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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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HBO's new late-night series The Newsroom is set in the busy backstage of a CNN-like cable news TV show, but had the creators of the premium cable show really wanted to expose the most shocking behind-the-scenes realities of modern journalism, they'd instead have had to cast actor Jeff Daniels as a reporter for a company named Journatic.

Perhaps not even Aaron Sorkin could pen a compelling drama about copyeditors staring at computers alone in their living rooms, or outsourced reporters silently typing stories on their MacBooks at far-flung Starbucks in St Louis or Manila. Nonetheless, a quiet revolution is happening in the American newspaper industry and it has not been televised. Don't feel bad that you haven't noticed or heard of Journatic – I hadn't either until after nearly a year of working for its sister outfit Blockshopper.

If the best trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn't exist, Journatic's greatest ruse has been to convince the world that the company and its workers barely exist. Google the word "Journatic" and it'll take a lot of digging through search results to find the company's bare-bones website, because the site itself, as one blogger has reported, contains code that eliminates it from Google search results.

That's strange for a company that's had such a large impact on newspaper journalism. Over the last two or three years, the Chicago-based content provider has infiltrated dozens of mid to major newspapers across the country and obtained contracts to produc so-called "hyperlocal" news content. Those deals often lead to a horde of firings of editorial staff at those news organizations, as some full-time office-dwellers cede work to a small army of low-paid freelancers living all around the globe.

In this brave new media world, the face-to-face has been rendered as obsolete as health benefits and vacation pay, leading to a bizarrely disconnected state of affairs between the newspapers and the people putting words on its pages. I've copyedited or written news stories for a handful of major US newspapers over the past 18 months – the Houston Chronicle in Texas, San Francisco Chronicle in California and Newsday in Long Island, New York and others – yet it's doubtful that any of the editors or senior executives for those news organizations could pick me out of a police line-up. In fact, it's unlikely they could tell you a single personal detail about me or the other journalists behind the bylines of countless stories that appear in their print editions or on their websites, as provided by my employer.

Had editors at these newspapers requested a meeting with the individuals producing this new content, they'd have racked up a staggering amount of frequent flier miles. Journatic's ranks are full of people like myself – home office-based US freelancers located far from the area they are covering. (I've never stepped foot in the Lone Star state once, much less visited the offices of the Houston Chronicle.) A second group of the company's workers have been recruited from beyond the North American continent in developing countries like the Philippines and various African nations.

A final group of Journatic workers would be literally impossible to track down. Why? Because they don't actually exist. They're as fictional as Sherlock Holmes or the Sasquatch.

Working with fake co-workers feels like the icing on the cake of my chaotic journalism career.

For most of the last decade, I've worked as a full-time staff reporter for small-town weekly and daily newspapers in central Missouri – embedded in the type of journalism that Journatic is working hard to get outsourced. I'd attend and write about overlong city council or school board meetings for a newspaper in Mexico, Missouri and dictate the police blotter and occasionally work a big-time murder as a crime reporter for the Jefferson City News Tribune.