Reporting local news from thousands of miles away

By Nathaniel Dean Fortmeyer, William Recktenwald and William H. Freivogel

The journalists’ beats are small Illinois towns. But the reporters live, work and write in Idaho, Texas, Oregon and British Columbia, seldom or never setting foot in the communities they cover.

Most are freelancers who hear about work with Interactive Content Services by reading Internet ads. The freelancers write up press releases in a few minutes or interview people over the phone or email, getting paid a small sum for each story.

Brian Timpone — who runs ICS and the Local Government Information Services newspapers where the stories are published — describes himself as an “entrepreneur focused on developing software and systems that grow and enhance media.”

Timpone said in an interview that distant reporters are better and fairer than those who live in the community.

“The reason local news reporting is so crappy is because the reporters are too local. You don’t want them to live in the communities…. If you have [a reporter who has] done city councils in a city, you are too close.” Local journalists embedded in communities are “ill-equipped to objectively judge information,” he said. “I am partisan to ideas. Free market. Capitalism.”

In 2012 Timpone admitted that his company had made mistakes. This American Life had reported that a freelancer, Ryan Smith, had rewritten content from foreign contributors from the Philippines, who were given fake bylines. Timpone acknowledged the fake bylines were a mistake, although he still claimed the foreign contributors were just entering data, not writing stories.

Some of Timpone’s current journalists say they can’t talk about their duties because they are required to sign non-disclosure agreements. One of those is Chandra Lye, a freelancer from British Columbia. Her byline appeared on a Sept. 19 story in the Metro East Sun headlined: “Belleville area cheers Lisa Madigan’s decision to call it quits.”

Contacted via Twitter, Lye responded with an email, “I have been informed that I am not authorized to discuss the process with you.”

Some reporters discussed their work.

Nathan Davis covers small Illinois towns along with Carbondale. He writes from his home in Idaho 1,600 miles away. Although Davis occasionally visits family in Illinois, he doesn’t report from there.

“My areas of coverage are Will County and Southeastern and Southwestern Illinois,” he said in an interview. “I write hyperlocal content… These little stories mean a lot to the community. People up in Chicago might not care, but the people in the community care. Everyone likes to hear about someone from their local community.

“I found this job through freelancewritinggigs.com. I applied and they interviewed me and gave me a writing test…I am salaried, but there are different tiers to payment. A whole article is around $125, a press release is $15. But a press release only takes fifteen minutes to write. I have also done work by the word.”

Davis said he never interviews people in person, and does not visit the communities he covers as part of his reporting. Instead he interviews by telephone and email, writing four or five stories a week.

“I do a lot of research for my stories. I sit down and Google a topic and get as much background information as possible. I go on YouTube and look at sports highlights, and then I interview at least three people and get different points of view.

“I like finding stories that people might not know about. For example, I did a story on roller derby in DuPage,” he said. After writing the story, Davis was in Illinois visiting family and went to attend the event in person, although the visit did not figure in his story, which already had been published.

Another reporter, Olivia Olsen, has written stories for the Austin American Statesman, the Northern California Record, the Louisiana Record, and the Florida Record.

Olsen, who lives in Austin, does not conduct any of her reporting in person. “I would love to travel, but most work is online,” she said. She prefers interviewing subjects over the phone.

“There is not a big difference between interviewing someone in person versus over the phone. It is just a conversation, and you can have a conversation over the phone. It is easier to interview someone over the phone than in person.

“There are pros and cons to having someone on the ground,” she said. “The hyperlocal content we write does not require someone on the ground. Having journalists on the ground in every small town is just not feasible.”

Olsen said she has never met a representative from ICS in-person. “We do conference calls, but never meet.”

“It’s a job, like any other. It is the best job I’ve ever had. I love writing, and it gives me the opportunity to do it. I get to set my own schedule. I don’t have to worry about being somewhere for eight hours.”

Some of the radio stations that receive content from the IPI’s Illinois Radio Network don’t like to use the stories.

WRXX and WILY in Centralia, Ill. receive IRN content. Monica Seals, the acting news director, refuses to use it.

“I am not crazy about the IRN’s writing. The IRN’s grammar and style are not professional. A lot of the stories have sentences that end in prepositions,” Seals said. “Also, a lot of the IRN’s stories are not balanced. A lot of the articles are very right leaning,” Seals continued.

“The IRN’s stories tend to err on the side of Gov. Bruce Rauner. There is a very clear bias,” Seals said. Instead, Seals chooses to use the Associated Press as a source of news content.

“The AP offers better coverage, better writing, and they are not biased. Your regular newspapers report both sides. We are going to quote Gov. Rauner and Mike Madigan. We give fair coverage. But that is not what everyone wants these days,” Seals said.

“With the (Dan) Proft publications, you are getting Rush Limbaugh in print. You are getting Alex Jones in print. It is filling the demand for biased coverage. And while the IRN’s content and motives are questionable, their stories are also poorly written,” Seals said. “It is obviously not written by professionals, or even people with a firm grasp of the English language,” Seals said.

Americans must question the source and legitimacy of their news, she added, and exercise critical thinking when consuming media. “Media literacy is important.”