In July, just 10 weeks after he started work as the editorial director of Journatic, Mike Fourcher announced on his personal blog that he was stepping down from the position. Since 2006, Journatic had been offering beleaguered newspapers with shrinking news staffs a cheaper alternative for community reporting. It was still relatively unknown this summer when an episode of This American Life revealed the use of fake bylines on local news stories by Journatic that had been outsourced to writers in the Philippines and elsewhere. The CEO of Journatic, Brian Timpone, told Fourcher and his staff that the negative attention would not last. But newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle and Chicago Tribune, proceeded to uncover hundreds of fake bylines on Journatic stories they had published. (For his part, Timpone told CJR that he is “very confident of our ability to get past any temporary challenges and continue our growth trajectory.”) Since leaving Journatic, Fourcher has resumed editing three neighborhood news sites in the Chicago area that he ran before going to Journatic. CJR’s Hazel Sheffield spoke to Fourcher in August.
Why did Brian Timpone want you on the Journatic team?
Because I had an understanding of community news, and how to serve communities.
How much of that did you get to put into practice at Journatic?
I’d say close to none.
The core part of community news is being able to talk about things in context. Journatic was not set up to do that. It’s set up to produce content—as much content as possible—with little regard to the quality or the context.
You weren’t fully aware of this before you took the job?
I was not. I knew that a lot of the content was produced remotely, but the way that it was presented to me was as something completely different. I was told that there were a series of algorithms that produced a lot of the content; I was told that the goal of the organization was to become like a next Associated Press. And that was very intriguing to me, to become an Associated Press of community news.
So what was your day-to-day?
The organization was growing very rapidly. It didn’t have standard things like company email addresses and organization charts. So I spent a lot of my time just trying to get those things so that people had a rational working environment.
What was the reaction at Journatic after This American Life aired “Switcheroo” in July?
Everyone at Journatic kept their heads down and kept going. It clearly wasn’t good, but the general feeling was that it was just something that was going to be a bump in the road.
Do you still believe in the core values of Journatic and outsourcing?
How can it work effectively?
The thing that Journatic did that I think is the most promising is the data-oriented aspect of news. That’s the real-estate transactions, police blotters, prep sports scores. It’s not a question of probability, it’s a question of being able to collect the information, normalize it in a database, and then reproduce it for a client. All the other problems that Journatic had came when it attempted to take things that are judged qualitatively—like veracity, copyediting, writing quality—and force them through a quantitative model.
Why should outsourcing be an option?
The business of journalism has largely been practiced by people who have passion for what they do. But I think there is a tendency to want to keep doing great work without thinking about how the process of doing that great work is going to change with the times.
What’s the future for Journatic?
There are two key components to any news product, or community-news product. First, it has to have local context. Second, it has to be from a source you trust. I’m not sure an organization that has lost a lot of reader trust can easily build it back.Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield.