What a difference two weeks make.
Only a fortnight after writer Ryan Smith brought the issue of outsourced journalism to the attention of the wider public, relatively unknown hyperlocal content provider Journatic has been engulfed by a succession of scandals. As we reported at the beginning of July, Smith initially voiced concerns about Journatic’s decision to outsource journalism work to the Philippines, where workers would write news stories which were then published under a false name for the Chicago Tribune Triblocal website.
Following the revelation executives at the Chicago Tribune were quick to denounce the practice, stating that the use of false bylines was “a violation of the Chicago Tribune’s ethics policy. It has never been acceptable and will not be tolerated. We expect Journatic to adhere to this policy.” The paper then launched an investigation in order to determine to what extent Journatic’s unethical methods had infiltrated triblocal.com.
At the same time, Brian Timpone, Journatic’s CEO, set out on a damage limitation mission. In a message to his staff Timpone insisted that:
“ 1 - Author aliases have been banished from Blockshopper.com real estate sales stories, the only place they ever systemically existed.
2- Author aliases were never a part of the Journatic editorial systems from which we produce news for clients.”
He then gave an interview to the Chicago Tribune in which he indicated that the appearance of fake bylines on articles provided to the paper by Blockshopper was due to an “oversight” on Journatic’s part, and reiterated that the practice of providing journalists with pen names was not widespread. This last assertion was soon proven to be false, when barely two days later three other Journatic clients, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Houston Chronicle and The San Francisco Chronicle discovered fake bylines in articles provided to them by Journatic.
The Sun-Times immediately terminated its association with the outsourcing company. Hearst, the publisher of the Houston and San Francisco Chronicle was a little slower in responding, but has been prodded into action by Poynter, which learned that more than 350 Journatic stories published on the Houston Chronicle’s hyperlocal website had fake bylines, the majority of which named an imaginary "Chad King" as the author.
Even more damning were the findings of the Chicago Tribune’s review into Journatic’s ethical breaches. The paper’s executives discovered that a piece written by Journatic employee Luke Campbell for the Deerfield Triblocal “contained elements that were plagiarized and fabricated.” Consequently the newspaper suspended its interaction with Journatic on Friday 13th July and moved responsibility for local news content back to the Chicago Tribune newsroom.
In the same weekend Mike Fourcher, Journatic’s production manager and head of editorial, tendered his resignation. Writing on his blog under the title “Why I Am Resigning From Journatic” Fourcher maintained that Journatic’s core principles were essentially “sound” but that the company was mistaken in its attempts to “treat community news reporting the same way as data reporting.” Fourcher’s criticisms of the company elicited a cutting response from his former employer, in which a spokesperson insisted that Fourcher jumped to avoid being pushed. However, the voicemail message Timpone left on Fourcher’s answering machine two minutes after the latter handed in his notice tells a rather different story.
The whole affair has undoubtedly tarnished Journatic’s reputation and damaged the company’s short-term business plans. And yet it is still possible that even after flouting basic ethical and journalistic standards and petulant attempts at discrediting critics such as Fourcher and Smith, the company will continue to find newspaper clients who are willing to overlook the recent scandal. Journatic was originally able to attract so many distinguished titles because of the pressing need in the news publishing world to find ways of cutting production costs. The need for higher volumes of cheaper content is still a pressing issue for the majority of news outlets, particularly in the U.S., meaning that there is still a market for Journatic’s services. Furthermore, it should also be noted that the Chicago Tribune has chosen to suspend its relationship with the content provider indefinitely, rather than dissolve it outright - hardly surprising given that the paper’s owner, Tribune Co. is an investor in Journatic. There are reports that Vince Casanova, President of the Chicago Tribune Media Group, is hoping to work with Journatic to improve standards during the suspension.
It has been rather easy to depict Journatic’s CEO as an enemy of good journalism. Timpone’s belief that there would be no benefit to hiring local journalists to report on local news is hardly likely to endear him to the reporters writing about Journatic during the past two weeks. But Timpone is simply giving newspaper executives what they want. By far the most shocking news to emerge during the past few weeks has been that the news titles who have been using Journatic’s services for months or even years have only just begun to scrutinise the content published in their name.
In the end it took a whistle-blower from Journatic to break the story that led to the exposure of the company’s poor standards of journalism, not a member of staff from one of the many papers served by the content provider.