The popular “This American Life” public radio program turned its eye on hyperlocal news service Journatic this weekend, revealing in its latest episode that sister company BlockShopper had slapped fake bylines onto some of the real estate site’s lawsuit-prone stories.
“This was a mistake,” Journatic CEO Brian Timpone told Street Fight yesterday. “We should never have run an alias byline and sent the article to our partners. It was my fault.” He insisted, though, that the stories below the make-believe bylines were “100% factual.”
Timpone said he ordered up fake bylines primarily because Google News wouldn’t index BlockShopper’s articles without a name identifying the author, even though the stories were produced by a team of researchers, reporters and editors. Fake bylines also meant that staff members wouldn’t face the pressure of being named in lawsuits that were prompted by some of BlockShopper’s high-profile home sales that offended the buyer or seller.
The episode of “This American Life” — which is produced by WBEZ, hosted by Ira Glass and distributed by Public Radio International on PRI — featured a Journatic staffer, Ryan Smith, who took the show on an inside look at how the news operation assembles articles. The process starts with public data — like real estate transfers, crime reports and even DVD rentals — collected by offshore researchers. Then U.S.-based reporters and editors fashion the research into the finished stories. Journatic’s algorithms help the editorial staff comb petabytes of data for metrics that will produce interesting, offbeat stories that can be tailored for individual communities. Timpone says the process makes community journalism considerably more efficient than building story production around one reporter who does all the work. TAL said in the promo for its story: “[Journatic] is producing local journalism in a brand new way. Or is it really journalism?”
Media blogger Jim Romenesko quickly picked up on the TAL broadcast with a posting Saturday: “Journatic Is Caught Using Fake Bylines.” Poynter followed up later Saturday with its own story on the brouhaha. This piece, written by Anna Tarkov, raised questions about what it called “the dangers of outsourced journalism.”
Timpone said that the only thing fake in the BlockShopper stories was the bylines. “All the stories are 100% factual,” he said. He also said there have been no fake bylines on the stories that Journatic has been producing for the Chicago Tribune’s TribLocal since it took over operations at the network of community sites in May.
But in his Saturday posting, Romenesko implied something different. He wrote: “Journatic and the Chicago Tribune’s TribLocal have used other fake bylines for stories written by Filipino writers, including Jimmy Finkel, Carrie Reed, Jay Brownstone and Amy Anderson.”
“That’s not true,” Timpone said. He acknowledged that a handful of BlockShopper-originated real estate transfers dating back to 2009 appeared in the pre-Journatic TribLocal.
Timpone said he met Google’s demand for bylines in 2009 because BlockShopper was producing 50 stories a day, and he wanted his start-up digital news operation to get that big boost. He said he settled on fake bylines because it was impossible to narrow down stories to single authors. Even if a story was only six paragraphs long, he said, it might have been produced by as many as five or more people. For example, the data on a real estate sale would be collected by one or more researchers in the Philippines. One or two reporters in BlockShopper’s U.S. offices would make phone calls to flesh out the story, and then it would be edited by one or more editors before it was published. “Who was the author who should get the byline?” Timpone asked.
Timpone said that real and threatened lawsuits against BlockShopper for publishing high-priced real estate transfers — “New Jones Day Lawyer Spends $760K on Sheffield” — also helped push him toward the phony bylines. “I didn’t want our staff to be pressured by being named in the suits.”
Timpone settled a suit filed against BlockShopper by Jones Day after incurring major legal fees. In the settlement, Timpone agreed to quit using a URL format that Jones Day said implied the story about the $760,000 real estate sale involving one of its lawyers originated with the firm. The information for the story came from public records that BlockShopper researched.
Journatic has attracted a lot of scrutiny because it has upended traditional models of community journalism, which are built around reporters and freelancers reporting and writing stories from start to finish. Under the Journatic model, part of a story may be assembled from data with the help of software that can quickly collect streams of metrics that include information relevant to the story. In the next step, the reporter, armed with this data, may get some quotes from various sources to flesh out the story, and there will be a final polishing by at least one editor. Timpone says this dual process produces better stories more efficiently. He said Journatic is producing triple and more the number of stories for TribLocal that used to be be produced under the old one-reporter-does-everything model.
Journatic has been criticized for outsourcing news it then sells to U.S. publishers — the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle, among them. But Timpone says only the data-gathering and research part of his news operation is based in the Philippines. Besides, he said, “every other industry outsources. Why not journalism? We’ve got to become more efficient if were going to be sustainable.”
Tom Grubisich is the New News columnist at Street Fight.
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