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July 9, 2012, 10:30 a.m.

This Week in Review: Journatic and outsourcing local news, and Twitter’s tension with developers

Plus: The future of News Corp.’s newspapers, debating the merits of process journalism, and the rest of the week’s media and tech happenings.

Journatic and new directions for local news: The hyperlocal news content provider Journatic got caught last week using fake bylines, prompting a discussion about the value and perils of outsourced journalism. Journatic provides hyperlocal content to a variety of publications (especially newspapers) through a network of freelancers. Those freelancers are often not in the area (or even the country) they’re writing about, and as a This American Life piece revealed, some of them have also been using fake bylines. At Poynter, Anna Tarkov has the full story of how the Journatic sausage gets made, and Jim Romenesko got responses from Journatic’s CEO and the TAL story’s producer and main subject, Ryan Smith, who told his own story at the Guardian.

The Chicago Tribune just outsourced its hyperlocal TribLocal sections to Journatic, and it began investigating Journatic’s work for fake bylines. The Chicago Sun-Times, Houston Chronicle, and San Francisco Chronicle also reported fake bylines on Journatic stories in their papers, and the Sun-Times and the newspaper chain GateHouse ended their contracts with Journatic, though GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram reported that those contracts expired before the fake-byline story came out. Journatic’s CEO sent a memo rallying the troops and declaring that its aliases would be discontinued.

The revelations pointed toward a larger discussion over how to do the tough work of making local journalism sustainable, summarized well by NPR’s David Folkenflik. Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy said operations like Journatic’s “pink slime journalism” are a function of the fact that local journalism is difficult and expensive to do well, though the solution will ultimately come from the bottom up, not from cookie-cutter approaches. Free Press, meanwhile, urged us to demand better out of local news.

But others saw outsourced local journalism (though without fake bylines, of course) as a viable part of the future of news: Mathew Ingram also made the point that local journalism is expensive and said centralized and automated news production has to be part of the answer. John Bethune of B2B Memes said the real problem at Journatic was that it was skeuomorphic — trying to make a new form (algorithmic and outsourced content) look like an old one (articles with bylines). “The Journatic screw-up was not a failure of new media, but a failure of nerve. New-media practitioners need to have the courage of their convictions, and look, not back, but steadfastly ahead.” Ingram echoed that point, urging an open mind toward Journatic in a follow-up post, and Kennedy responded that “not everything new should be embraced.”

Reuters’ Jack Shafer looked more closely at the concept of the byline itself, tracing its history and concluding that Journatic’s fake bylines are an indicator that journalism’s attachment to bylines has gone a little too far.

Twitter tightens its grip: In a pair of simultaneous posts, Twitter broke off its content-syncing partnership with LinkedIn and served notice to other Twitter third-party developers that the company wouldn’t be standing for apps that they feel closely mimic the “core Twitter consumption experience” on their own apps and website. All Things D’s Mike Isaac said that it makes sense for Twitter to tighten the reins on its service now that it’s growing and wondered how it might affect other partners such as Flipboard. Talking Points Memo’s Carl Franzen asked the same thing about several companies whose services are based predominantly or exclusively on Twitter.

The Next Web’s Matthew Panzarino talked to developers who called Twitter’s post “ominous” and suggested the reason Twitter seems to be clamping down on its famously open development system is that it wants to control its advertising stream. The New York Times’ Nick Bilton, meanwhile, pointed out that the core user experience Twitter wants to protect isn’t consistent at all between its website and various apps. BuzzFeed’s Matt Buchanan said Twitter wants to make all those user experiences consistent, as well as simpler and more dynamic — and in order to do that, it needs total control of the experience.

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram issued a warning to Twitter, noting that it’s upset its developer community before, and similar moves have backfired for MySpace and Digg. Tech entrepreneur Dalton Caldwell lamented the fact that Twitter hadn’t chosen an API-centric route years ago, and Ingram explored the question of whether a media company such as Twitter could be both an open platform and a destination.

In another post, Ingram looked at the feasibility of an open alternative to Twitter, concluding that it would be technically possible, but not likely to draw Twitter’s critical mass of users. “In the end, many users don’t really seem to care whether a system or network is open or not — or at least not enough of them to make a difference,” he wrote.

Another key piece of this puzzle came at about the same time, when The Wall Street Journal reported that Twitter is finding success selling ads for mobile devices, a platform that has frustrated Facebook and Google’s advertising teams. The Financial Times likewise reported that Twitter has shifted to a truly mobile-first mindset, and Business Insider’s Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry argued that that mobile-first nature, along with the fact that Twitter has the same ads on desktop and mobile, bodes well for Twitter’s mobile business.

The future of News Corp.’s papers: We’re continuing to see the repercussions from News Corp.’s decision two weeks ago to split into two separate news and entertainment media companies. The Wall Street Journal gave the details of the decision, and David Carr of The New York Times explained why Rupert Murdoch had agreed to make the deal — his papers, with the exception of Dow Jones’ Wall Street Journal, are declining quickly, and “his long-running romance with print will no longer be indulged just because he’s the boss.”

While the Times’ Amy Chozick noted that the Murdochs are still firmly in control of the two companies (much to the annoyance of some investors), Peter Jukes of The Daily Beast said the split will hasten the end of the Murdoch dynasty. And though Murdoch praised the potential of his newspapers, the Times reported that without him directly heading the papers up, they’re in a particularly vulnerable spot. Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici said the Journal will be well preserved as the company’s crown jewel, but the outlook is much worse for the New York Post. The Daily Beast’s Alex Klein expected the Journal to be remade in the image of its business news rival, Bloomberg.

Reuters’ Felix Salmon focused on the TV side, arguing that TV news is more part of the entertainment industry than the news industry, and that print media is converging on the one thing it does well — live breaking news coverage. Ad Age’s Jeanine Poggi wondered whether other conglomerates like Time Warner will also spin off their print properties.

CNN’s error and process journalism: Media observers also spent some time last week talking about CNN and Fox News’ Supreme Court reporting error (described by SCOTUSblog in meticulous, fascinating detail), wondering why it happened and what that might mean about the state of news. Poynter’s Steve Myers pinned the blame on “process journalism,” the philosophy of publishing stories as you piece them together and updating them with corrections. Myers said process journalism makes more sense in breaking news stories, not “appointment” stories like a Supreme Court decision. In a response, process journalism advocate Jeff Jarvis said this wasn’t really process journalism, and “The real lesson here is that the scoop is and always has been a dangerous act of journalistic narcissism.”

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram agreed with Jarvis on the diminishing value of the scoop and the idea that this wasn’t process journalism, and The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri also said this piece of news wasn’t worth a scoop. Mike Masnick of Techdirt argued that this error shouldn’t be cited as an indictment of the real-time news era. Poynter’s Craig Silverman broke down the error in a bit more detail, attributing it in part to a “collision of complexity and immediacy.”

Reading roundup: A few other stories and pieces to get to from the past holiday week:

— WikiLeaks began releasing its 2.4 million Syria-related emails last week, and while it initially named the AP as one of its collaborators, the AP was removed from the collaborator list and insisted it didn’t collaborate with WikiLeaks. The Atlantic’s Alexander Abad-Santos questioned how everyone was going to sort through all the documents, and elsewhere, Agence France-Presse explored whether the U.S. has a case against WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange.

— The Lab’s Justin Ellis wrote an interesting piece looking at The New York Times’ new Chinese-language site, but the project’s already faced a setback, as its account on the Chinese Twitter-like site Sina Weibo has been shut down.

— Finally, a few cool articles worth catching up with as you start your week: Here at the Lab, Ken Doctor wrote about aggregation apps like Pulse and the way metrics and subscription plans translate into money, and former GOOD magazine editor Ann Friedman offered some wise advice to young journalists and j-school grads. And tech blogger Erick Schonfeld argued that infographics are broken and proposed an alternative way of creating them.

Obama iPad photo illustration by Gary He.

POSTED     July 9, 2012, 10:30 a.m.
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