Ex-Patch EIC: Journatic Illustrates Cost/Quality Issue in Hyperlocal

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Well, that didn’t take long.

Journatic was bound to make a mistake or two when they took over the Tribune Company’s large TribLocal ops. But the cost-and-scale-minded content startup has really stepped in it with a fake byline debacle, and it will be interesting to see if what they just stepped in was a mess they can clean off their shoe and move on from, or a fatal landmine.

I wrote about the company’s big leap into hyperlocal for CJR a few weeks back. Tribune’s decision to use them had set off some concerned mumblings, but then as now my position was that simply trying to do things better/faster/cheaper is not impeachable by itself. You have to wait and see what the product is, and judge that.

Strike one.

If there are lessons to take from this mess, they are simple ones: there’s a fine line between finding efficiencies and cutting corners, and if transparency solves 99.9% of your issues in journalism, then obfuscation creates about the same amount.

Part of me sympathizes a bit with Brian Timpone and company over at Journatic. This is a hard, hard business to get right. The online space in general favors the fast-moving and cost effective. But to do right, journalism is expensive and requires painstaking effort. The marriage of the two strikes everyone as completely necessary, but if it were easy… well, there wouldn’t be any Journatics, because newspaper companies would’ve done it a long time ago.

Journatic certainly deserves to get walloped for playing it fast and loose with identities. For one thing, they’re violating the internal policies of the companies they’re contracting for (some of whom have now terminated those contracts) — including the one that has actually invested in them (Tribune).

What’s ironic here is that the Internet is full of “Cowboy, Up!” startup slap-dashery that, for the most part, everyone celebrates.

If I were to prescribe Journatic a fix for this recent ailment (beyond, you know, not faking bylines anymore), it would be to show a real investment in journalism, in all senses of that word.

Look at Reddit. When the founders admitted a few weeks ago that they had flooded their site with fake accounts in the early days to give it life, the revelation got a big shrug from the interwebs. That’s because nobody much cares if they get tipped to a dog who looks like Clint Eastwood by a real person or Susie Sockpuppet. But you start blurring those lines in the sacred realm of journalism and you’re begging to get slapped.

Journatic still deserves a chance to make up for this mistake and do better. They need to keep in mind that credibility is a real thing, and like crystal, it can survive a chip or scratch or two, but when it breaks, it’s gone.

Whether they get that chance is an open question. Because here’s a truism that journalists don’t like to admit: as much as they are earnestly rooting for somebody to figure this thing out online and make sustainable paychecks possible, nobody nitpicks, scoffs, browbeats or straight-up righteously excoricates mistakes faster or harder. That tendency, of course, is what makes journalism journalism. It’s also one of the things that makes the online news business problem so hard to solve.

If I sound like I’m in Journatic’s corner on this thing (or in general), I’m not. If I’m being completely honest, I have to admit the operation gives me a cheap feeling. It’s hard to put your finger on, but it may be the lack of mission, of purpose (outside of making money) that one senses from them. They give me the same feeling that speed chess does — they seem to exist only to win a game, not to improve how it’s played, or (God forbid) to extend the life of an art form. That may be entirely unfair — it’s only my outside impression.

If I were to prescribe Journatic a fix for this recent ailment (beyond, you know, not faking bylines anymore), it would be to show a real investment in journalism, in all senses of that word. We get that you’re “-atic” — cost savvy and operationally slick. How bout showing everyone you can also be “Journo”, and slow down and do some meaningful work? It might be money well spent.

Brian Farnham was the founding Editor-in-Chief of Patch.com, where he remains on the advisory board. Brian was Editor-in-Chief of Time Out New York magazine before joining Patch. Before that he worked for a variety of publications both online and off, including Details magazine, New York Magazine, and the old, dearly departed Sidewalk.com.