Reading Mathew Ingram’s take today on the controversy over content provider Journatic’s use of fake bylines in its stories for newspapers, I realized that the problem is more complex than it seems. The real issue was not that the company used fake bylines on its stories, but that it used bylines at all. Journatic screwed up because the company wanted to have it both ways: to embrace new-media principles while trying to disguise them. Instead of looking forward, it looked backward.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Journatic affair, take a few minutes to read Ingram’s cogent coverage. For the impatient, the short version is this: Journatic, an editorial outsourcing company that uses freelancers, data mining, and algorithms to assemble hyperlocal news copy, was the subject of an exposé last weekend by NPR’s This American Life. Among the company’s alleged misdeeds was its use of fake bylines on some of the stories it produced.
The key to this tale is, as Ingram puts it, that the fake bylines “were designed to simulate hyperlocal content.” Instead of acknowledging the true algorithmic and outsourced roots of its stories, the company felt it necessary to disguise them in print-era garb. That is, they wanted their content to appear to be written by a real, live, local reporter.
The result is what you might call skeuomorphic journalism. As I’ve written before, skeuomorphism is the impulse to dress up something new as if it were something old. It’s what Apple did in its design of the calendar in OS X Lion, giving it a leather-looking deskpad border with stitching and bits of paper left behind from torn-off pages.
Putting a byline, whether fake or real, to multisourced, collectively written copy reflects the same backward-looking instinct. Such sentimentality only gets in the way of achieving the full potential of new media. As Ingram writes, you may not like what Journatic does, but you had better accept and acknowledge it:
At the end of the day, centralized and partly-automated production of that sort of generic content is likely a reality for newspapers — or even fully-automated production, from services like Narrative Science, which generates sports stories, business stories and an increasing range of other content using algorithms instead of human reporters and editors. It may not be the kind of future that all journalists or news consumers would like to see, but it is probably the future nevertheless.
The Journatic screw-up was not a failure of new media, but a failure of nerve. New-media practitioners need to have the courage of their convictions, and look, not back, but steadfastly ahead. If they don’t, they will almost certainly stumble.
Photo by Mirko Tobias Schaefer via Wikimedia Commons