I’d like to talk to you about the 468th episode of This American Life. Specifically, I want to hone in to 23 and 1/2 minutes that makes up Act Two: Forgive Us Our Press Passes. I don’t recommend many things, as a habit, but this is worth your time.
In producer Sarah Koenig’s story about a company called Journatic, which outsources local newspaper stories, be whisked away into deep contemplation about what constitutes journalism, authorship and attribution, news, consumerism, the local/the global, human rights, and the list goes on.
As I understand it, Journatic focuses on amassing large amounts of data from small towns across the United States—birth and death records, budgets, police blotters—and then outsources the writing of articles based on this data to people in other places—according to this story, a few in the US, and many in other countries such as the Philippines. Journatic sells these stories to newspaper outlets across the US and the stories are often printed with fake bylines or none at all. (Makes you take a second look at Jenny Smith’s article on last week’s town budget meeting. Do you know Jenny Smith?)
For this post, I am only going to focus on one aspect touched on in this episode, but it is the combination of these topics in one story that makes this worth a listen. So, even though this post will be focused on ‘writing,’ I am more than happy to discuss any and all of these other aspects in the comments below.
Let’s get to it. I encourage you to listen before reading on. In the embedded sound file below, Act Two begins at exactly 26 minutes. Here is a link to the episode on the This American Life website in case you want to go to the source for a listen.(This American Life has posted two articles from Poynter.org that have more detail and an update after the airing of this episode.)
A few weeks ago, after another fascinating #literacies chat on Twitter, I posed a follow-up tweet about the use of the word “literacy.” Kevin Hodgson (or @dogtrax on Twitter) posted a reply that I couldn’t get out of my head while I listened to this episode. Here’s our exchange:
We continued to exchange tweets, and in doing so took this idea forward, considering terms like composing and designing to capture the multiple modes with which we find ourselves composing in a digital age. In this episode of This American Life, however, I found myself thinking backward, reductionist, in fact. What can we strip away and still call the act writing?
In the following section of the episode, Sarah Koenig had interviewed the Brad Moore of The Chicago Sun-Times who had hired Journatic to fill the local sections of their papers with local news, and Brian Timpone who was a champion of Journatic as a company. Each of these gentlemen claimed that all local news stories—though they were not written locally—were ‘at least’ written in the United States. Sarah Koenig was pushing to find out what exactly was outsourced, specifically to the Philippines. (All added emphasis is mine.)
Brad Moore: Just to be clear, all of the writing and editing of everything that Journatic is doing is happening by professional journalists here in the US.
Sarah Koenig: I went around and around about this with both Brad Moore and Brian Timpone who insisted that Filipinos were not writing stories. They were more like typing information, assembling it in paragraph form, which sounds to me a lot like writing. Brian Timpone told me this was a semantic confusion I was having.
Brian Timpone: Really what they’re doing is assembling and copy editing a bunch of facts, right? So they write the lead. If there’s a paragraph about a person, the paragraph is technically written by someone in the Philippines, but not written. It’s like they have to type out who the person is, right? So they have to know how to write to send it over. I mean but to say oh, it’s written in the Philippines– I mean there might be a paragraph of it that the first draft is written in the Phillipines.
Sarah Koenig: Timpone declined to put me in touch with any of his Filipino employees. But I reached out to half a dozen of them on my own.
Sarah Koenig: You yourself are writing those stories, right? You’re not just gathering the information and sending it along to an American writer or editor. You yourself are writing those.
Sarah Koenig: That one word is all you’re going to hear from this particular worker at his request. He’s got a full time professional job. But he told me his Journatic work pays better. And he needs the money to help pay his family’s expenses. Plus he likes the work. Back in April when the Tribune announced that Journatic would be providing stories for TribLocal, some readers and media watchers instantly began to grumble about the job losses but also about the product. It was canned, they said, barely rewritten press releases and daily stories under the news section about top DVD rentals in town or where to find the cheapest gas according to gasbuddy.com. No context, no analysis. © 2012 Chicago Public Media & Ira Glass
As I write this blog post, I keep questioning: Am I writing? typing? copying and pasting? assembling? copy editing? drafting? developing context? adding analysis? I’d love to chat about these and other questions I am left pondering:
- As we now have more user-friendly ways to remix media and content, are we ‘writing’ less often and ‘assembling and copy editing’ more often?
- What does ‘context and analysis’ look like in a product that is not all words, but mostly image, sound, and quoted text?
- When does ‘typing out’ something end and ‘writing’ begin?
Please add your thoughts in the comments below!