Monday, July 30, 2012

Journalistic outsourcing

This American Life digs into the future of journalism and discovers that, not surprisingly, it uses a fake name:
And in fact in all the time he's worked at Journatic, he's never spoken directly to his supervising editor, who sits in St. Louis. They communicate exclusively through the computer. When Ryan has a question about how to do something, his supervisor sometimes answers by posting a private video on YouTube. That's the only time Ryan's ever heard the guy's voice. It's all very future.

After he got the student of the week assignment, Ryan was put in charge of editing death notices and little business briefs for Newsday, a newspaper on Long Island.

Ryan Smith And my job was just to copy edit it and again, put it in the database.

Sarah Koenig And where were these stories coming from? Like who was doing the writing that you were editing?

Ryan Smith I was told, actually, that they're located in the Philippines.

Sarah Koenig That everything you were editing was coming from the Philippines?

Ryan Smith That's what I was told at the time, that these obituaries and these business stories were all written in the Philippines.

Sarah Koenig I know, right? In the Philippines-- which means when you look up the death notice, say, of a man named Eugene Squeleney Jr. on, you see a story about him. But there's no reporters name attached to it. It just says special to Newsday under the headline. But the story was actually written by someone in the Philippines. Journatics internal records listed her as Diana D. and say that Diane got the story from the obituary website and just slightly rewrote the information there.

I called Newsday's newsroom to ask about this, why they would use Journatic for this work. I didn't get too far. Mostly I learned that Newsday has exciting hold music. I talked to an editor who didn't want to go on tape. When I pointed out the Squeleney story with no reporter's name on it, just special to Newsday, the editor said, quote, "I am totally unfamiliar with this. I don't know what it is," unquote.

Then I talked to a company spokesman who cheerfully said he'd look into it. But a few days later, I got an email saying he quote, "could not provide any information on this." He wouldn't even say whether Newsday was working with Journatic. Ryan says he learned about the Filipino writers after complaining to his supervisor that the copy he was getting was rife with basic grammar and spelling errors. That's when his editor told him to cut the writer some slack. They weren't native speakers. So Ryan wondered, why do we have these writers at all?

His editor wrote back quote, "well someone has to summarize the obits for the death briefs. And it's cheaper to pay an outsourced writer than to have an American writer editor do it. Unfortunately they're basically paid pennies for these. I have Filipinos asking for better pay on a regular basis. I wish I could do something for them." An ad Journatic placed seeking Filipino writers offered 0.35 to $0.40 per story. I confirmed with a Filipino writer that they are paid 35 to $0.40 a story and more for longer stuff. But wait, there's more. Here's Ryan.

Ryan Smith When I ended up looking at the names on a lot of the stories-- and the names on the stories that were published weren't the ones that I saw that had written the stories.

Sarah Koenig Here's what he's talking about. In the Chicago Tribune's local site covering the towns of Homewood and Flossmoor, for example, you can see that Eric and Joan So-and-so have listed for sale their 4 bedroom, 4.5 bath home on such-and-such a street for $695,000, that Eric is a general manager of a building company, that he attended Roosevelt University. And there's a picture of him.

The reporters name on the story is Jenny Cox. But there is no Jenny Cox. Or even if there is a Jenny Cox somewhere out there, she didn't write the story. The writer was someone named Giselle Bautista in the Philippines who works for Journatic. Again, looking at the computer system the company uses to manage its stories, it seems that when Giselle worked on this real estate story, there was a button called Select Alias. When she clicked on it, she had a choice. She could either be Jenny Cox or Glenda Smith.

Which lead to this gem of a defense from the CEO:

Brian Timpone Really what they're doing is assembling and copy editing a bunch of facts, right? So they write the lead. If there's a paragraph about a person, the paragraph is technically written by someone in the Philippines, but not written. It's like they have to type out who the person is, right? So they have to know how to write to send it over. I mean but to say oh, it's written in the Philippines-- I mean there might be a paragraph of it that the first draft is written in the Phillipines.

If you drop by the TAL site, make sure to checkout the fallout to the story.

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