As Outsourced News Grows, Local Newsrooms Should Promote ‘Buying Local’

Over the weekend, This American Life broadcast a story about the hyperlocal news company Journatic, introducing the reading public to the idea of local news produced offshore. Journatic’s success should worry local news producers, but their growing presence also presents us with a huge opportunity in our local markets.

If you aren’t familiar, Journatic uses a largely foreign workforce to assemble local data, rewrite press releases and parrot online obituaries for eventual publication on local and hyperlocal news sites from likes of the Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle and Newsday. These writers – who aren’t even given the dignity of being called writers by the company’s founder in the TAL broadcast – make very, very little money to produce this work. These briefs and announcements are created at the fraction of the cost of a news aide or editorial assistant in the local newsrooms – jobs that, you my have noticed, barely exist in our business anymore.

The real outrage and new info in the radio broadcast was that Journatic employees are producing local news essentially disguised as local reporters. Their stories have fake bylines, their writers given Americanized aliases. When they actually do call to contact a source for a quote, they cover up where they are calling from:

“We’ve been told time and time again to protect the Journatic identity.” When calling on a story, employees must say they’re calling on behalf of the newspaper Journatic works for and even acquire a temporary phone number with a local area code. “We are basically lying to our sources,” he said.

A Tremendous Opportunity

So should local newsrooms be worried about offshore journalism like this? Absolutely they should. But exposure of Journatic and their ilk also provides those of us who work in local news with a tremendous opportunity. It is up to us to show our readers where we’re coming from.

“Buying American” and “Shopping Local” have become a priority to some American consumers on goods from clothes to veggies – so why not newspapers? We should encourage our readers to “Read Local”.

For local journalists, there is no better time to show our readers that we are them. We live in the same neighborhoods. We shop at the same grocery stores. We attend the same local festivals and root for the same football teams. Our kids attend the same schools. We may have even gone to high school together.

It’s taken us a few years, but local journalists are starting to shake off that long-held belief that we as people aren’t an important element of our news. We’re becoming more comfortable showing personality in our tweets, opening up our Facebook pages, writing blogs alongside our traditional reporting. It’s not to say that our personal lives need to be an open book, or even that our readers care about the mundane details of our days, but we can find ways to show our connections to the community:

  • Don’t feel like you have to be all business on social media, if you have observations to make about your city or the people in it in your off-time, go for it. Be open about who you are, with a photo and your real name – unlike this Twitter account that may or may not represent Journatic.
  • Write or contribute to a local blog – and be yourself there. It might be on your beat, or it might not. Maybe the local cops reporter can explore his gardening hobby with a blog. Perhaps a sportswriter would want to pitch in on a parenting blog.
  • Hold live chats with your readers. You could do this using software like CoveritLive or ScribbleLive, on Twitter, Facebook or even just in the comments are of your website. Take their questions and ask your own. Be yourself.
  • Meet your readers in person. Either on your own or as a publication, hold or attend events where you will meet your readers face-to-face. Maybe you would want to offer some public office hours or hold reader meetups. Spend some time manning the paper’s booth at a local festival. Or you could follow the lead of some of our papers at Digital First and take your newsroom out to the public.

Sure, it sounds awfully simplistic to say that these small actions can save local journalism — but it’s certainly a start. By showing up in person to cover that city council meeting or taking that reader’s question, you show that you are a part of the community. If you get good story ideas and source leads from these interactions, all the better.

Being there will give us more than any outsourced news factory could ever hope to replicate. This is our strength – and we need to take better advantage of it.