MEDIA WATCH: How many ways does 'Journatic' spell FRAUD? More about the 'Select Alias' button that helped feed stories to Chicago's dailies...Phony 'news' and fictional bylines lead to a scandal in Chicago's corporate media

Hopefully, everyone reading Substance was also spending July 4 enjoying all of the mea culpas from the corporate media about using fraudulent stories and fictional byline on their outsourced news "content." As of yesterday (July 4), both Chicago daily newspapers (Sun-Times and Tribune) and others (Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle) have admitted they were utilizing "news" provided by an "entrepreneur" who outsourced his reporting to the Philippines!

That's right. Both Chicago daily newspapers, in deference to their "bottom line" approach to reality, have been caught basically providing millions of readers with fraudulent "news" provided by one of those ubiquitous "entrepreneuers" that corporate America worships.

Here is how it worked.

As most careful students of current reality know, for every reporter trying to cover the news whether in the USA or outside the USA, there are a dozen or more propagandists trying to spin reality from Chicago's City Hall to the streets of the towns being terrorized by the drug gangs of Mexico and elsewhere. The objective of the propagandists is to feed their lies into the news cycle under the guise of "news." The way that was done in the current scandal is that a local corporate hack started a company that worked men and women in the Philippines to do simplistic rewrite of local (and national) propaganda handouts. Then the rewritten stuff was published (both on line and in print) under phony bylines as "news" in some of America's largest newspapers.

The "news" was accumulated by gathering public relations handouts from various corporations and government entities and then doing a quickie rewrite and pasting a "by line" on the "stories." Basically, what they were doing was lying to their readers, since a Byline and Dateline are clearly indicators (a) that the reporter was there and (b) where "there" is or was.

Why should we be angry — but not surprised?

The news business will never be easy, never has been, and many of us have sacrificed — some much more than those of us at Substance — for the accuracy and integrity of our stories. (for those who don't know the history, I was fired from my Chicago teaching job after 28 years for publishing the complete and accurate and ridiculous CASE tests in Substance in January 1999; the firing took place at a Chicago Board of Education meeting in August 2000; the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of CPS to trample on the First Amendment in a silly decision written by Richard Posner on December 31, 2003).

According to international news organizations, last year was the most deadly for real reporters in the real world. Dozens killed covering the stories in the Middle East alone, and several receiving special treatment (like being tortured before being killed) by the narco gangs in Mexico and elsewhere.

In comparison to what's been happening to our brothers and sisters who chase the news in place like Tripoli or Syria or Ciudad Juarez, my getting fired and blacklisted in Chicago (a city of media whores and hacks second to none on the planet at this point, as this latest whoring and hacking scandal shows) was small potatoes (although our family took a few hits...).

How the owners and editors of the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times think they can get away with this trivialization of their crime is beyond me, but not surprising given their corporate bents. Their whole job is to "drive down" the cost of "content" so that they can provide their corporate overlords (until recently at the Tribune, the almost unparalleledly odious Sam Zell) with maximum profits (that universal "bottom line" that defines the value of everything in their narrow and narrowing world...).

Every day, corporations and government hacks in expensive propaganda departments ranging from the CPS "Office of Communications" (which has five times as many workers trying to spin the news as the Tribune has reporters trying to report it) to the huge machines working at the big banks and other corporations push out their version of reality.

What Tribune and Sun-Times did was basically serve as a rewrite service for those propaganda outfits, since they had no reporter at the scene to look at what was really happening (or even being said).

CPS and Rahm Emanuel would be even more in heaven if they could simply send out their press releases about what happened at the meetings of the Board of Education, and then sat watching, satisfied, when the "news" simply reprinted their hacking. During any meeting of the Chicago Board of Education, at least a half dozen overpaid and undercompetent propagandists are wandering around the meetings giving handouts to reporters (and in some cases, trying to pull them aside with the "inside scoop" type stuff).

So far, against the odds, some of the remaining reporters still covering the Board of Education still get some of the stories unfolding there (only Substance covers the stories completely, with source and context), but it's better than nothing.


Act Two. Forgive us our Press Passes.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Forgive us Our Press Passes. You know how when you call someplace for customer service, and you're on some 800 number, and somebody answers the phone and says her name is Jill, and at some point the thought crosses your mind-- this person's name is probably not Jill. This person is probably sitting in a call center in India or somewhere. And you have that thought, what other jobs can we possibly outsource to people far away at this point? Well Sarah Koenig tells this story of a fairly recent addition to the list of jobs.

Sarah Koenig

Back in November, a newspaper reporter named Ryan Smith got an assignment from his editor. Write up a student of the week story for the Houston Chronicle. The student was a senior at Bellaire High School outside Houston.

Ryan Smith

So I ended up calling the high school. And it was kind of interesting. Because I talked to the principal a little bit. He was sort of vetting me. And he's like, well why don't you just come by the school tomorrow? And--

Sarah Koenig

Why is this even vaguely funny to Ryan? Because Ryan doesn't work for the Houston Chronicle. he's never read the Houston Chronicle. He's never been to Houston. He's never been to Texas. When he made that phone call, he was sitting more than 1,000 miles away in the Midwest. But, of course, the principal of Bellaire High School can't be expected to know that. He probably pictured the newspaper business the way most of us picture it, that Ryan was from the area, that he worked at some crummy office, drove around in a beat up Honda Civic to cover local stories.

Ryan Smith

And it was a little awkward for me. Because here I am in Chicago. And he's assuming that I'm a reporter in Houston for the Houston Chronicle. So I was like um, why don't we just do this over the phone?

Sarah Koenig

You didn't tell him?

Ryan Smith

I didn't tell him. I just pretended I was from the Chronicle. I was like hopefully that they don't ask. Because I don't really feel like explaining it. Because I don't even understand it completely.

Sarah Koenig

What Ryan doesn't understand completely is the brave new world of journalism he's entered. Ryan works for a company that pays people in, say, Chicago, Raleigh, or Boise, to create stories for papers in California, Virginia, or Connecticut, which means embedded in major newspapers all over the country are local notes and stories produced by people who might not know how to pronounce the names of the places they're writing about. They call it hyper-local news. The stories are mostly short, just a paragraph or two sometimes-- the Sheriff's report from York [? Pecosine ?] County, Virginia, who died in Poughkeepsie, New York, and who got a marriage license in Pearland, Texas, the names of all the kids on the headmaster's list at Trinity Preparatory School in Winter Park, Florida.

They do bowling scores, and school lunch menus, and real estate transfers, and holiday trash pickup schedules. Nothing is too small. And the engine of this whole endeavor is data, tons of data that the company mines, and sorts, and enters into databases, public information, and also harder to find records. It works like an assembly line. One person does research. Another generates a lead. Another writes it. Sometimes a couple of paragraphs might be written by computer using an algorithm. And someone else edits it.

The goal is to create the largest local news machine ever. In the next few months, they want to quadruple their output to produce 100,000 stories a week. The company behind this vision is called Journatic, or maybe Journatic. Ryan himself isn't sure.

Ryan Smith

I've honestly never actually heard it said. But I've always said Journatic.

Sarah Koenig

Why are you assuming it's Journatic and not Journatic?

Ryan Smith

I mean the way you are saying it, it kind of sounds like heretic. Journatic sounds more like journalism.

Sarah Koenig

It does sound like journalism. But what makes Ryan uneasy is that he's not sure it is journalism. Ryan went to journalism school, has been a reporter for newspapers in Missouri, and California, and Chicago, for a dozen years. He got the Journatic job about a year and a half ago when he saw a tweet about it. He emailed his resume. But he was never interviewed. Eventually he got an email offering him some work.

And in fact in all the time he's worked at Journatic, he's never spoken directly to his supervising editor, who sits in St. Louis. They communicate exclusively through the computer. When Ryan has a question about how to do something, his supervisor sometimes answers by posting a private video on YouTube. That's the only time Ryan's ever heard the guy's voice. It's all very future.

After he got the student of the week assignment, Ryan was put in charge of editing death notices and little business briefs for Newsday, a newspaper on Long Island.

Ryan Smith

And my job was just to copy edit it and again, put it in the database.

Sarah Koenig

And where were these stories coming from? Like who was doing the writing that you were editing?

Ryan Smith

I was told, actually, that they're located in the Philippines.

Sarah Koenig

That everything you were editing was coming from the Philippines?

Ryan Smith

That's what I was told at the time, that these obituaries and these business stories were all written in the Philippines.

Sarah Koenig

I know, right? In the Philippines-- which means when you look up the death notice, say, of a man named Eugene Squeleney Jr. on, you see a story about him. But there's no reporters name attached to it. It just says special to Newsday under the headline. But the story was actually written by someone in the Philippines. Journatics internal records listed her as Diana D. and say that Diane got the story from the obituary website and just slightly rewrote the information there.

I called Newsday's newsroom to ask about this, why they would use Journatic for this work. I didn't get too far. Mostly I learned that Newsday has exciting hold music. I talked to an editor who didn't want to go on tape. When I pointed out the Squeleney story with no reporter's name on it, just special to Newsday, the editor said, quote, "I am totally unfamiliar with this. I don't know what it is," unquote.

Then I talked to a company spokesman who cheerfully said he'd look into it. But a few days later, I got an email saying he quote, "could not provide any information on this." He wouldn't even say whether Newsday was working with Journatic. Ryan says he learned about the Filipino writers after complaining to his supervisor that the copy he was getting was rife with basic grammar and spelling errors. That's when his editor told him to cut the writer some slack. They weren't native speakers. So Ryan wondered, why do we have these writers at all?

His editor wrote back quote, "well someone has to summarize the obits for the death briefs. And it's cheaper to pay an outsourced writer than to have an American writer editor do it. Unfortunately they're basically paid pennies for these. I have Filipinos asking for better pay on a regular basis. I wish I could do something for them." An ad Journatic placed seeking Filipino writers offered 0.35 to $0.40 per story. I confirmed with a Filipino writer that they are paid 35 to $0.40 a story and more for longer stuff. But wait, there's more. Here's Ryan.

Ryan Smith

When I ended up looking at the names on a lot of the stories-- and the names on the stories that were published weren't the ones that I saw that had written the stories.

Sarah Koenig

Here's what he's talking about. In the Chicago Tribune's local site covering the towns of Homewood and Flossmoor, for example, you can see that Eric and Joan So-and-so have listed for sale their 4 bedroom, 4.5 bath home on such-and-such a street for $695,000, that Eric is a general manager of a building company, that he attended Roosevelt University. And there's a picture of him.

The reporters name on the story is Jenny Cox. But there is no Jenny Cox. Or even if there is a Jenny Cox somewhere out there, she didn't write the story. The writer was someone named Giselle Bautista in the Philippines who works for Journatic. Again, looking at the computer system the company uses to manage its stories, it seems that when Giselle worked on this real estate story, there was a button called Select Alias. When she clicked on it, she had a choice. She could either be Jenny Cox or Glenda Smith.

Journatics real estate stories come from a real estate website it also owns, called BlockShopper. Some other fake names that have made their way onto the news sites of Journatics clients in the real estate sections-- Carrie Reed, Amy Anderson, Jay Brownstown, Christine Scott, Bettie Verdoon, Sam Andrews, Carla Andrews, Deana Andrews, Sienna Andrews, Cindy Valens, Angie Barrett, CJ Marx, John Simon, Shania Samson, Scott Johnson, and my favorite--

Sarah Koenig

Who is Jimmy Finkle?

Ryan Smith

I have no idea. He sounds like a game show host kind of.

Sarah Koenig

I feel like he sounds like a Jewish gangster. You talk to Jimmy Finkle, the Finks. He'll straighten you out. So you don't know who Jimmy Finkle is.

Ryan Smith

I have no idea.

Sarah Koenig

Yet you have edited a story with the byline of Jerry Finkle.

Ryan Smith


Sarah Koenig

So who wrote it?

Ryan Smith


Sarah Koenig

All of this seems wrong to Ryan, which is why he doesn't tell most people where he works. He's embarrassed.

Ryan Smith

It's sort of a tattered product that's being written overseas, and half-heartedly edited, and just kind of slopped on the page. And journalism is supposed to be sort of like a local institution, and written by people that care about what's going on there. When I was a reporter on the Daily Beat, sometimes it was hard. Sometimes you had to agonize over things. And sometimes you had to make tough decisions. And you didn't always get things right, and things like that. And you actually cared about it.

With this, I was writing stories. And I don't know those communities. And I have no stake in them. And so it didn't matter to me that I found out all the information and I got it right. And so there is just something inauthentic about the whole process. And the picking of fake names for these writers in the Philippines is just a symptom of that. The whole thing--

Sarah Koenig

When Ryan agreed to this interview, I didn't realize he was going to be quite so frank.

Sarah Koenig

Oh my god. Ryan, you are so fired.

Ryan Smith

I am.

Sarah Koenig

And are you OK with that?

Ryan Smith

Um, yeah.

Sarah Koenig

When he agreed to do this interview, Ryan figured he'd be fired afterwards. But he says it's worth it if he can do something good for journalism. He says the work he does at Journatic has been weighing on his conscience. But there's another side to this, one that turns everything Ryan thinks about local reporting on its head.

Brian Timpone

I personally think that we're saving journalism with our approach.

Sarah Koenig

This is Brian Timpone, Ryan's boss's boss's boss, the founder and CEO of Journatic. And it is pronounced Journatic, by the way. Timpone says it's a mix of journalism and automatic. When I first spoke to him on the phone, he began talking a mile a minute. First of all, he loved our radio show. I'm not kidding. I'm president of your fan club. And I'm not saying this just so you'll give me favorable treatment. I mean I know you're going to make me look bad. But I don't care. I'll deal with it. Because I believe in what we're doing. We're doing God's work. We're not, like, evil. I used to be a reporter.

Needless to say, I liked him right away. And I wanted to understand how what he was doing would save journalism. Timpone's premise is that what he calls the single reporter model, the old way of doing local reporting, that Ryan used to do and that I used to do as a local reporter-- that it just doesn't work, and that it hasn't really worked in 30 or 40 years.

Brian Timpone

It's going to get better if we do it this way. That's my belief.

Sarah Koenig

What's going to get better?

Brian Timpone

Journalism is going to get better.

Sarah Koenig


Brian Timpone

We need to see more things. No one covers suburban America. No one covers all these small towns. Look at that story in-- was in Dixon, Illinois, that lady stole like 30 million bucks?

Sarah Koenig

It was actually 53 million bucks in the end. The town controller had been siphoning taxpayer money off the budget for 20 years before another city worker filling in for her stumbled on it.

Brian Timpone

How'd that happen? No one was watching. And I'm not saying we're the solution. But we're certainly on the road to the solution. We're going to look at that stuff and help our partners. And there's 400 people or something in the Chicago Tribune newsroom. And they couldn't cover Dixon. They had enough on their plate. There's a darn daily newspaper in that town. I live in River Forest. There's a weekly paper there. And Maywood, next to me-- there's nothing-- literally nothing.

Sarah Koenig


Brian Timpone

Not a single paper covering the town. Isn't that scary? So how is that going to get solved?

Sarah Koenig

The most radical part of Timpone's pitch, at least to me, is that if you're trying to cover a town like say, Flossmoor, south of Chicago, being on the ground is actually a hindrance.

Sarah Koenig

So you're saying it doesn't matter. It just does it matter. You don't need to be there.

Brian Timpone

What I'm saying is go to Flossmoor. We should go together. Let's go walk the streets of Flossmoor together. And tell me what you learn by being there. Let's go live there for six months and tell me if you feel better equipped to cover the budget. You won't be. That's the kind of--

Sarah Koenig


Brian Timpone

Yes, really.

Sarah Koenig

Really? You really believe that, that after six months of living in Flossmoor, I would have no sense of the community or what was important to the people who live there if I actually talked to human beings who live in Flossmoor?

Brian Timpone

Here's what I'd say is if you looked at the content we produce, in most cases, you wouldn't even notice it's from a reporter who lives somewhere else, who is writing the same story. It's just done more efficiently.

Sarah Koenig

You almost said the word cheaply, didn't you?

Brian Timpone


Sarah Koenig

I heard it start to come out. I heard a ch--

Brian Timpone

It is cheaply. But it's not. You got me. Yes.

Sarah Koenig

As for the source of that cheap labor, Timpone said, yeah. They've got 100 freelancers offshore, not just in the Philippines, but in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Republics, Brazil, and Africa. In the US, they've got 200 more, plus 50 US staffers and growing. If you want to see what Journatic can do for a big metro paper, look at the Chicago Tribune. About five years ago, long before they hooked up with Journatic, the Tribune decided to get into the community news business. Brad Moore, vice president of Targeted Media for the Tribune Company, told me that they were looking to bring in money, same as a lot of big metro dailies.

The notion is that if you can capture local advertising dollars, then you're not so dependent on big national accounts which can cripple your finances if they pull out. So under the title TribLocal, the Chicago Tribune launched 90 websites and 22 weekly print editions covering towns all around Chicago. To staff the sites, Tribune hired 18 reporters. But Brad Moore told me that model just didn't work. Reporters weren't generating enough stories to keep people coming to the websites. And hiring a bunch more reporters was too expensive.

So this spring, Tribute higher Journatic. It actually bought a share in the company to run TribLocal. As part of the switch over, the Tribune laid off about half of its 40 person TribLocal staff, including seven reporters. Another 11 reporters were sent to Tribune's larger suburban bureaus. Here's Brad Moore from the Trib.

Brad Moore

So far, we're very happy with what Journatic is doing for us. We're getting a lot more content.

Sarah Koenig

And when you say you're getting more content, how much more content?

Brad Moore

It looks from a sheer volume standpoint, about three times the amount of content pieces that we had before.

Sarah Koenig

And for cheaper, for less money.

Brad Moore

In most cases, yes. And then we're already looking at ways to reinvest those savings into more towns. We've actually launched two additional towns in TribLocal that we weren't in before, Homewood, and Flossmoor, and Oaklawn-- actually three towns. We're looking at the city of Chicago to see what neighborhoods we might want to launch into. So yes, it's more content. It's at a savings. But more excitingly, we hope to take that savings and reinvest it into more coverage.

Sarah Koenig

Brad Moore said the TribLocal local sites are getting more web traffic now the Jounatic has taken over. And Moore says he has no problem with out of state or offshore workers generating news briefs and small stories. But the subject was sensitive enough that he didn't want to discuss on tape who was writing what and under what name. Because no newspaper wants the story about them to be Tribune Fires American Writers, Hires Filipinos for Cheaper. All he would say on tape about it was this--

Brad Moore

Just to be clear, all of the writing and editing of everything that Journatic is doing is happening by professional journalists here in the US.

Sarah Koenig

I went around and around about this with both Brad Moore and Brian Timpone who insisted that Filipinos were not writing stories. They were more like typing information, assembling it in paragraph form, which sounds to me a lot like writing. Brian Timpone told me this was a semantic confusion I was having.

Brian Timpone

Really what they're doing is assembling and copy editing a bunch of facts, right? So they write the lead. If there's a paragraph about a person, the paragraph is technically written by someone in the Philippines, but not written. It's like they have to type out who the person is, right? So they have to know how to write to send it over. I mean but to say oh, it's written in the Philippines-- I mean there might be a paragraph of it that the first draft is written in the Phillipines.

Sarah Koenig

Timpone declined to put me in touch with any of his Filipino employees. But I reached out to half a dozen of them on my own.

Sarah Koenig

You yourself are writing those stories, right? You're not just gathering the information and sending it along to an American writer or editor. You yourself are writing those.



Sarah Koenig

That one word is all you're going to hear from this particular worker at his request. He's got a full time professional job. But he told me his Journatic work pays better. And he needs the money to help pay his family's expenses. Plus he likes the work. Back in April when the Tribune announced that Journatic would be providing stories for TribLocal, some readers and media watchers instantly began to grumble about the job losses but also about the product. It was canned, they said, barely rewritten press releases and daily stories under the news section about top DVD rentals in town or where to find the cheapest gas according to No context, no analysis.

Chicago Media columnist, Robert Feder, wrote, "I used to look forward to receiving TribLocal, the weekly hyperlocal news insert in my Chicago Tribune. But now it's become a worthless piece of garbage. Major news stories in my suburb are completely ignored. In its first three weeks, I've seen nothing in this new rag but press releases, computer generated junk, and of course ads. What passes for a police blotter is a long list of street names, one and two word descriptions, and a time and date," unquote.

Journatic does longer stories too that actually require real reporting. But even there the quality is questionable. Take this story Ryan Smith wrote for TribLocal about the Flossmoor village budget. Flossmoor is one of the towns the Trib started covering when Journatic took over, a small upper middle class town south of Chicago. Ryan had never been to Flossmoor. But he looked at the budget online and called the village's finance director. His lead was at the village board had passed the budget, quote, "which the board says reflects a healthy state of the villages finances."

But Ryan didn't know whether there was any argument over the budget or taxes beforehand. Again he had never covered the town before.

Ryan Smith

I'm sure there was a public meeting. And there may have been people that were upset about the way that they were spending their money. Maybe they were upset that $500,000 is being used to replace the streetlights. But I didn't see those people. I didn't know if there were any objections.

Sarah Koenig

And you weren't going to call around and find out was there any dissent? Was anybody at the meeting?

Ryan Smith

I wasn't told to. I was told to talk to one source and then just get a couple quotes basically, and then just plug it in. I just had to talk to some city official, who is going to want to paint the city in the best light possible. So you don't get the other side with this kind of reporting.

Sarah Koenig

Of course Ryan could've made a few more calls to find out if there had been any controversy. But it wasn't worth his while.

Ryan Smith

Especially for a reporter, for a freelance writer, if you're only getting paid $12 for a story, it's not really in your interest to do a proper reporter's job on it.

Sarah Koenig

Is that what you got paid, $12?

Ryan Smith

For this story, yeah, I believe it's $12 or $14.

Sarah Koenig

Ryan spent three or four hours on the story, which means he was paid something like $4 an hour. At that rate, it makes a lot more sense for you to churn out as many $12 stories as you can as fast as you can, which means you don't call more than one source. And you might miss the meaning of your story. There actually is a suburban paper which covers Flossmoore. It's called the South Town Star. I called its managing editor, Joe Biesk. And he said they sent a freelancer, who lives in Flossmoore, to that budget meeting, which Ryan never attended.

The freelancer told her editor that the budget passed by the village board was a continuation of the one already in place, and there was nothing that stood out to her. So Biesk said, we made an editorial decision not to run a story.

That's the old way. Go to the meeting. Consider the context. And then decide whether it's newsworthy. Journatics' way is just the facts, lots and lots of facts.

Journatics founder, Brian Timpone, understands that his company doesn't do perfect reporting. Stop comparing us to the New York Times, he told me. All we are saying is, if you want to do community news, cover places you've never covered before, Journatic can get you started.

And if Journatic does the busy work, it frees up real staff reporters at papers like the Trib, or the Houston Chronicle, or the Hartford Current, to do more substantial hard hitting work. And it gives these reporters access to all kinds of data they might have had before. All those school board minutes, and village budgets, and city council agendas nobody wants to look at-- Timpone's saying we'll look at them.

Brian Timpone

I would posit that it's better to have somebody look at them than to have nobody look at them. You know what? Newspapers are firing people. Newspapers are struggling. They're going bankrupt. We have a solution that helps solve the problem, right? Cutting staff is not the way to growth. But empowering a reporter with people in the Philippines-- that's a really smart thing to do. The criticism's fine. But at the end of the day, what's a better solution?

Sarah Koenig


Brian Timpone

I mean do you have one? Tell me if you have a better idea, I'm all ears.

Sarah Koenig

I don't have a better idea. And the newspaper business as a whole doesn't seem to have a better idea, not unless consumers want to start paying properly for their news. So many newspapers are floundering and bleeding staff. According to the website Paper Cuts, something like 35,000 people have lost newspaper jobs since 2008 because of layoffs and buyouts. Unlike most newspapers in America, Journatic is hiring.

Ira Glass. Sarah Keonig. She's one of the producers of our program. After she asked Brian Timpone about the fake names on certain stories that Journatic publishes, Timpone told her that Journatic decided to eliminate the fake names. Brad Moore of the Chicago Tribune told us that the Trib is not going to allow them any more either. The stories that Filipino writers work on will be credited to the editors of the stories. We will get a generic byline like Neighborhood News Service. The real Filipinos' names will not appear in the paper.

Coming up, learning to eat fish eyes and suck marrow from chicken bones to get close to mom. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Switcharoo, people pretending to be something they are not, sometimes harmlessly, sometimes not so harmlessly, sometimes it's hard to tell which one it is.

Act Three. Runaway Groom.


3 other papers besides Chicago Tribune identify false bylines in Journatic stories

Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle discover aliases; Sun-Times cuts ties immediately with content provider

Ads by Google

Mitt Romney and GST SteelTrying to save a closing plant Learn the truth about GST Steel


Brian Timpone is co-founder and CEO of Journatic, a hyperlocal content provider. Tribune Co., parent firm of the Chicago Tribune, is an investor in the company, which provides coverage for TribLocal’s 90 town websites and 22 weekly print editions. (HANDOUT / July 1, 2012)


Tribune investigating ethics policy violation by content provider Journatic

Tribune columnist Clarence Page under review for unauthorized paid speech


435 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611, USA

Ads by Google

By Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune reporter

9:40 p.m. CDT, July 3, 2012

Three more newspapers said Tuesday that hyperlocal content provider Journatic used false bylines on a number of stories they have published, both in print and online.

The San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle and Chicago Sun-Times joined the Chicago Tribune in identifying the use of aliases in stories produced by Journatic, an ethics breach prompting growing concern as more newspapers outsource content.

"We've produced lots of stories in lots of places and we've since decided we're going to go in and look at every byline we've ever done," Journatic co-founder and CEO Brian Timpone said Tuesday.

Journatic's use of false bylines came to light during a national radio broadcast during the weekend. "This American Life," which is produced by Chicago public radio station WBEZ-FM, included a segment on aliases in several Journatic-produced stories that ran this year on TribLocal websites, prompting an investigation by the Tribune. That review is under way and expected to wrap up within the next week, according to executives.

"It is essential that our news report, no matter the source, is accurate and credible," said Gerould Kern, senior vice president and editor of the Tribune.

Publishing stories under false bylines is a violation of the Tribune's editorial ethics policy, according to executives, and is generally unacceptable throughout the industry.

Founded in 2006, Chicago-based Journatic employs about 140 overseas contract workers, mostly in the Philippines, who gather information online and then format it for more than 200 U.S.-based writers and editors, including 60 full-time staffers. The company provides editorial content for a number of newspaper groups and also owns, which publishes real estate news.

In April, the parent company of the Tribune made an investment of an undisclosed amount in Journatic, which provides coverage for TribLocal's 90 town websites and 22 weekly print editions.

Hearst Corp., which has worked with Journatic since 2009, also reviewed its outsourced content in the wake of the report, identifying false bylines at the San Francisco Chronicle and Houston Chronicle. Both papers offered an explanation to readers Tuesday.

The Houston paper said false bylines appeared in real estate stories over two years, in print and online. The San Francisco paper, which uses Journatic to produce a Sunday real estate section, found 32 stories with the alias Jake Barnes.

Timpone said Blockshopper went to aliases after writers began receiving threats from angry property owners, but the practice bled into its newspaper content operation. He said Journatic has discontinued its use of aliases on Blockshopper stories in the wake of the concerns from its editorial partners.

Timpone said Journatic has been providing custom real estate stories for the Chicago Sun-Times since 2010. A false byline was identified by the paper's previous owners more than two years ago, but the relationship continued unabated — until now. The revelations over the weekend prompted Sun-Times Editor-In-Chief Jim Kirk to pull the plug on future content from Journatic.

"With Journatic's partnership with the Chicago Tribune under way, we already were in the midst of winding down our relationship with Journatic's Blockshopper," Kirk said in an email Tuesday. "However, in light of the recent revelations of false bylines, we have decided to end our relationship immediately. Furthermore, prior Sun-Times leadership alerted Journatic of a false byline in April 2010. At that time, Journatic executives said they addressed the issue, and they have told us they are confident that no false bylines have run on content carried by Sun-Times Media since that date."

At least one industry analyst said the newspaper companies need to be more diligent in monitoring content partnerships.

"It is important that publishing companies be in charge of these technologies," said media consultant Ken Doctor. "Whether it's outsourced or in-sourced or however it works, it's important that those who know the rules of the trade — journalists — are in charge of making sure that the trust with the readers is kept, as we apply these new technologies."

Doctor said outsourced content providers like Journatic are here to stay, and properly employed, will help struggling newspaper companies do quality reporting more efficiently in the digital age.

Chicago-based Journatic freelancer Ryan Smith said his frustration over outsourced content spurred him to go to "This American Life" in April with his story. On Sunday night, after the radio broadcast reverberated across the journalistic world, he received his weekly Blockshopper assignments by email. He took the work.

Twitter @RobertChannick

Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune


July 6, 2012 at 3:14 AM

By: John kugler

Holiday Casualties

Holiday Casualties

It just keeps getting better and better for Rahm and his pet supernintendo. Granted, it was a holiday, but it was a Wednesday, too - midweek:

Five men were killed and at least 21 were wounded in separate shootings from Wednesday morning to early Thursday.

And it doesn't end after the holiday ended. From our comment section:

It is 0600 and the animals are still roaming the lakefront in Hyde Park. Promontory Point is loaded up.

The police in 002 had not control last night on the lakefront!

SCC, 010 is still out of control. We had over 3,000 people in Douglas Park, spilling onto Roosevelt, shutting down major roads and challenging the police all night. At least one taser deployment and a gun recovered. least twenty arrested for various indiscretions in 001 and 018. Another gun recovered along the lakefront, this time at 700 N L.S.D. by a gang team.

And now, WBBM is posting that the Police Department has issued a "community alert" for people venturing downtown:

Police are warning people after a series of overnight downtown robberies over the past two weeks.

The robberies took place between June 20 and 30.

The victims were attacked while walking on the sidewalk and their property forcibly taken by a group of young men.

Descriptions of the offenders vary, but they have been described as black males in their late teens to early 20s, police said.

Which, of course, we and our readers have been warning people about for two years now. You're welcome.

Thursday Night Body Count

It's a Thursday for pete's sake:

Nine people were shot and two people died across the city Thursday night -- eight of them in a two-and-a-half hour window between about 4:10 p.m. and 6:35 p.m.

The media has been narrowing down the shootings to certain two-hour-windows. Gee, do you think they might be timing some of this to shift change? Or prior to the massive deployment closer to sundown?

Somebody better deputize McSkilling to bring on the weekend rain as early as possible. We haven't sat down with a pencil and paper, but this comment appeared earlier:

Totals from Friday thru July 4th 11:59 PM:

Total People shot is 81 including 17 Murders...

Where is the front page story on this?

How many conflicts did Cease Fire "Interrupt"?

What a waste of funding when we could have used that Million+ money to hit more Police!

Add in Thursday evening and we're up to around 90 shot with 19 dead in a mere 6 days. This is probably going to go down as the worst 7 day period in quite a few years, though we doubt the Department will want to brag about it.

That CompStat stuff is working wonders!

And if we had over one hundred shootings, that must mean that CeaseFire interrupted what? A thousand shootings maybe? And saved how many lives? Those guys are amazing!!! Rahm should give them another million fucking dollars!

July 6, 2012 at 8:12 PM

By: Jay Rehak

Substance, Real Reporting, Not From the Philippines.

Thank God there is real reporting that still exists. I'm hoping Substance reporters recognize what great work they do, being real eye witnesses and not pretend, "Orwellian" reporters that fill the Tribune and the Sun-Times with modified press releases.

July 9, 2012 at 2:34 AM

By: Jim Vail

Russo, Tribune's CPS blogger from Brooklyn

Alexander Russo — you must be agreeing out there in Brooklyn, covering Chicago education, that this is the future. Let corporations tell us what the news is — then we know what to buy, and how to live our lives. Life can suddenly seem easier when Big Brother tells us how to live it.

P.S. Press releases have always been a big generator of 'news' in the media industry. I believe the Wall Street Journal reported a majority of stories, a high percent in fact, are generated from a press release.

Newspapers started eliminating investigative reporters with the advent of TV. They needed quicker, splashier and shorter — and wah lah! USA Today becomes the big hit. How much of that is real?

Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

1 + 5 =