Chicago Tribune Journalism Offshoring Scandal Ends

For months the Chicago Tribune has been suffering the slings and arrows of local critics for having hired a web-based company called Journatic (pronounced Jer-naa-tik) to write many of its small, "hyper local" stories for its Trib Local newspapers.

Critics lambasted the stories after it was discovered they were written by writers in the Philippines for 35 cents per piece -- people that had never even heard of the Chicago suburbs they were writing about. Another big reason the Trib was so mercilessly mocked is because the stories often carried fake bylines with American names instead of the names of the Filipino writers that really wrote them.

It seemed to be a matter of integrity. Stories written by foreigners but with fake American bylines seemed too much like calling a computer troubleshooting call-center in India and getting a thick-accented phone tech claiming to be "Linda in Omaha."

Trib Local is a fairly new Chicago Tribune service intended to cover the small Chicago area suburbs about which the Trib feels have gone little reported. But critics charge that the "hyper-local" stories in these newspapers are "barely edited press releases" and stories "without any context" of local goings on. Certainly none of the writers of the stories -- neither the original Filipino writers nor their American editors – ever did any first hand reporting from the actual suburban communities they are writing about.

Initially the Trib was quite excited by the whole idea of Journatic. In fact, they even bought into the content providing company themselves becoming official investors. Tribune bosses considered it a way to save local reporting not kill it. After all, these communities, the Trib felt, were not being covered so their plan for Trib Local was to offer the local news that was going un-reported.

Now, who isn't aware of the financial troubles that have beset the newspaper industry? So, the challenge for the Tribune was how might they continue offering local news with an ever decreasing amount of money to pay people to produce that content?

Journatic seemed to be the best idea. Pay foreign writers on the cheap -- way cheap -- to write up short, local stories, send them to American editors who would clean them up for proper usage, syntax, spelling, and the like, then slap a fake name on the story and off to press it goes. It was the very model of modern, production-line newspapers. Cheap content, quick turn around, and continued coverage of local stories. Who could be against that?

Apparently the many hundreds of local journalists who were fired by the Trib (and other local papers) that's who! Many of these local journalists were none too happy to find out their jobs were offshored to writers in the Philippines. Worse, Trib Local itself fired a bunch of employees when it officially switched over to Journatic.

Local media critics were also not a bit amused by what they considered a major drop in the quality of the news coverage.

Back in May, long-time Chicago media critic Robert Feder bemoaned the drop in quality of the work in Trib Local after the offshoring began. "I used to look forward to receiving TribLocal, the weekly hyperlocal news insert in my Chicago Tribune. But now it's become a worthless piece of garbage," Feder said.

Regardless of the economic troubles that the newspaper industry faces, the use of Journatic was a lightning rod for the Chicago Tribune. At last, under the pressure from the industry, the Trib has suspended its use of the content-generating company. No word yet on it's financial investment therein.

There was more fallout, too. Upon the announcement of the Trib's distancing itself from Journatic, Production Manager Mike Fourcher resigned his position with the company.

But the problem intrinsic to this whole discussion is still not solved. How do newspapers continue to cover local stories as their profits crater, their stocks bottom out, and their employee pools dwindle?

As a writer and a conservative I can see both sides to this story. I would not be happy being expected to beat my head against a keyboard for 35 cents a story! Who could live on that? On the other hand, I know full well that the business of journalism is endangered due to its incredible un-profitability. I don't know how journalists imagine that they should all make six figure salaries when their papers are barely surviving? The days of high priced reporters is over.

I think the first thing is to start shutting down some of those useless schools of journalism that are turning out graduates that won't be able to survive in a contracting marketplace. That would be a good start. And this isn't even to mention the hopeless bias to the left in which most newspapers wallow, a bias that keeps customers from having any desire to buy the resulting news product.

On the other hand, how do you continue to get good reporting, much less good writing, from people you are paying slave wages to? How do you expect that educated, interested, energetic people will want to even bother with the field of journalism if they can’t make enough money to even eat on a weekly basis? And don’t kid yourself. Journalism is still a very important part of our system. Even the founders knew how important journalism is to the health of our country.

In any case, what is evident here is that the newspaper industry is still flailing about trying to find the way back to viability and the Tribune has apparently just found another dead end on that road.

For more information, podcasters at This American Life did an extensive story on this interesting, multi-faceted situation. They did a good job discussing both sides of the story interviewing several people from all interested parties. Also Anna Tarkov of Poynter did a great write up of the whole controversy.


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