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Now They're Even Outsourcing "Local" Journalism -- Reporters Living in the Philippines Are Beat Reporters for Chicago and Houston Papers

Low-paid Filipino freelancers are secretly reporting supposedly local stories for newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and Houston Chronicle.

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"Well, someone has to summarize the obits for the death briefs, and it is cheaper to pay an outsourced writer than to have an American writer/editor do it. Unfortunately, they're basically paid pennies for these. (We paid quite a bit more for the BlockShopper work. Now that we're doing different work, I have Filipinos asking for better pay on a regular basis. I wish I could do something for them.)

"The system is what it is. How long does it take you to edit these? And how much longer would it take you to write them? It would pay off to have you both write and edit these stories only if you could write the stories in about 90 seconds."

The local content harvested by Journatic's team of over 200 freelancers includes a hodgepodge of stories and information – the low end consisting of Blockshopper's real estate transactions, local sports scores, crime blotter feeds, and rewritten press releases. Lots and lots of press releases, like the local library hosting a movie night or an announcement of swimming lessons offered by the park district.

But Journatic doesn't stop there. They also write more important local stories – about, perhaps, a park district adding new programs, a city's budget for the new fiscal year, even the Illinois governor's new healthcare initiative. Yet these stories will be little more than rewritten news releases. For instance, here's the exact wording of a press release about the previously mentioned healthcare plan.

"Governor Pat Quinn today visited the new Ann & Robert Lurie Children's Hospital to sign three laws that will help more working families acquire insurance and stay healthy throughout their lives. These measures, all passed unanimously by the General Assembly, will help small businesses save money and provide employee health insurance; allow for CPR/AED training for middle school students; and require Illinois hospitals to promote breastfeeding."

Here's the corresponding passage, as written by Journatic's Matt Russell:

"Governor Pat Quinn visited the Ann & Robert Lurie Children's Hospital to the laws into action that will help working families get insurance and stay healthy. These measures, passed unanimously by the General Assembly, will help small businesses save money and provide employee health insurance; allow for CPR/AED training for middle school students; and require Illinois hospitals to promote breastfeeding."

No other analysis, no context, no sources who might dispute the governor's rosy view of the new law. The story treats the press release like a fundamentalist Christian quoting the Bible.

I learned more about Journatic's idea of local journalism in April, at firsthand. The Tribune deal had just been announced, and the company was desperately seeking someone to write news stories about Homewood and Flossmoor – two small towns in Chicago's south suburbs. One reporter, I was told by a Journatic editor, had been fired for plagiarizing stories from Patch.com, and another had been canned for doing nothing. I was to be an emergency fill-in reporter.

I'd write three stories for the Homewood/Flossmoor section – a news feature on a historic building being redeveloped into a boutique hotel, a piece on the city of Flossmoor's 2012-2013 annual budget and a Q&A with a person with strong community ties. When I talked to the Peter Gallanis, the editor of the section, he told me not to spend a lot of time on each story. For the story about the hotel, he told me to rewrite the press release and "grab a few quotes" from one village official and be done with it. For the budget story, I also only needed to get once source.