As a lifelong public radio listener, I’ve had my share of so-called driveway moments, those times where the story on NPR is so captivating that I can’t get out of the car until it’s over. Only last month did I have a driveway moment with a story that cut so close to home: This American Life’s piece on hyperlocal news provider Journatic, whose newspaper clients included the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle. If you missed the story, listen here.
In a best-case scenario, Journatic’s writers would ensure that communities receive coverage on important issues and newspapers save money during a down economy. In reality, the content these writers delivered was a bunch of lists– lists of cheap gas prices pulled from GasBuddy or lists of top DVD rentals in town, with no added context. To save costs, Journatic outsourced some assignments to Filipino and Eastern European writers, then had an American writer review and revise the work. The Filipino writers were instructed to pick an American pen name under which to publish. The Filipino writer made cents per piece; the American writer, about $12.
As I listened, the facts gave me chills. Were they talking about my old writing employer? Like the Journatic writer interviewed, I tossed off article after article about gardening or hairstyles to put myself through grad school. I was paid a flat fee regardless of how much time I put into the piece, so it was in my interest to find quick info and run with it.
Or was it the freelance client my friend works for? She edited plagiarized ESL content, patiently rewriting the cut-and-pasted sentences and warning the writer to shape up, until she prevailed in getting her South American coworker laid off.
As a content services provider now, I work for clients who have niche needs and who pay a fairer wage for those needs. But what lessons can writers take from the story? Writers cringe especially when hearing stories like this because none of us want to generate meaningless drivel. Most of us got into the profession because we like to tell stories. If a gig turns out to be nothing more than unique article writing yet you desperately need the cash, you may have to suck it up and write it. If you’re in that boat, write content that you can be proud of, even if you need to spend longer doing it. Then leverage your experience to find a better freelance gig. It’s possible that you can use dumbed-down assignments to take a step up in your writing career.
More chilling, major newspapers didn’t care about the poor content until public radio took a stand. In the fallout, the Chicago Tribune suspended its use of Journatic, and Hearst, the Chronicle’s publisher, is reviewing the content for quality. This biased attitude among publishers is not acceptable, and punishes writers and readers. Someone in print media needs to take oversight of content or other content mills will take Journatic’s place.
Lindsey D is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.