Sunday, August 26, 2012

Hyperlocals: Use Outsourcing to Cover Breaking News Better (and Cheaper)

Sound crazy? It's not – because outsourcing can afford you the ability to give your readers real-time “team coverage” where now you might be hard-pressed to field more than one or two reporters.

Bottom line: For hyperlocal websites and for weekly newspapers, these techniques result in robust, accurate, competitive breaking news coverage your publication might otherwise have little chance to produce. Here's how it works.

(This scenario assumes you have a trained offshore team in place and it's properly managed and controlled – which is what we do at Journtent. It also assumes you've rehearsed this plan, have procedures in place, and that all staff members carry smartphones with company-approved video and audio apps... also tools in Journtent's kit....).

There are two essential cornerstones to covering a breaking news story using our system: First, that you get an editor online to control the coverage, and second, that you get a local staffer on the scene.

The moment the editor assumes control of the story online, the process takes on a “live radio” and “television live remote” feel.

The editor's first job is to get the closest available staff member to the scene of the news event. For a small hyperlocal publication, this could be an intern, a stringer, a photog  – even an advertising salesperson. (Sacrilegious I know, but if your staff is small and the breaking news is big, why not leverage every staff asset?)

As the closest staffer is en route and the offshore team is alerted to stand by, the editor is already publishing what information is available over company channels (website, Twitter, email alerts, etc.).

In a very few moments, the editor must begin to deal with the emerging facts and assign offshore team members to gather research on key stakeholders in the story, on the location of the story, and on citizen reports of the story.

The real value of the offshore team is that it can work quickly and in parallel to: monitor local police and emergency radio traffic; scan Twitter, Instagram and YouTube for citizen reports, photos and videos;  research the story's key stakeholders and begin to build background on the players (including examination of their Facebook and Twitter accounts); monitor other local media for developing facts and angles;  transcribe witness and official statements quickly for complete accuracy; prepare maps and other graphics to illustrate the story as developments emerge.

The offshore team can do this quickly and inexpensively – it allows you to focus a number of people who can perform a larger number of breaking story-related functions quickly than you otherwise would have at your disposal.

As the offshore team starts to amass information, the editor is placing calls to story stakeholders to gather more information and the first staff member is arriving on scene.

Quickly it becomes obvious why we at Journtent advocate that publications (no matter how small) provide staff members with a Bluetooth-headset-equipped company smartphone to carry in addition to their own personal mobiles.  One phone just isn't enough.

Of paramount importance: The on-scene staff member must immediately establish a live video stream feed from the scene. The moment that feed pops up live, the editor and the offshore team can see and hear the action from the scene and begin to prepare much more detailed reports. The on-scene staffer uses verbal commentary to describe the totality of the event (like a TV reporter).

Next the on-scene staffer must shoot a small number of photographs with their personal mobile phone and send them back to the newsdesk – these will provide the resolution needed for both breaking web reports and later the print stories.

Then, the staffer must call the editor and maintain an open phone line with the editor to begin to feed information to the newsdesk and to receive instructions from the editor.

The two-way communication dynamic is vital because the editor is by now sitting in a commanding position; receiving information from a number of sources via the offshore team, the editor probably knows more than the on scene staffer and direct the staffer's actions.

When conducting an on-scene interview, the staffer must live video stream the interview so that transcriptionists and offshore team writers can watch in real time to gather quotes and information.

Via phone earpiece, the editor can direct the questioning of a stakeholder to ensure that what is needed for the story is obtained. (You can understand why this must be so if your first on-scene staff member is an intern or an ad sales rep!)  Furthermore, the editor may now possesses information not known on scene which can be leveraged in the live interviews.

It is also very important for the on scene staffer to get panned shots of the entire scene. Using the live video streaming smartphone, the staffer must be instructed to slowly pan a 360 degree view of the entire scene. Often, an editor can identify a person among the crowd or among the emergency workers who can be interviewed live or called later.

As the story is developed, the editor can provide updated coverage to readership by any one of a number means:  the live video feed is one possibility, and of course website updates as well as Twitter.

Writers working on the offshore team now can begin to assemble a longer, more detailed story that pulls together all the accumulated facts, interviews and research as the editor  focuses on managing the information-gathering and frequent updates.

There is nothing described in this process that is technologically extreme or even difficult, in the least. With Skype, Ustream, YouTube, and smartphones, the bulk of the technology is very inexpensive and omnipresent. Outsourcing is the factor that levels the playing field and enables smaller staffs to accomplish much more, even on nanobudgets.

With proper management and experience, these techniques empower small hyperlocals and weekly newspapers to compete face-to-face with larger metro dailies to cover high-value local breaking news.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Byline Fakery in Outsourced Articles: Another (Unnecessary) Journatic Misstep

Writing for the website on July 16, Jeff Sonderman reported that “outsourcing company Journatic used previously undisclosed fake bylines on more than 350 stories published on behalf of the Houston Chronicle.” (See )

Sonderman noted this revelation followed other reports that Journatic used fake bylines on work published in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

He went on to report that Journatic co-founder and CEO Brian Timpone “told Poynter several times that Journatic never has and never will use aliases” and reproduced an email in which Timpone repeated his denial.

“We now know,” Sonderman wrote, “that was not true.”

One favorite byline associated with Journatic stories seems to have been “Chad King.” Sonderman reported its use on at least 342 articles. He wrote that Journatic sources claimed the use of the Chad King byline was not an attempt at subterfuge but rather (further) evidence of sloppy internal controls, since, the sources said, that moniker was intended to be used only as an internal placeholder and never to be published.

Sonderman concluded with “Why does any of this matter?” and went on to reference Reuters media critic Jack Shafer's column in which Shafer wrote that “knowing the identity of the writers makes it easier to read a newspaper critically and hold writers accountable.”

Of course, Shafer (and Sonderman) are completely correct. I agree utterly.

All this noted, how should one craft bylines for articles written by offshored writers?

This is a subject I've thought about before, since I have employed overseas researchers and newswriters for over six years.  But first, a quick explanation as to why such a simple question is trickier than it seems.

In my system, the Journtent System, articles are budgeted and assigned by local editors who work in the community being covered. Research is done and interviews conducted by local staff. After the materials are collected (interviews, research, copies of press releases, video, audio, etc.) the entire package is assigned – with a clear angle and sometimes even a draft lede – by the local editor to the outsourced writer.  When the story comes back, it is fact-checked and copy edited locally.

We have never published a fake byline to mask an outsourced story's origin, and never would. Rather, for us, the question becomes (for transparency's sake), just how many people should be included on the byline?

Conceivably a story could be written by Myko Chiong, incorporating interviews and research conducted by James Macpherson, with transcriptions of the interviews produced by Faith Fernandez, and include photography by Candice Merrill.  (In fact, this is representative of a number of articles we have actually published.)

In such a case, we have routinely published the writer's name and the photographer's name. The article would be bylined:  “Story by MYKO CHIONG | Photography by CANDICE MERRILL.”

The Journatic debacle, along with Jack Shafer's edict that the function of the byline is accountability, now force me to ask if more detailed bylines should be mandatory with outsourced articles which involve a number of people performing separate functions.

In fact, byline formulae for outsourced articles should be discussed and standardized by academics and trade organizations in light of the fact that outsourcing will continue to grow in publishing, and outsourced articles tend to have more producers than do traditional content.

Some may argue that the location of the producers should be included as well, in which case a reader could identify whether a writer is local or offshore. The use of a dateline alone would not suffice to fully disclose where the story was produced, in the sense that the materials used in the story could well have been obtained by local staff but then written or transcribed remotely.

Until discussions of standardization occurs, we at Journtent will advocate for the publishing of full-disclosure, accurate bylines of writers (using their legal names) as well as the names of key researchers, interviewers, and others involved in the production of published editorial content. We are conducting a review of our websites and will institute new expanded bylining within the next ten days.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

And Now, A Penny for My Thoughts

[Originally Posted on November 30, 2008 | Reposted with Edits & Updates on August 21, 2012] 
Maureen Dowd’s column about me and my outsourcing concepts was published in this Sunday’s New York Times (“A Penny for My Thoughts?“).  I only wish her column’s format permitted greater detail. Its brevity bred misunderstanding.

The most important point not included in her column is that I simply do not believe in or practice uncontrolled, long-distance news reporting – a concept which is patently flawed.

What I do promote is a modern-day twist on the “legman/rewrite man” news reporting system pioneered by Charles Chapin (“the greatest city editor who ever lived”) around the turn of the last century, shortly after the introduction of the telephone.

The reporting system refined in those days has current applications. When coupled with process engineering and today’s technology -- and outsourcing -- the resulting “collaborative journalism” can result in a lower-cost editorial product which retains the nature, mission and value of local reporting.

At its core my system recognizes that the heart, mind and soul of a newspaper (or a web “newspaperless”) must exist in the community which is being covered.  I completely agree with the multitude of comments I received which point out that nobody thousands of miles away can possibly understand the nuances of local issues (or for that matter, even the basics of local issues).  Really, isn’t this completely obvious?

The outsourced writing staff must be as immersed as possible in the affairs of the local community. (It is not possible to use a pool of distant, transient freelancers to write high-quality hyperlocal content.)

Your outsourced crew must read your community's newspapers and blogs, witness your community's live streamed local events, and watch locally produced web television. You must educate the outsourced staff about your community.

But make no mistake. This "education" of offshore staff can never be used to replace the knowledge or judgement of your local staff. Only local staff should originate story ideas, only local staff should conduct interviews, only local staff should issue writing assignments, and only local staff should perform final edits, fact-checking and publication.

My system recognizes that the best way to gather information about a news event is always to actually be there. “Boots on the ground” is the only way to go.

To accomplish this efficiently, my system borrows from yesteryear’s “legmen” – that is, field observers – to witness local news and events. These observers are not reporters in the modern day sense because they don’t write. They observe.  Unlike their counterparts in the last century, these observers don’t just use telephones to call in facts afterward.

My system uses live video streamed by field observers back to the newsroom. Editors assign these observers to cover breaking news or budgeted pre-scheduled events, and these editors or reporters monitor and direct the observers working in the field.

In this manner, a few editors and reporters can direct and monitor a team of photographers/observers to blanket an entire city’s events with a very efficient allocation of resources.

At a small news organization, editors may end up being assignment editors/rewriters/beat reporters rolled up into one – all without leaving their desk.

This division of labor fields inexpensive “eyes” and “ears” on the street, directed by the veteran “brains” back in the news room. It is more akin to local television news than the traditional print newsroom.

The field observers’ job is to gather information through photography, through video (and its embedded audio), and through any published documentation or other physical objects available for the media at the scene. The observers are in two-way communication with their editor and are directed by the editor at crucial moments as to what aspect of the event must be covered.

Editors and reporters can even conduct what television refers to as “live remotes,” and in this manner the knowledgeable editor can, for example, directly interview a government official after a speech, or a police official at a crime scene.

Everything I have described above is designed to occur within the actual community being covered. Please notice that outsourcing has, to this point, not even entered the process.

So far, my concept has simply reconfigured newsgathering to become more cost-effective. It has redefined the job of reporters and segregates the assignment, field observing, writing, and editing functions. It introduces video technology into traditional newsrooms so that editors or reporters can virtually “be” at news scenes.

It is at the conclusion of this newsgathering process that outsourcing kicks in.

By that point, the editor or reporter in the newsroom will have directed the field observer to gather all on-scene facts and interviews deemed necessary. The raw video feed of the news event will have been transmitted by the field observer, and the resulting video will be available for the writer to watch. In fact, the editor or reporter will have watched the unfolding developments live while researching background issues and conducting supplemental telephone interviews.

When the editor or reporter has an information package (video and audio from the news scene, still photography, supplemental interviews, and online background research) which is sufficient for the first report and has prepared the writing assignment, the actual writing can begin – you guessed it – by the offshore writing staff.

(Of course, the offshore writing staff is already prepped. They already “attended” the local event virtually, online.)

Not only is this entire process seamless, it's easy to manage with today's technology. Using it, a reporter can virtually "attend" a number of events in her city daily, and can follow up with stakeholders by telephone and email to nail down unanswered questions and angles.

Once the story is ready to write, the reporter tasks the writer with the storyline, points to the most important quotes and facts, and then moves on to covering the next story as the writer works.

This combination of job deconstruction, technology, and outsourcing ends up feeling a lot more like a local TV news process than a print reporting process. But with these techniques, a small number of reporters can "be" all over their community, and can witness events and research and write and assign in-depth stories in real time.

In sum, these techniques can empower a small staff to be reconfigured to produce much more community coverage, responsibly and accurately, and to do so at much lower cost.

I'm Ba-ack!

In 2007 you probably heard about the hyperlocal Pasadena, California website which hired Indian writers to report on its local news.  (See )

That was my website and that was my idea. I am James Macpherson of

In spite of the clobbering in the media I took for the idea then -- and in spite of the Journatic debacle now --  the truth remains that some form of editorial outsourcing IS coming to newsrooms near you, and probably soon.

The idea is so powerful it should be explored and discussed, not simply rebuked.

Outsourcing certain parts of the content production process can be a "great equalizer" which empowers small hyperlocal websites to do heavy lifting like their major print competitors.

It's time to discuss outsourcing intelligently and calmly -- and I have a lot to say about it that will help the hyperlocals.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Yes, Virginia, Outsourcing Can Produce Responsible Hyperlocal Journalism

For more than six years now, I have been quietly (with the exception of a media explosion in 2007) refining a system for producing responsible hyperlocal journalism which is as cost-effective as hell.

My motivation is simple. I publish "Pasadena Now" (, a daily online community newsmagazine, and I need high-quality, low-cost local content to serve my readership base. We exist on a nanobudget.

I am convinced that my solution -- a system which combines local editorial control, the redefinition of some newsroom job descriptions, liberal doses of inexpensive new technology, and outsourced writing -- is an effective solution which, while it pares costs in a big way, at the same time fulfills the goals of genuine journalism.

By using my Journtent system, newspapers (both print and web) can get stories out quickly and accurately, save money and let reporters dig deeper and cover more ground.

The Journtent system assigns the most efficient labor to the task at hand during each stage of content conception, development, writing and editing, and works in a simple, seamless flow with a real-time dynamic that feels more like radio or local television news than newspaper reporting.

Above all, the Journtent system rests on this core belief:  Hyperlocal content must be locally planned and controlled. 

Local content must originate with local staff. Before it is published, it must checked by local staff.

It is simply inconceivable to me that any publisher or editor could possibly believe that writers in foreign countries understand the dynamics of communities thousands of miles distant.

That said, the Journtent system has proven daily for years that properly trained outsourced writers and researchers, when directed by local staff, can produce written content, backgrounders, and graphics which equal the work of local staff - but at much, much lower cost.

The Journtent system changes the daily work of most reporters because the system allocates the bulk of actual story-writing to outsourced writers. This results in freed-up time during which reporters can use their sources to uncover new information or to pursue new stories.  Reporters can work on more stories.

My system also leverages technology -- simple, everyday, mostly-smartphone technology.

Journtent is my hands-on solutions to the paradox of local news websites: These sites are expected to exceed the performance of local print newspapers by providing almost real-time coverage of hyperlocal news (with accuracy) -- but they must do so on a fraction of the budget enjoyed by their print competitors.

That is why I invented the Journtent system.

Simply put, Journtent empowers publishers to produce much more journalism for much less money.