The Chicago Sun-Times, Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle join the Chicago Tribune in reporting that hyperlocal content provider Journatic slapped false bylines on real estate stories that ran in their paper. The Sun-Times says it’s immediately cutting ties with the Chicago-based company. (One reason is that rival Tribune is a Journatic investor.) “To be clear,” Journatic CEO Brian Timpone writes in an email, “we cut ties with the Sun-Times back in April [when Tribune invested in Journatic]. They asked us to extend our deal and give them a transition period. We were cordial and did that, even though we have no contract. So we’re apparently now ending the transition period for which they asked us. We wanted to end it months ago. Tribune is our exclusive partner in Chicago.”
An internal Chronicle investigation Monday found that 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.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed that our internal investigation uncovered these pseudonyms,” Chronicle President Mark Adkins said. “We will work with [Journatic's real estate site] BlockShopper to make sure these issues are resolved.”
Journatic CEO Brian Timpone claims aliases were used because “we were writing things that were controversial [and] our writers were being threatened individually by the subjects of stories. We did it to protect them from the threats.”
Journatic writer Ryan Smith told “This American Life” that the stories were written by staffers in the Philippines who were paid 35 cents per story.
Smith wrote on Twitter early this morning: “Just wanted to say I’m delighted to be getting all of this positive feedback & support from journos & others. Makes it all worth it.”
* More newspapers identify false bylines in Journatic stories (Chicago Tribune)
* Earlier: Journatic writer tells “This American Life” about fake bylines (JimRomenesko.com)
* Listen to the Journatic segment on “This American Life” (it starts at 26:16)
UPDATE: Ryan Smith tells Romenesko readers he’s going to work the rest of the week, then resign from Journatic. His email:
The fact that they didn’t fire me was very unexpected. When I came to This American Life, I had just assumed that they would get rid of me when they found everything I did. I told Sarah Koenig everything I knew, and I gave her access to Journatic’s databases and workspaces and even walked her through step-by-step on how to find things she was looking for. I also forwarded emails from Journatic bosses and gave her emails of about 30 of the writers/workers from the Philippines. I’m not sure, other than going to the Tribune Tower and setting the office on fire, that I could have done much more. I’m not sure what their game is other than it would maybe be a bad PR move if they fire the whistleblower./CONTINUES
So, I get my assignments on Saturday night like usual from my editor in St. Louis (now working remotely in Brazil) and I still expect to hear something from a Journatic boss, so Monday I do no work. I exchange a few emails with my remote supervisor, and expressed my confusion over a lack of firing and communication from anyone. I said I’d probably work the rest of the week.
Yesterday afternoon, I get a call from Mike Fourcher at Journatic and he tells me they still want me to continue my duties as a copyeditor. And says they’d send an email. I got that email this morning.
So, here’s my plan: I’m going to work the rest of the week and then resign.
As far as feedback goes, it’s been 99 percent positive. I’ve gotten plenty of emails and tweets and Facebook messages from journalists from all over thanking me for my courage. One former TribLocal reporter offered to buy me a beer. Even outside of the profession though, tons of people who didn’t know anything about Journatic have thanked me for exposing what’s going on and have told me I did the right thing.
Overall, I’m still in a bit of a state of shock over everything that’s happened. The petition, the public outrage, the internal investigations, and now some companies severing ties with Journatic.
My intention was to raise awareness about Journatic’s practices and get people to care about what was going on in Journalism and get public pressure to cause some change — again like what happened with pink slime in the meat industry. I wasn’t sure that ever was going to happen. Now that it seems like “blowing the whistle” is making a difference and that’s incredibly satisfying. I don’t think companies like Journatic are going to go away anytime soon, but perhaps now there will be more accountability and more newspapers having second thoughts about outsourcing local news and treating low paid American journalists like sweatshop workers.
Donate $15 or more to JimRomenesko.com and you’ll get a signed copy of Romenesko’s DEATH LOG, a book of unusual/celebrity coroner’s reports he published in his 1980s police reporting days.