One of the bellwether “scandals” to hit journalism in 2012 was the dramatic fall of hyperlocal syndicator Journatic, which helps publishers cut costs by streamlining and outsourcing the production of rote local news stories. When NPR’s This American Life took a microscope to Journatic’s practices in late June, the company was revealed to have employed fake bylines on its sister site, Blockshopper — and many news stories for local American newspapers and sites it served were being routed through low-pay freelancers in countries like the Philippines.
In the wake of the story, Journatic lost a number of contracts with newspaper companies like Tribune, Sun-Times Media, Gatehouse, and others, who said that the service wasn’t living up their their standards (Tribune recently resumed working with the company). Meanwhile, journalism moralists wrung their hands about the degraded news product wrought by the Internet age. But the economics of local online journalism have been pointing in the same direction for a long time, and it’s clear that the economic efficiency Journatic espouses is, at least in some part, where journalism is heading in 2013.
While we at Street Fight of course don’t condone Journatic’s fake bylines or the more egregious outsourcing practices brought to light by the scandal, one thing that’s clear is that local journalism, when produced by full-time, professional journalists, is expensive — possibly too expensive to justify the revenues for many kinds of stories. Just ask AOL’s Patch, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in its 850-plus local news sites around the country, so far achieving only modest returns.
Meanwhile, the CPM rates and niche pageviews generated by local (and hyperlocal) content aren’t nearly enough to make the numbers compute. Local news organizations no longer have the luxury of throwing skilled reporters at procedural news stories that are only important to niche groups — but that doesn’t mean those stories shouldn’t be produced in some fashion.
The focus on automation and more-efficient online information by companies like Journatic will produce a form of local publishing that is sustainable — online stories that will attract pageviews and provide local information in a way that otherwise wouldn’t be worth the cost to publishers. And what’s more, when the table stakes are handled by outsourced providers such as these, it perhaps leaves publishers with the luxury of spending more editorial time on the kind of quality stories that can help define and strengthen the voice of that site in a community. That seems like a good thing.