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Newspapers outsource local journalism to the Philippines; Is TV next?

Several major American news organizations are outsourcing local journalism to the Philippines—paying reporters as little as 35-cents per news story, a weekly radio program on Chicago’s WBEZ has revealed.

Producer Sarah Koenig, on WBEZ’s “This American Life,” interviewed Chicago freelance journalist Ryan Smith, who as a former reporter for Journatic, revealed the practice. Smith was fired for doing the interview from his $10-an-hour position with no benefits. He said foreign writers for Journatic don’t use their real names and press a button on their computers to chose a random alias for any given story.

Tribune Company has announced that it has made an investment in Journatic, LLC, a provider of extensive local content to media companies and advertisers, and that the two companies will have a significant operating relationship going forward. Terms of the investment were not disclosed.

Tribune is one of the country’s leading multimedia companies, operating businesses in broadcasting, publishing and interactive. The company’s broadcasting group owns or operates 23 television stations, WGN America on national cable and Chicago’s WGN-AM. In publishing, Tribune’s leading daily newspapers include the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, Sun Sentinel (South Florida), Orlando Sentinel, Hartford Courant, The Morning Call and Daily Press.

As an employee of Journatic, Smith said he began seeing names like The Houston Chronicle and Newsday on his copy-editing assignments. Because he knew that the secretive Journatic produced its content at a very low cost, it made him fear for the newspapers they serviced.

“I felt like the company I was working for was accelerating the death of the newspaper, luring many members of the industry into their own demise with the promise of short-term savings,” Smith told The Poynter Institute, a non-profit school for journalism in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Journatic, which was founded in 2006, claims it is working with “dozens” of media companies, although the names of the organizations are not made public. It also doesn’t share financial information because it’s privately held and claims over 50 full-time employees and countless freelancers. The company said benefits were instituted for full-time employees starting on June 1 of this year.

It is not known whether any television stations now use Journatic. However, Tribune’s involvement in the company may signal the possibility that any or all of its news outlets may use the service.

Brian Timpone, Journatic’s chief executive, said it’s not important to have reporters stationed in the communities they cover to perform reporting tasks. “Being based in the community is not beneficial,” he told Poynter in an interview in April.

Brad Moore, vice president of Targeted Media for the Tribune Company, spoke on the record to This American Life. He said the team of 40 Tribune local staffers wasn’t generating enough content to drive the traffic the Tribune wanted. Journatic came in, 20 local staffers were laid off, and there is now three times the amount of content there was before.

Moore insisted that all the writing and editing is being done here in the U.S., and Timpone told This American Life the same. He said foreign writers only gather information and they may write a lead as well.

This American Life then contacted Filipino writers to ask them what, in fact, they did, for Journatic. They could only get one foreign Journatic worker on tape, and he didn’t want to risk his job by being named. When asked if he wrote the stories, not just gathered information for them, he uttered just one word: “yes.”

Another Journatic employee who contacted Poynter said: “We’ve been told time and time again to protect the Journatic identity.” When calling on a story, employees must say they’re calling on behalf of the newspaper Journatic works for and even acquire a temporary phone number with a local area code. “We are basically lying to our sources,” he said.

Timpone said Journatic’s clients decide how their writers should identify themselves when they call on stories. “We handle it the way our clients want us to.” As to whether writers have to have a local phone number set up, he dismissed the question as unimportant.

Free Press, the non-partisan media advocacy group, has posted a petition on their website that allows signers to contact Tribune and other companies known to work with Journatic to let them know how they feel about their news being produced overseas.

Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, said, “runaway media consolidation appears to have reached a new low. The idea that companies like Tribune would sack local journalists while outsourcing their jobs to other countries is appalling, but sadly not unexpected if you’ve been watching the downward spiral of the corporate media giants. But this rock-bottom moment in U.S. journalism may offer a moment of clarity about what happens when you continually put profits above public service.”