Reader Forum: The Cost Of Outsourcing TribLocal

Editor’s note: This Reader Forum article was written and submitted by Michael H. Ebner, professor of American history emeritus at Lake Forest College and an avid reader of the Chicago Tribune as well as Gazebonews.com. It represents the writer’s opinions and not necessarily those of GazeboNews. We encourage you to respond to this, but please include your full name per the GazeboNews comments policy on Reader Forums.

By Michael H. Ebner

I commend the Chicago Tribune for self reporting on the ethical lapses of Journatic, which now runs its TribLocal operation. It reminded me about the genuine attributes of TribLocal’s original format.

When TribLocal was outsourced to Journatic this reader, and surely many others, detected that its estimable qualities had instantaneously evaporated before our very eyes.

The altered format appeared garbled. News and advertising sometimes seemed indistinguishable. Reporting was now mediocre, verging on the disreputable. TribLocal in its outsourced format discredited a historic newspaper that has prided itself on high standards of journalism since the nineteenth century.

Readers were not the only ones who noticed:  Recently Journatic was featured in NPR’s This American Life in a segment about “Act Two: Forgive Us Our Press Passes,” about the use of fake bylines, among other things. The Poynter Institute recently reported that Gatehouse Publications and the Chicago Sun-Times are cutting ties to Journatic. And here’s a story that’s worth reading from The Guardian: “My Adventures In Journatic’s New Media Of Outsourced Hyperlocal News.”

The original TribLocal had offered readers informative hyper-local reporting, some prepared by the newspaper’s own staff and some contributed by grassroots volunteer correspondents. A good deal of this informative content simply would otherwise not be available in an easy-to-read format.

Another virtue of TribLocal was its excellent weekly calendar of events. It connected local readers to their communities, which proved salutary given the pace of our fast-moving lives.

Outsourcing – whether in journalism, bureaucracies, education, national security, health care, human services, or public safety — too often seems to eventually run off the tracks. Sometimes the consequences prove nothing less than embarrassing and costly. Reputations suffer and occasionally are even sullied.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. understood as much. In his widely quoted dissenting opinion in Abrams v. The United States — a landmark free-speech case and to this day a staple in teaching American constitutional history — he remarked: “The best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market …”

Now I am left to contemplate whether the Chicago Tribune, already burdened by its outsized financial dilemma that has defied resolution in court, might be well advised to fold TribLocal altogether. The embarrassing revelations about Journatic’s ethical lapse in producing tainted news content constitutes a test for the historic bond linking the newspaper to its valued readers. In a highly competitive marketplace of ideas, reader trust and journalistic integrity stand elemental to sustaining the future of American newspapers.

Michael H. Ebner is professor of American history emeritus at Lake Forest College and an avid reader of the Chicago Tribune as well as Gazebonews.com.

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