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

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.

  1. Sparklegoat
    July 9, 2012

    The part I find most disturbing is Timpone’s (and the Tribune’s) promises to have ethics from now on.  Why didn’t they have them before?

    1. nobody here
      July 9, 2012

      Timpone never had ethics.  For years, he ran (and continues to run) blockshopper which posts people’s personal real estate transactions to the web – so that one google search for your name shows the world exactly what you paid for your home with the address, and even a picture of your face w/ some info stolen from linkedin about your occupation.  He calls  it “news”…it was also written by Filipinos who were paid pennies & has many errors.  If anyone (even people in occupations where they needed their information concealed…or people who were stalked) asked timpone to remove this information – he refuses.   
       There are over 200 complaints all over the web about blockshopper from people who have asked Timpone to remove their names / addresses.    He does not care about other people or privacy.  He has no ethics or moral standards. The $2 in ad revenue was more important to him.   He will not take a listing down for ANY
      reason…except that of his father – of course – who is not listed on blockshopper.  His father, Leonard, was disbarred in the state of Illinois for being corrupt and having “moral turpitude” – (this is all public information) quite amazing – you can see where Brian Timpone got his ethics. It’s not so easy to get disbarred in Illinois!

      I have dealt with him personally and I consider him a textbook sociopath … he is charismatic like a typical sociopath but has NO ethics or moral reasoning capabilities.  So, he’s ideal for convincing major media companies to go to his absurd business model…a pure salesman who made the biggest newspapers in the world sign a deal with the devil without even knowing.  And still, people like him – because people always get charmed & conned by sociopaths…even the girl who did the original interview that exposed this was saying how much she “genuinely liked him” – yep, I’m not surprised.  It takes a lot of experience to know this personality type.  She said, in the interview, how he went on and on about how great her website is and how much he loves her interviews (typical sociopath BS).   

  2. Brian Farnham
    July 9, 2012

    For more on the ethics issues here, see this thoughtful piece by more former Patch colleague Holly Edgell: http://hollyedgell.wordpress.com/2012/07/02/when-local-is-not-really-local-journatic-makes-headlines-of-its-own/

  3. Gospeedgo
    July 9, 2012

    Based on Blockshopper, I’m shocked any reputable organization would do business with Brian Timpone. He adheres to a
    set of journalistic and ethical standards that represents the dark side
    of our industry. While others struggle to modernize and monetize, he
    simply abuses the definition of “journalism” to the detriment of his peers and readers. I assure you that he sees absolutely nothing wrong with fudging bylines. Being caught is likely his biggest regret. No doubt the other shoe will drop.

  4. Fly on the Wall
    July 9, 2012

    Aside from the questions about Journatic’s business practices–and they go far beyond the fake bylines–who anointed Brian Farnham as the new arbiter of hyperlocal standards? His work at Patch was more focused on forcing fluffy canned content across the network than on delivering quality journalism to America’s small towns.

  5. July 9, 2012

    Brian raises a number of pertinent questions, and concerns,
    about Journatic and its news- and information-gathering operation. For
    Journatic to concoct bylines – even as a solution to meeting demands by Google
    News before the search engine would aggregate Blockshopper stories – was a
    major ethical lapse. Because of that lapse, Journatic must show that it is not
    run like the editorial equivalent of a sausage factory. CEO Brian Timpone
    should pull back the curtain. His pledge to create “clear editorial guidelines
    against which we’ll evaluate all 150+ types of news stories we do” is a step
    toward that kind of necessary transparency. I do take issue with Brian’s
    assertion of Journatic’s “lack of mission.” Journatic is, in fact, a response
    to the lack of mission by newspapers in adequately reporting local and
    community news. To recreate that abandoned mission, Timpone and Journatic have developed a model that brings new efficiencies to news and information gathering. The
    result is more and more interesting community news and of a greater variety
    that’s now on display in the Chicago Tribune.

    1. Elaine Johnson
      July 9, 2012

       New efficiencies, Tom? By paying professionals $10 an hour and off-shore news gatherers 35-cents per piece? That’s not the sort of “efficiency” I care to support with my eyeballs. And as a long-time reader of TribLocal, I can assure you that Journatic is not delivering more interesting community news. While data on home sales and  top DVD rentals may present a greater variety, I doubt very much–based upon my own hyperlocal experiment–that it’s of compelling interest to the average suburban reader. I wasn’t a big fan of the original TribLocal–it relied heavily on UGC in the early days and only beefed up its professional reporting after Patch moved into the area in 2010–but the product Journatic is producing is a poor substitute.

  6. Just wow.
    July 9, 2012

    Wow. Okay. Before he left Patch, Brian Farnham led restructuring efforts that essentially put editorial in service to ad sales, so Patch’s editors were forced to take assignments dictated by sales in an attempt to get more local businesses to advertise. This is why readers have noticed so many awful fluff pieces on local gas stations, automotive stores, pizzerias, etc., in their local Patches.

    Worse, management insisted there was no ethical breach, and to quote one of the regional directors who fielded concerns at a staff meeting: “If you don’t like it, you can leave.”

    The point is that Farnham, who has no actual news experience, should in no universe have a microphone to weigh in on ethics at another news organization, even if it’s a bottom-of-the-barrel content mill like Journatic. While it takes one to know one, and Patch is about a half-step removed from a content mill, some of Farnham’s directives and policies were tantamount to ordering editorial to lie to readers, and the concept of ethics does not exist at Patch, where pageviews are king.

    Worse, Farnham presided over the franchising of individual Patches as mini Huffington Posts, directly contributing to the decline of organizations that actually pay for newsgathering by ripping off their content. It used to be called plagiarism, now it’s common practice at Patch and it’s called “aggregation” even when it’s just copy+paste without even a link to the source.

    So Brian, Journatic gives you “a cheap feeling” but you didn’t see anything wrong with stealing content from other news organizations and essentially deputizing your editors and reporters as ad sales? Pot, meet kettle.

    1. brifar
      July 9, 2012

      Thanks for the comment “Just wow.”  I’d love to respond to all this, especially given its pretty complete lack of accuracy, but my personal policy is not to engage in discussions with people who aren’t honest enough to give their real names while they sling allegations around. (Ironic you calling me the “pot” when you’re the one taking anonymous pot shots.)  

      1. SoWhat
        July 10, 2012

         You don’t address Just Wow’s allegations, which unfortunately many others would say are true. You use a weak diversionary tactic by attacking an anonymous posting to avoid addressing the person’s points. 
        That link (lower on this page) to a former editor’s blog adds nothing to the discussion. Anonymous posting has its merits and problems, but that isn’t the issue here.  Just Wow may still be a Patch employee who is afraid of retribution.  But it doesn’t really matter.  Your response is inadequate particularly to the non-personal charges the poster makes “some of Farnham’s directives and policies were tantamount to ordering editorial to lie to readers, and the concept of ethics does not exist at Patch, where pageviews are king.”

        1. Just wow
          July 22, 2012

          Brian was a big proponent of anonymous comments during his tenure at Patch, arguing that people might be afraid to speak out about important local issues if they were forced to attach their names to their comments. He regularly rebuffed local politicians and others who appealed to Patch management to change the site’s commenting policies.

          The takeaway from this is that anonymous commenting is necessary and important when it’s a local politician or school board member getting slammed, but when Brian Farnham is the topic of conversation, anonymous commenting is cowardly and dishonest. Ultimately it’s not surprising, considering Farnham liked to send emotional and obscenity-peppered company-wide e-mails vowing to track down and fire leakers when he was EIC.

          It’s been well-documented in many different corners of the web that Patch combined editorial and sales during Farnham’s tenure. Not only have employees leaked documents to sites like Business Insider and Romenesko, but a simple Google search with the right terms will turn up plenty of examples of paid-for editorial content on individual Patch sites. There’s also Patch’s widely publicized “Reader’s Choice” features, as well as many other programs aimed at courting local business owners instead of serving regular readers with actual news content.

          I have nothing against Brian Farnham personally, and I think he’s a nice guy in person. When Patch got walloped with bad press early on over local editor workloads, he seemed to take it to heart and to his credit he tried to improve the situation. He was also very generous with praise.

          But the good doesn’t wash out the bad, and I don’t think Farnham should be allowed to preach on media ethics without getting called out for the many ethical lapses at Patch while he was captain of that ship.

          PatchFan: Initially I thought you were trolling, but it looks like you’re serious. All I can say is, even if we didn’t have an overwhelming amount of evidence that pressure from AOL forced Patch to place editorial in service to ad sales, it’s extremely unlikely that the majority of 775 local editors decided independently to drop hard news coverage in favor of features designed to flatter advertisers. Those policy changes come from the top down. If you’re an employee, doubtless you saw first-hand the opposition among people on the ground, who did not want to be deputized as ad sales when they were hired to be journalists.

    2. PatchFan
      July 11, 2012

       Just wow. Yeah, that’s it, “Just Wow.”

      That was a ridiculous post if there ever was one. I’ll agree that there have been too many fluff pieces on local Patch sites, but blaming Brian Farnham or anyone at Patch’s corporate office for that is absolutely asinine. Blame for the proliferation of this type of content rests at the feet of local editors and their supervisors who tolerate fluff and pass it off as news. It’s easy to blame a bunch of nameless, faceless “suits” at the top, and editorial folks haven’t meshed with ad folks since the dawn of the printing press – but both are too often scapegoats for lazy reporting on the local level.

      Nobody at Patch ever ordered editors to write fluff pieces on gas stations, but likewise, they never told anyone to delve deeply into local controversies, take time to examine sometimes uncomfortable issues in a community and practice a level of watchdog reporting that would fill the void of staff-starved newspapers and put Patch on the local map at the same time. The short version of what I’m saying: bad local Patch sites are the product of bad local management. I’ve seen terrible Patch sites and I’ve seen absolutely amazing Patch sites where articles generate hundreds of comments on a daily basis. Most are somewhere in the middle. Like most industries and most companies, there’s a bell curve. The key for Patch will be retaining the editors whose philosophy is producing content that generates engagement and making them the leaders of the company.

      Patch needs to make money, that’s obvious. But Patch also needs to pound it into the collective skull of its local teams that fluff shouldn’t be tolerated. Sure, an occasional feel-good story on the local boy scouts is OK, and maybe a story about a lady who has a cookie store is charming once in a while, but stuff like that shouldn’t be a daily occurrence. Editors need to toughen up. On the sites where the local editors dig deep into REAL local issues of substance on a daily basis, the response is huge, and sure for people at Patch, it’s measurable. I don’t have the data to prove what I’m saying, but compare the “newsy” Patch sites to the “fluffy” Patch sites and look at comments, social media sharing and other factors. It’s easy to tell which philosophy is successful.

      We shall see what the future holds, but within Patch are glimmers of what hyperlocal news in the online space SHOULD look like.

  7. Scott Brodbeck
    July 9, 2012

    Shrug. This is all a moot point because the audience for the “local news” currently produced by Journatic is extremely limited. The only reason it exists is because newspapers are in a death spiral and are on a hunt for the least expensive dookie to throw at the wall, hoping that it will stick.

    I’m more enthusiastic about attempts to have computers write high school sports summaries than I am about Journatic’s attempts to have near-minimum wage workers write local news from remote locales. Journatic’s current business model will die off naturally in due time, don’t you worry.

  8. Plundered
    July 12, 2012

     “Because of that lapse, Journatic must show that it is not run like the editorial equivalent of a sausage factory.”

    The main difference is that sausage is edible.

    Timpone is not going to be inspired by this dustup, unless you mean inspired to do a better job covering up his company’s offenses. He won’t pay much of a price for the shameful things he does, since this will blow over, sooner or later.

    Unless something radical happens soon, you are all being replaced by those in the Philippines working on stories for 35 cents a pop. Sure, there will be a few folks left standing, much like there are still a few things still manufactured in America.

    Good luck to them.

  9. Elizabeth Barr
    July 21, 2012

    No one has anointed Brian Farnham the arbiter of hyper-local standards, but he is as qualified as anyone to comment on the space. As a former colleague of Farnham’s, I can assure you his integrity with regard to journalistic standards is unassailable. You may see a play for pageviews; Farnham looks to connect with readers. He was never more proud of a Patch reporter than when they broke a story of a questionable City Council move or some other issue that affected the lives of those in the Patch community. And while at Time Out, though hard news was not the company’s mission, accurate, timely reporting was of the utmost importance to Farnham. Whomever it is claiming Fanham has no news experience is uninformed. In addition, the hyper-local space is one that Farnham has aggressively followed, studied and worked in for at least the last eight years.
    The larger question, however—that of reporting local news in a way that both allows for the skill and time required for proper journalism and is financially sustainable—is a complex one that no one has yet answered. That question will not become moot, as one commenter here suggests. I found the best, most comprehensive coverage of a major hospital closing in NYC, a story rife with corruption and bad politics, was delivered not by the New York Times, arguably one of the best newspapers in the world, but by my neighborhood newspaper.
    Thanks Brian for continuing to investigate and report on the issue of hyper-local news, and thanks to others, such as PatchFan, who make equally informed contributions to the discussion. Whether it’s reporting the closing of a local hospital or the war on Syria, it is imperative that we find a way to continue funding accurate, in-depth reporting that keeps us an informed citizenry.
    Elizabeth Barr, EVP/Editorial Director, Time Out North America

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