Chronicle Maintains News Pipeline With Journatic, Company That Used Fake Bylines

Categories: Media
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When local meant local
Two weeks ago, This American Life exposed news-provider Journatic's practice of using fake bylines to protect writers from lawsuits and to disguise that some articles were being reported and written by low-wage overseas workers. Journatic sold those articles to major American newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, for the paper's Sunday Real Estate and Open Homes sections.

Soon, the inspections began. The Monday after the radio story aired, the Chron reported that an internal investigation "found that [Journatic subsidiary] BlockShopper contributor Jeremy Schnitker submitted 32 articles under the pen name of Jake Barnes in addition to 105 articles under his own name. Those were the only false names uncovered in the investigation."

A Poynter study reported that Journatic "used previously undisclosed fake bylines on more than 350 stories published on behalf of the Houston Chronicle," the Chron's sister paper. And, this week, the Chicago Tribune indefinitely suspended its use of the news-farm after discovering plagiarized and fabricated content by a Journatic contributor.

The Chronicle, though, has not broken up with Journatic, which has vowed to stop using fake bylines. At this point, the paper said in a recent statement, it is "reviewing content in its Sunday Real Estate and Open Homes sections produced by Journatic's Blockshopper to ensure it meets standards. If it does not, appropriate action will be taken."

"Obviously, we're disappointed that our internal investigation uncovered these pseudonyms," Chronicle President Mark Adkins said in his paper's early July article. "We will work with BlockShopper to make sure these issues are resolved."

Apparently, the professionally unethical practice of chronically using fake bylines is not enough to get a news company banished from the journalism world.

It's easy to see why. Profit margins are slim and reporters are already stretched thin. For most print outlets, which have cut large chunks of staff over the past few years, Journatic's product had legitimate appeal: inexpensive fluff pieces about less-important subjects. On Monday, Rebecca Rosen Lum reported in the Fog City Journal:

[L]ast week, [Chronicle editor Ward] Bushee met with Guild international vice president Michael Cabanatuan, a Chronicle reporter and former president of the San Francisco-based Pacific Media Workers Guild.

Bushee told Cabanatuan the Chronicle preferred to devote its newsroom resources to higher-profile coverage than the real estate features and business blurbs BlockShopper provided.

It's a pragmatic stance, but one that means maintaining a news pipeline with a company that thought it was okay to change writers' names so that they couldn't be sued for writing controversial things. As the Chronicle reported:

Brian Timpone, BlockShopper co-founder and CEO of its parent company Journatic, based in Chicago, acknowledged that it used made-up bylines but said they were confined to stories about real estate transactions.

It started the practice in 2007 because people identified through public records as buyers or sellers sometimes objected to the publicity and threatened to sue, he said. The articles needed to have bylines so they would show up in Google News results, he said.

"We were writing things that were controversial," Timpone said. "Our writers were being threatened individually by the subjects of stories. We did it to protect them from the threats."

There might have been other reasons people threatened to sue Journatic. In This American Life's story, "Forgive Us Our Press Passes," Journatic copy editor Ryan Smith explained that much of the company's content is written overseas -- in places such as Manila, Philippines-- and "half-heartedly edited" in America. The foreigners are paid as little as $2 a story. Because quantity equaled profits, Smith said, reporting was often single-sourced and shoddy. Bare minimum and then on to the next one.

"When you replace a highly-skilled, well-compensated professional workforce with an assembly line approach consisting of hundreds of outsourced workers pumping out thousands of stories a day in a virtual sweatshop - how can you be shocked when it turns out much of that information is poorly written, full of errors, made-up, or has a fictional name attached?" Smith wrote in the Guardian this week.

This American Life also reported that overseas writers were asked to select pseudonyms so as not to tip off readers that the hyper-local city hall story under their coffee mug was crafted by a guy sitting at a computer screen 5,000 miles away.

This past Saturday, Journatic's head of editorial, Mike Fourcher, resigned, reflecting on his blog that the company's writers and editors "are implicitly discouraged from doing high quality work for the sake of increasing production efficiency and making more money."

It's a mentality the journalism industry has had to work harder and harder to fight off.

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