the Times ran next to the copy nearly ruin the reading experience. Mathew Ingram superbly balances comments from both fans and critics. He concludes that, for all its elegance and beauty, “Snow Fall” still doesn’t address mainstream media’s frustrating fiscal woes. Laura Hazard Owen suggests that the “e-single” version of the feature – which sells for $2.99 – is an important endorsement of the growing mini-book concept.

We dropped by to see what all the fuss was about and ended spending an hour reading every last word and viewing every last video. “Snow Fall” is a visually stunning example of what a well-resourced news organization can produce when it spares practically no expense to break the mold. Few media companies can attempt something so ambitious (although there are some corporate marketing departments that could foot the bill). What’s important about “Snow Fall” is the ideas it introduces – ideas that will be adopted and iterated by other publishers on a smaller scale. We don’t think that’s showing off. It’s just being creative.

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Two filmmakers who identify themselves as Lenny Feinberg and Chris Foster have released a trailer for what they say will be an upcoming documentary called Black and White and Dead All Over. We haven’t seen anything more than the four-minute clip embedded here, but it appears that the authors have interviewed an impressive cast of journalists and publishers. The trailer presents a sympathetic view of the plight facing the U.S. newspaper industry, pointing out that the information people expect to find for free online has to come from somewhere, and that the institutions that provide it are in peril. As one speaker puts it, ”Where is the Internet going to get its information if the newspaper in your town goes out of business?”

The documentarians provided few details about when or where the full film will be available. The URL for BlackAndWhiteAndDeadAllOver.net goes to a parked GoDaddy page. We don’t even know who these guys are. Maybe they’ll leave a comment and tell us more.

 

Journalism traditionalists who suffer from high blood pressure probably shouldn’t read this piece by Forbes editor Lewis DVorkin. In it, he outlines the role of what he calls “brand journalism” in the evolution of Forbes.com, and even in Forbes magazine. He also scolds journalists for their objections to this increasingly popular concept, saying that their interest in keeping marketing content cordoned off from staff editorial is in part an instinct to minimize competition.

DVorkin has been a vocal critic of those who cling to the traditional Chinese wall principle of strict separation between advertising and editorial. In his view, the new economics of the profession demand radical new ideas, and journalists are standing in the way. “After five years of media turmoil, the profession I love clings to the belief…that the industry’s problems are for other people to solve. And when steps are taken to solve them, my colleagues will put up a fight if they can’t do exactly what they did before,” he wrote a couple of weeks ago in a summary of the changing advertising landscape and Forbes’ adaptation strategy.

Like it or not, DVorkin’s vision of increased integration between marketing and editorial content is gaining favor in traditional publishing circles. The trend is called “brand journalism,” “native advertising” or “content marketing,” but whatever the title, it’s breaking down some traditional walls.

Business Intelligence Solutions Boston Globe promotion

Boston.com, which is the online arm of the Boston Globe, recently launched “Insights,” a sponsored advertising feature that showcases blog posts from advertisers. Boston.com is a little more aggressive about labeling Insights material as advertising than some other brand journalism practitioners, but it’s the same basic idea. The publisher appears to have no problem with participants like Business Intelligence Solutions embedding the banner ad at right on its blog, saying nothing about the sponsorship arrangement.

Some other publishers have all but erased the lines between staff and brand content. BuzzFeed, which is one of the new breed of breathless, celebrity-stuffed news sites for the ADD set, expects to derive nearly all of its revenue from branded content and sponsored posts. So far, things are going pretty well. The site was a magnet for political advertising during the US presidential campaign and is expected to triple revenues this year. Branded features, like this one from JetBlue, look the same as BuzzFeed content and carry only lightweight advertiser labeling. The Atlantic is also in the pool with Quartz, a news site that blends branded and staff-written content more or less seamlessly.

Writing on emedia, Rob O’Regan has a good summary of this trend, which has been fueled by Twitter’s sponsored tweets and Facebook’s sponsored stories. Those companies, which have no preconceptions about ad/edit separation, say these new vehicles are a resounding success. Publishers are taking notice, but a news site is not a social network. News organizations trade on credibility, and “native” ads tread into new territory. Recent research by Mediabrix and Harris Interactive found that  readers often feel confused or misled by branded content.

Mediabrix/Harris Advertising Research

Compatible Content

The reason all this is happening, of course, is that the traditional print advertising model doesn’t work in the highly targeted online world. Display advertising is the fastest growing category of online advertising, and publishers have always known that display ads surrounded by compatible content perform best. Advertisers have traditionally bought space next to compatible content, but now they want to provide the content, too, because people are rejecting traditional messaging.

Businesses are quickly glomming onto this trend. Cisco relaunched its press room last year as a news stream, hiring laid-off journalists from major business publications to write thoughtful trend pieces. Intel is doing the same thing. Coca-Cola just overhauled its corporate site as a lifestyle news magazine under the “Coca-Cola Journey“ brand. Expect many others to follow.

Sponsored content is nothing new. Mobil Oil bought space on The New York Times‘s op-ed page in the 1950s. What’s different today is that a severely weakened mainstream media is willing to be more the creative than ever in placement and labeling – even if that means potentially compromising their own brands.

Is this a horrifying development? The journalism purest in us says yes, but we’re inclined to keep an open mind. Lewis DVorkin has a point when he says journalists live in a bubble.  Social media have shown that good information can come from anywhere, even from people who aren’t journalists. As media organizations have learned to their chagrin in recent years, you can’t shove anything you want down people’s throats when they have infinite choice. The same applies to advertisers.

Regardless of who the author is, anyone who publishes content is at the mercy of readers. Marketers who publish the same dreck on branded media sites that they use to fill their purchased ad units won’t see much return on their investment. If people don’t want the content, it doesn’t matter how much you pay to publish it.

So the stakes are higher for marketers, too. The question is how many of them can successfully change their perspective to think like publishers. In our experience, precious few can. The natural instincts of people who have grown up in the traditional marketing world is to sell at every opportunity, not to serve the informational needs of the audience.

This will change over time as a new generation steps in, and publishers will play a key role in effecting that change. They will need to work with their clients to make sure the sponsored content they carry is worthy of their brand. It can be done. Admit it: If you clicked on the JetBlue link above, you scrolled down the entire page. It’s good stuff, even though it’s sponsored.

The silver lining is that if “native advertising” can become a major new revenue source, it can enable publishers to re-invest in quality journalism. In the end, that’s more important than labels or Chinese walls.

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Fake storm photo Hurricane Sandy

The photo at right was one of several that made the rounds on the Internet as Hurricane Sandy lashed the east coast on Monday and Tuesday of this week. It’s a powerful image. It’s also completely bogus, a two-year-old Photoshop mashup that took on new significance when no one had a clear picture of what was happening on the Atlantic seaboard. It was one of many false reports that circulated on social networks during the storm. Although the increasingly Twitter-dependent mainstream media didn’t circulate this photo, it reported its share of falsehoods.

We personally heard the CNN report of three feet of water in the New York Stock Exchange. In fact, live security camera feeds showed that the floor was dry. We also heard media reports that Con Edison had shut off power to all of Manhattan. Also not true. The Detroit Free Press rounds up some of the prominent rumors here.

Instagram was the new kid on the block for this event. The photo-sharing service communicated some powerful images, like the fully lit Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn surrounded by flood waters (left), but it was also used to drag out Photoshopped favorites from years past that reappear with each new disaster. The Verge has a roundup of photos shared on Instagram and Twitter during the storm and the Atlantic put together a great collection of real, fake and questionable images shared on social media.

Are these deceptions proof that citizen journalism sucks, that the ability to reach a global audience tempts people to spread falsehoods and make mischief?

We don’t think so. While social networks spread a lot of rumors during the storm, that’s nothing unique to the Web 2.0 age. Disasters always spawn speculation. Remember the reports of planes flying into buildings in Chicago and San Francisco on 9/11? The difference today is the speed at which falsehoods spread. But another important difference is the speed at which they’re dispelled.

We like John Herrman’s analysis on BuzzFeed. He notes that Twitter users were just as quick to disabuse each other of storm-related misinformation as to spread it in the first place. “Twitter is a fact-processing machine on a grand scale, propagating then destroying rumors at a neck-snapping pace,” he writes. “To dwell on the obnoxiousness of the noise is to miss the result: that we end up with more facts, sooner, with less ambiguity.”

Sites like Snopes.com and Wikipedia are effective at sifting fact from fiction. Although neither is under the same time pressure as CNN, in the long run they get it right. Electronic media are always under the gun during a news event, and have always been susceptible to reporting bad information. To their credit, the news networks are usually good about qualifying unconfirmed information as just that. Any experienced reader of blogs or social networks knows that fantastical claims shouldn’t be taken at face value. New media even have some fact-checking features built in. For example, The New York Times used geo-location to verify that eyewitness tweets were in fact from people who might reasonably be assumed to be eye witnesses.

We think more information is always better than less, even if some of it is bad. As layoffs continue to hack away at mainstream media, those outlets continue to turn to citizens as front-line news sources. We don’t see that changing anytime soon. Rather, the tools for spotting bad information will mature and our bullshit detectors become more refined.

Anyone watching the #Sandy or #Frankenstorm hash tags on Monday and Tuesday read amazing stories from people who taking the storm head-on. Mobile social networks continue to deliver information from blacked-out areas that would otherwise have no outlet. The fact that some of that information is bad is the price we pay for having a First Amendment.

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By Paul Gillin | September 6, 2012 - 2:17 pm - Posted in Business News, BusinessModel, Future of Journalism

Journal Register Co., which has been the poster child for the “digital first” strategy that many newspapers are pursuing, declared bankruptcy today, just three years after emerging from a previous bankruptcy filing. This doesn’t mean the end of the road for the company, of course, but it does dramatize the difficulty of transitioning from a model based upon captive audience and economies of scale to one that accommodates constant audience churn and targeted advertising. We still like CEO John Paton’s vision for reinventing news.

Mathew Ingram has an excellent analysis on GigaOm, as usual. There’s not much we can add to it. As Ingram states, “Digital first is not a magic wand.” There’s still a massive amount of legacy baggage that needs to be discarded. We particularly like his characterization of paywalls as “just a line of sandbags against the rising tide.”

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James Macpherson, Pasadena NowEver heard of James Macpherson? If you’re a veteran journalist, you probably have, although you might know him better as “that asshole who fired his entire reporting staff and outsourced local coverage of Pasadena, Calif. to India.”

We got a note from Macpherson the other day pointing out that recent trends would indicate that he was a trailblazer, not a nut.

In spite of the clobbering in the media I took for the idea then — and in spite of the Journatic debacle now –  the truth remains that some form of editorial outsourcing IS coming to newsrooms near you, and probably soon…Newsroom outsourcing is inevitable. The idea is so powerful it should be explored and discussed, not simply rebuked.

Macpherson also pointed us to a couple of his own blog entries on the subject: “The Outsourcing of Hyperlocal Journalism Is Inevitable” and “And Now, A Penny for My Thoughts.” They’re both worth reading. As we pointed out recently, the price of journalism is being readjusted to a new equilibrium point, and ideas like outsourcing local city council coverage to writers in Manila aren’t nearly as far-fetched as they once seemed.

It’s a Business

A lot of debate about the future of journalism has been tinged with emotion, which is understandable given how many jobs have been lost. The harsh reality, though, is that the vast majority of journalism is practiced by profit-making organizations. These companies are struggling with seismic shifts that have changed their business model forever. Advertising costs are in long-term decline, reader switching costs are zero, barriers to competitive entry have vanished and mass media are being displaced by specialized media. Any organization that hopes to survive in such a market needs to do things differently.

The approach to outsourcing that Macpherson outlines in this post is rational and workable in many scenarios: Offshore whatever can be offshored and have the people on the scene focus on capturing the action. Keep expertise local and farm out the rest.

If you’ve ever worked in a newsroom, you know there’s a lot of work that doesn’t require people to leave the office. Copy editing is a desk job. So is obituary writing. Editors fill holes on print pages by rewriting wire copy. Sports editors rarely go into a locker room and city editors don’t cover school board meetings. They’ve done all that stuff and graduated to jobs where they supervise others.

Some of this stuff is easy to outsource, and a lot of it already has been dispatched to interns or specialty shops like Legacy.com. The tough part is deconstructing jobs where experience is an asset, like the sports editor. Those jobs should stay intact on these shores, although some of the routine work may be able to be done elsewhere.

Get Me Rewrite

Journalism has traditionally been a vertically integrated craft. The reporter who covers the city council meeting is also expected to write the story, even if that person can’t compose a coherent paragraph. We’ve all known people who were great fact-finders or interviewers but who couldn’t write. Rewrite editors were an early tool to compensate for that. Now technology is taking deconstruction to a new level.

Anyone with a smart phone and an Internet connection can now be a live streaming news source. People on the scene can embellish or correct a published account, even if they don’t work for the news organization. Aggregating, summarizing and commenting upon published reports is the essence of what most bloggers do. In many cases, being on the scene isn’t nearly as important as it used to be.

Outsourcing is not an all-or-nothing proposition, but a process of optimizing for value. Move routine work to the lowest-cost source and invest in stuff that makes a difference. Businesses have done this with manufacturing, payroll, facilities maintenance, information technology and the many other tasks for years.

But what about quality? That’s the most common objection to outsourcing in general, but we think markets are pretty good at figuring that out. Journalists aren’t the ultimate arbiters of quality; their readers are. If you believe that the public no longer has an interest in quality journalism, then outsourcing is a pretty depressing prospect. However, we don’t think the public is that stupid.

Macpherson is right: These ideas should be developed and not dismissed as lunacy simply because they break with tradition. If someone can put out a journal at lower cost that its audience values and that someone will pay to support, then the market will make it own decisions.

By Paul Gillin | August 30, 2012 - 8:57 am - Posted in Future of Journalism, Journalism, Layoffs, Newspapers

Jeff Jarvis nails it with this headline:  ”Reporters: Why are you in Tampa?” And he goes it one better by running some numbers that estimate that media organizations will spend $30 million this week covering a Republican convention of which the outcome is already known. Then they’ll do the same thing next week for the Democrats.

Here’s what we’ll get for this investment:

  • On-the-spot analysis of speeches that could be covered just as easily by watching them on television;
  • Interviews with political junkie delegates who in no way typify the American voter;
  • Journalists talking to each other;
  • TV reports that are supposed to look more urgent because the reporter is standing in front of  a sign labeled “Wisconsin.”

All this is happening in an industry that’s in free fall.

Yet what we’ll get over these two weeks is the same political pabulum we’ve gotten for decades, served up to an American public that’s sick of it all.

1952 Republican National Convention via Wikimedia CommonsPolitical convention coverage epitomizes what’s wrong with mainstream media today. Conventions long ago ceased to have any news value. The last brokered convention was in 1952. Since then, the only purpose of the quadrennial party has been to deliver what Jarvis calls an infomercial. Everything is scripted for the greatest possible momentum going into the fall campaign, and the media plays right along.

Why? Well, as Tevye said: “Tradition!”  It’s always been done this way. Conventions aren’t about news. They’re a junket for senior reporters. They’re easy to cover because everyone who attends them is media-trained and has a scripted message. There’s what media needs today: stuff that’s easy.

How can you cover the reaction of voters back at home when all your best reporters are down in Tampa snarfing down shrimp and free booze? Why are the TV networks  interviewing a small number of delegates and ignoring  millions of online conversations between real voters? How can the media, which prides itself on independence, cooperate so willingly with the PR manipulators who script this stuff? How can it possibly spending so much money on something that produces no news?

Let’s ask different questions: What if The New York Times, Washington Post or NBC made a statement in 2016 and announced that it would skip the conventions and invest that money instead in an investigative unit or database journalist? What if the media stopped coming to the conventions entirely and left the coverage to Journatic? Do you think we would be any worse off? Do you think the economy would suffer? Do you think anyone outside of the media would even notice?

Won’t happen. That would be rocking the boat. And for heaven’s sake, why would anyone want to do that?

Update: Andrew Cohen writes about the unholy camaraderie between media and political parties in the Atlantic. Noting that Huffington Post, The Politico, CNN and Bloomberg spend lavishly on receptions for  delegates, he notes, “People are angry about politics and politicians. They are angry about the way the media cover politics and politicians. Can you blame them, in the face of [media-sponsored] spas and sports bars, in the face of the self-promotion, for perceiving some sort of unholy alliance between reporters and the people upon which they are supposed to be reporting?”


Apparently a Pulitzer Prize is no protection against the ravages of the marketplace. The Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News, and the Syracuse Post-Standard will reduce print frequency to thrice weekly beginning in January. They follow the lead of their Advance Publications brethren in New Orleans and Alabama, which scaled back this spring. The news is particularly disappointing because the Patriot-News  won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for its coverage of the Penn State scandal. These are not small marketers. The two papers have a combined Sunday circulation of nearly a quarter million. They’ll keep publishing on Sunday. The other two days of the week haven’t been decided. Expect more members of the Advance family to follow.

Update: A tipster says he’s been told there will be a 50% staff reduction at the Post-Standard starting next week. “That’s 200 lost jobs in an already hard-hit community.”

Sweatshop in Ludlow Street Tenement, New York via Wikimedia CommonsWe got a come-on from one of those content-farming services the other day, but instead of throwing it away in disgust, we decided to run the numbers instead.

The e-mail promised us the possibility of earning $80 per 400-600-word article! That’s right, that statement ended with an exclamation point. We’d normally be insulted at the prospect of being offered less than 20 cents a word, but when we took at look at the site we’d be writing for, we thought heck, one could actually make a living at this.

We can’t identify the site because our revenue from Adwords doesn’t permit the luxury of retained legal counsel, but there are plenty of services out there that provide low-cost, keyword-optimized articles for businesses that want to attract search engines. They all work pretty much the same.

The particular site we looked at is focused on a vertical B2B market. It publishes 12-15 articles a day from an impressive assortment of freelance writers. We’ve never heard of any of them, but most of the contributors write one or two articles per day for this site, and presumably also write for other sites supported by the content farm.

The stuff they write follows a predictable format: The writer reads three or four stories in an industry trade or business publications and summarizes what they say in a kind of a news roundup format. The more experienced writers may add a dose of their own opinion, but for the most part no one strays too far from quoting the industry pundits.

There is no original reporting to speak of. We scanned about a dozen articles and didn’t see any evidence of primary research beyond repackaged analysis from industry trades. In the new journalism, first-person sourcing is less important than linking to source material online.

Doing the Math

We figured a fast writer with a working knowledge of a vertical industry could pound out five or six such stories a day without breaking a sweat. Heck, we’ve sometimes posted 1,200 words to this site before 9 in the morning. So do the math: Five stories per day at $80 per story equals $400 a day. That’s $2,000 a week. That’s $100,000 a year. That’s a decent living.

What makes this possible is the near total lack of quality control. It doesn’t appear that anyone is reading the stuff these writers post. There were typos and formatting problems that would have been caught with even a minimum of editorial oversight, but the publisher doesn’t care. As long as the keywords are in the right place and the search engines are delivering, everything is fine.

What matters is speed. Frequently updated sites get more attention from search engines, and this particular site focuses on breaking news. The idea is to get something into the news stream while interest is high so you can get in on the page-view bubble. After a couple of days, most of the interest has waned, but the search engines are still paying attention to you because you post so frequently. Long-tail search typically delivers about one-third of the traffic to news sites.

We don’t mean to imply that the content on this site was junk. Quite the opposite: Some of the writers clearly follow the industry closely and chose their topics well. Considering that no one is editing them, the copy was impressively clean. For a business audience that is challenged to keep up with the news, you might even say the site is valuable.

These are the new economics of the working journalist: Pump out a large volume of keyword-laden stuff with minimal guidance or oversight. None of this work is ever going to win a Pulitzer, but it is enabling a few writers to actually sustain themselves by writing. And who knows, maybe they can do some serious reporting in their spare time, or perhaps someone at a name-brand publication will notice their work and offer them a job.

Either way, it’s a living.

By Paul Gillin | July 18, 2012 - 4:52 pm - Posted in BusinessModel, Future of Journalism, Newspapers

 

Editor & Publisher caught up with humorist Dave Barry to talk about receiving the 2013 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Barry is funny as always in the Q&A, but he also provides some plain-talk insight on the troubles that afflict the industry that made him a star. We thought they were worth sharing.

 So what role did newspapers play in the decline of humor columns? 
Newspapers have had a consistent problem over the past 30 to 40 years that whenever they are offered two options, they always pick the one that is more boring and less desirable to readers.

Personally, I attribute the modern failure of newspapers to English majors. We let our business be run by English majors, but since the model was a foolproof way of making money and the only place for Sears to buy and print a full-page ad, they could do whatever they wanted. This created the notion that whatever they were doing had huge market demand, and when the Internet came along, we found out that wasn’t necessarily the case.

With the decline of print, do you think there are opportunities for aspiring humor writers out there to get a break like you did? 

I was lucky. When I started writing in the mid-1970s, newspapers were really flush. Baby boomers were subscribing in huge numbers, and they were my audience. I did meet with some resistance, because my columns were different and weird. I violated a lot of newspaper tenets. I lied a lot in my columns; I was willing to be completely absurd and didn’t worry that the end of my column didn’t have anything to do with the beginning.

My columns were different enough that readers felt they could relate to them with their own lives, and they liked them for that. Plus, back then newspapers could take a chance on someone like me. They were more fearless back in those days. The idea of someone canceling their subscription was kind of a joke. Now they’re terrified of doing anything that might offend readers and fall outside their marketing plan.

It doesn’t really matter, because I don’t know of any young, funny person who wants to get into the newspaper business anyway.

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Maybe it’s the summer slowdown kicking in, but the news has been mostly bad this month.

New York Times Building

Why must all media coverage of newspapers have a photo like this?

David Carr writes about a little-discussed liability that’s nearly as damaging to the newspaper industry as its mountain of debt: Pension obligations. Gannett pension fund is under-capitalized by $942 million, McClatchy’s by $383 million and The New York Times Co.’s by $522 million. Carr says the hedge funds that bought up newspapers at bargain prices over the last few years are running for the exits, but they can’t find anyone to take the properties off their hands. Pensions are one reason why. The only investor who’s shown confidence in the industry lately is Warren Buffett, but Carr notes that even he stuck Media General with the retirees when he bought a bunch of its titles.

Pension funds became an albatross around the necks of the steel and auto industries back in the 1980s. Faced with retiree obligations that were, in some cases, significantly larger than annual revenues, companies like U.S. Steel had not choice but to shaft the recipients. A lot of newspapers set up generous pension funds when times were good in the 70s and 80s, and now those workers are retiring. It’s a frightening replay of history, particularly if you’re nearing retirement age.

Carr’s piece is kind of a mid-year health check on the state of the industry, and there’s very little cheer about. He opens with accounts of some recent printed blunders that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The situation in the print world is so bad that when the New Orleans Times-Picayune offered jobs to some of its editorial staff on the new three-day-a-week print edition, many said no, thanks. They included a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the editors who anchored the paper’s Hurricane Katrina coverage.

The Thin Line Between Journalism and Typing

Carr reserves some of his most acerbic comments for Journatic, an editorial outsourcing firm part-owned by Tribune Co. that is suddenly getting a lot of scrutiny for practices that would make a professional journalist’s stomach turn.

Read Ryan Smith’s insider account on The Guardian for a look at how far the newspaper industry has fallen. Journatic lives under the radar (its sparse website is actually designed not to attract search engines), providing copy to client publishers that is mostly produced by a loose network of freelancers who work for pocket change. Many of its writers are in the Philippines, which means they speak decent English and work for less and a dollar an hour.

Most of them can’t write very well, though, and Smith recounts stories of barely rewritten press releases that crossed his editor’s desk ready to go into some of America’s finest newspapers. Press releases are Journatic’s bread and butter, along with obituaries from Legacy.com and real estate transaction listings. These are rewritten by its far-flung editorial staff and turned in to U.S. copy editors who make $10/hour. The practice that’s drawn the most criticism is Journatic’s practice of putting fake bylines on articles. The company says it adopted the tactic to protect employees, but that doesn’t sit well with its clients, who are now abandoning ship in the wake of negative media coverage. Hundreds of bogus bylines have already shown up in the Houston Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and San Francisco Chronicle, writes Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman.

Oops.

Journatic produces original content, too. It farms out local stories to U.S. freelancers who report by phone from 1,000 miles away while pretending to be at a desk in the newsroom across town. Reporters need to work quickly. Smith says he was offered $24 for an 800-1,000-word story, $12 for 500 words and $10 for a Q&A. Most of the work went unedited into major newspapers as if reported by a staff journalist.

I’ve copyedited or written news stories for a handful of major US newspapers over the past 18 months – the Houston Chronicle in Texas, San Francisco Chronicle in California and Newsday in Long Island, New York and others – yet it’s doubtful that any of the editors or senior executives for those news organizations could pick me out of a police line-up. In fact, it’s unlikely they could tell you a single personal detail about me or the other journalists behind the bylines of countless stories that appear in their print editions or on their websites, as provided by my employer.

A number of big dailies have quit using Journatic in the wake of recent unflattering coverage, but you can bet this model is far from dead. “Journatic’s approach — and the change it represents — is not going away,” writes Craig Silverman on Poynter.org. That’s because the economics of the news industry are in such dire straits. Whatever work can go offshore will go offshore as newspapers struggle to keep their print properties viable. With revenues spiraling down at 8% to 10% per year, quality will only get worse.

But it’s not just print. As the Times’ Carr points out, no one has yet cracked the code of making online local news profitable. In fact, Journatic’s stronghold is local media, which simply can’t afford to hire full-time reporters any more. So they lay off staff and farm out coverage of the local football team to a stringer. In Manila. (Hat tip to David Strom)

Tablet Salvation

The good news is that tablets will save the day, right? Possibly, but don’t count your winnings just yet. A new study by the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the University of Missouri finds that lots of people use their tablets to keep up with the news. In fact, news-reading is the fourth most popular activity by tablet users, behind communication, entertainment and Web search.  Users’ preferred source of information is news organization websites by a nearly 8:1 margin over social media. Interestingly, 53% of the 1,015 survey respondents said news-on-tablet was a better reading experience than ink-on-dead-trees, compared to just 18% who favor printed media.

The Public Relations Society of America suggests that tablets could revitalize the evening paper, since so much iPadding takes place after 5. But they’ll have to convince Rupert Murdoch of that. The media mogul has reportedly put The Daily on watch. The iPad-only zine is losing $30 million a year, The Politico reports, and its viability will be reassessed after the Nov. 6 election. This despite the fact that The Daily broke the story of Pink Slime, the ground beef additive that triggered a hysterical reaction in the U.S. earlier this year before the USDA stepped in and said that not only is the ingredient safe, but we’ve been eating it for a decade without knowing.

BTW, the most interesting item in the Politico story may be the comment by Martha Jo Peters, whose Facebook profile simply says, “Intend to live alone the rest of my life.” Evidently Murdoch is at least partly responsible. Sad.

Twitter’s News Ambitions

Mathew Ingram thinks Twitter wants to be a media company, and that means its role in the media ecosystem will get more complex. Twitter faces the same challenges that Google has been struggling with for several years: Its basic value is as a filter and organizer that quickly sends people elsewhere on the Web, but it’s hard to make money when your visitors are always leaving so quickly. In essence, the  publishing model that is failing so badly in the traditional media is the model that the biggest new-media startups are seeking.

Twitter appears to see its future as being some kind of newswire. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, CEO Dick Costelo said, “Twitter is heading in a direction where its 140-character messages are not so much the main attraction but rather the caption to other forms of content.” Remember that quote, because it’s really important. It means that in the future Twitter wants to host more content instead of sending people away. But where’s the content going to come from? A lot of it will be from media companies, which have come to value Twitter as a traffic-driver but who may now have to re-evaluate that relationship. Like Google, Twitter is both their best friend and their worst enemy.

If you’ve noticed there are a lot more dead third-party Twitter sites lately, there’s a reason: Twitter is locking down its famously open set of application interfaces and trying to control more of the user experience. Ingram notes that Twitter has had great success with its mobile ads and promoted tweets, and it would like users to stay a little longer on its site. The acquisition of Tweetdeck, as well as several recent improvements to the Twitter.com user experience, are part of that campaign to capture more of the visitor’s time.

Miscellany

Another daily newspaper has joined the ranks of newspapers that are not-so-daily. The Anniston (Ala.) Star will cut its Monday edition beginning in the fourth quarter. Poynter’s Julie Moos has more than you probably want to know here.

Has your local newspaper trimmed frequency from seven days to something else? We’ve had a few inquiries recently from people looking for a list of such journals, but we’ve  never seen one. If you have, please provide a link in the comments, or simply tell us if your local paper has been affected. This will start a list of some kind.


A little good news: The New York Times is more than making up for declining advertising with growth in paid subscriptions. Ad revenue was down 8.1% in the most recent quarter, but circulation revenue was up 9.7%, thanks largely to the success of a new paywall program. Forbes reports that the International Herald Tribune and Boston Globe are also seeing promising results from their early paid digital subscription initiatives.

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