There are more than enough reasons to feel uncomfortable with what Journatic’s been up to recently. There were the phony bylines. There’s the question of covering a local community from afar. And, most recently, the issue of at least one of their writers cribbing content from competitors and making things up.
But those are all fixable issues. What rankles about Journatic (and, in some executions, the eerily-almost-self-aware robots of Narrative Science) is that they’re taking perfectly good data and hiding it inside sentences and paragraphs.
Call it narrativization.
Basic information — exactly the kind of information people who care about digital news-gathering and reporting have worked the past 15 years trying to figure out how to extract from the traditional inverted-pyramid narratives called “articles” or “stories” — is now being systematically re-obfuscated. Journatic is built on the misguided sense that the news of a Peewee League game or the local police blotter would be more enjoyable or edifying if only it could be taken out of that oh-so-cold box score or database and “written” as if the reporter had actually been on the scene of the story. Nothing of value is added; the few known facts are merely rearranged into headline, body-copy and the centuries-old conventions of daily journalism.
Which leaves us with cold, bloodless and unnecessarily long (even at 150 words!) articles, inside of which hide the facts that we already had access to to begin with.
And don’t even get me started on calendar events. Say what you want about the “smallness” of hyperlocal news, but it really is small events and gatherings that a) make a difference in a community and b) will never get covered by metro-wide media.
So, put that information into your calendar widget on your site. Do not, however, do this:
Grief Recovery Group meets Wednesdays
Liberty Baptist Church is hosting a Grief Recovery Group from 6-7:30 p.m. Wednesdays.
The group, “GriefShare,” is a Christian centered support group. The group meets as a large group and breaks off into small group discussions. The large group meetings will feature a 30 minute video with a workbook session.
The church is located at 1021 Big Bethel Road, Hampton.
Congratulations. You’ve just created an “article” that will, maybe, garner you a page-view or, if you’re a print/digital hybrid, will fill a few inches in the paper. It can’t be ported to a phone, it’s less findable online, and you’ve ruined a perfectly good bit of data (recurring data, at that) by narrativizing it in the mistaken belief that this is a leap forward.
As we sift through the aftermath of this phase of Journatic’s history, let’s not neglect to question whether, absent any of the ethical breaches, there were bigger miscalculations about how best to mobilize algorithms and a distributed workforce in service of better understanding of the news and issues of importance to local communities.