These are desperate times, particularly for the cash-strapped local press. Just how desperate can be seen in the United States where some distinguished newspapers have been caught out in an unethical journalism scam.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review some leading newspapers – among them the Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle, and the Chicago Sun-Times – have been running stories supplied by the outsourcing company Journatic, which hired cheap labour in the Philippines to write stories and submitted them for publication under Western-sounding bylines.
The company is now reportedly in trouble, and apologies abound, but the outsourcing of local news is unlikely to go away. It is regarded by some people as the only way the beleaguered local news industry will be able to survive.
The CJR reports that last week a new business – Journtent – has been launched in California offering a scrubbed-up version of remote journalism with promises of local fact-checking.
This model of journalism will certainly not please the unions (“I’m looking for individuals I can pay a lower rate to do a lot of work,” says the Journtent founder).
But there are other questions, too, not least whether employing writers, mostly in the Philippines and Mexico, to watch and transcribe live streams of community meetings and then write a story, will truly deliver the quality of local news that communities need.
Meanwhile, if doubts remain over how best to cover the round of hyperlocal news the devastating progress of Hurricane Isaac across New Orleans and the southern United States last week provides evidence that coverage of a natural disaster, where people need minute-by-minute updates, is a perfect fit for new forms of hybrid journalism.
A mix of social media and newsroom professionalism helped media move from general coverage to very specific information and helped people better cope with the disaster according to a leading journalism professor in Mississippi.
But that’s small comfort to editorial staff at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. They are among 600 journalists to lose their jobs across the region as the paper cuts back its print publication to just three days a week. In a few weeks it will merge into a new company with the website Nola.com.
As journalists applied their well-developed hurricane-reporting skills to Isaac there is still uneasiness over the long-term impact of these cuts. Many fear that plans to centralise editorial work will open the door to yet more dubious distance journalism.