The latest “This American Life” looks at hyperlocal content provider Journatic and interviews Journatic writer-editor Ryan Smith, who reveals that the company uses fake bylines for its Filipino writers — or did, until “TAL” blew the whistle on them.
Smith tells TAL’s Sarah Koenig that “when I ended up looking at the names on a lot of the stories [he edited], the names on the stories that were published weren’t the ones that I saw had written the stories.”
One piece, for example, had the byline of “Ginny Cox,” when the story was actually written by Gisele Bautista in the Philippines.
Producer Koenig says: “Looking at the computer system that the company uses to manage its stories, it seems that when Gisele worked on this real esate story, there was a button called SELECT ALIAS, and when she clicked on it, she had a choice: she could either be Ginny Cox, or Glenda Smith.
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.
Ira Glass says at the end of the segment: “After [Koenig] asked [Journatic CEO] 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 isn’t going to allow them anymore either.” (Tribune Co. is a Journatic investor and uses the company to produce its TribLocal weeklies.)
Journatic now credits them to Neighborhood News Service.
“The real Filipinos’ names will not appear in the paper,” notes Glass.
More from “This American Life” (check to see when it’s airing in your market):
SARAH KOENIG: “The engine of this [Journatic] 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 a 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.”
“In all the time [writer-editor Ryan Smith's] worked for Journatic, he’s never spoken directly to his supervising editor, who sits in St. Louis. They communicate exclusively thorugh 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 heard the guy’s voice. It’s all very future.”
“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, ‘Well, somebody has to summarize the obits for the death briefs and it’s cheaper to pay the outsourced writer than 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 35 to 40 cents per story.”
KOENIG: When Ryan agreed to this interview, I didn’t realize he was going to be quite so frank. Oh my God, Ryan, you are so fired.
SMITH (laughing): I am.
KOENIG: Are you OK with that?
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’s been doing has been weighing on his conscience.
UPDATE: I asked Journatic CEO Brian Timpone to comment on the show. He writes:
Re: aliases, it is inaccurate.
We used them on Blockshopper.com real estate stories exclusively — never for client assignments — and for five years before we did any work for newspapers. [Journatic owns Blockshopper.]
Several of our clients asked to cross publish a handful of those stories on their hyper local sites– they are popular– and we obliged but neglected to change the bylines. It was an oversight. And now we do.
Fwiw–we originally used aliases on Blockshopper.com to protect our editors, who would get threats from story subjects, particularly lawyers who threatened to sue every time we wrote about a lawyer home sale.
We didnt ignore the complaints– but took them directly and handled them centrally vs through editors. As a small company without the resources to defend ourselves, it was the best policy.
BlockShopper stories are a combination of production by an editor (lead), edited research done offshore, and algorithms, which pull from data we gather to add perspective.
Re: the show generally, the reporter was determined to tell a story about offshore workers and local journalism because she thought it would be startling, and that’s what she did.
To that end– the story greatly exaggerates the role of our offshore team members and ignores the work of our us based journalists.
We use offshore resources to gather information– which helps us produce more news and do more journalism, in places where there is often little or none.
NEW ON MONDAY AFTERNOON – “This American Life” producer Sarah Koenig responds:
I just wanted to add my two cents to Brian Timpone’s two cents. Two things:
1. My information about the fake bylines was not inaccurate; I was clear in my story that the fake names appeared only on real estate stories, and that the real estate stories were coming into the Journatic work via Blockshopper. I did understand that, and said so in the story.
2. I had access to the Blockshopper database AND to the Journatic database (I can easily prove this; I took a lot of screen shots of the stuff I was looking at). So Brian is incorrect that I was only looking at Blockshopper work. Not at all.
Oh – and a third one, I guess: I certainly didn’t ignore the work of the US reporters! Ryan, for instance. The story opens with his work on the student of the week, and ends with his Flossmoor budget story. So I’m not sure what Brian means there.
Anyhow – I don’t mean to get into a pissing match with Brian. He’s a nice guy, and he was quite gracious to me throughout the course of the story, especially considering the topics I was asking about. It can’t have been fun for him, but he never cut me off. So I appreciated that.
I asked Timpone about Ryan Smith. “Wasn’t fired,” he writes in an email. “If he resigned he hasn’t told us yet.”
“He was never on staff. Was a freelancer who worked on BlockShopper mostly. The systems he showed Sarah are Blockshopper ones.”
UPDATE II: On Saturday night, I asked Smith about his employment status. He wrote in an email:
My status is well, the first thing I heard about my employment status was on your blog. Brian Timpone has never said anything to me at all. I told him through a Journatic editorial director that he was welcome to call me, but he never did. So, no, have heard nothing.
So do you want to return to Journatic? I asked.
It’s weird, it didn’t occur to me that I’d have an option to come back. I figured once they heard the story and that I gave Sarah access to their databases, etc. I’d be gone. Hearing nothing is eerie. So, I have sort have been prepared not to work there.