Fake byline flap rattles US news industry

Journatic, which gathers news for client publications and whose staff includes those from the Philippines, used a 'handful' of pseudonyms in its articles

WASHINGTON, United States – A local-news content provider acknowledged Wednesday that false bylines appeared over some of its output sold to major US newspapers, but it denied the practice was widespread.

Journatic, which gathers the minutiae of community news such as real estate deals, police incidents and high-school honor rolls, said a “handful” of pseudonyms had ended up on websites of three of its client publications.

Poynter quoted editors of the Chicago Sun-Times and GateHouse Media, owner of dozens of small-town newspapers, as saying they would no longer use Journatic, whose payroll includes offshore staff in the Philippines.

“It’s very minimal, and it’s being portrayed as something more widespread, because it’s not,” Journatic’s founder and chief executive Brian Timpone told AFP by telephone from his home near Chicago.

The Poynter Institute, a media watchdog, following up on a report on US public radio, said on its website that “dozens of fake bylines” had appeared in some of the nation’s best known daily newspapers.

“It is essential that our news report, no matter the source, is accurate and credible,” it quoted Gerould Kern, editor of the Chicago Tribune, an investor in Journatic since April, as saying after it too discovered aliases.

But Timpone — whose six-year-old outfit generates “tens of thousands” of news items for its clients per month — said only 3 incidents of aliases had appeared on the website of the Chicago Tribune.

A small number also appeared on the Houston Chronicle and the San Francisco Chronicle websites, he said, adding that Journatic had so far found no further instances as it reviews the past work of its 200-odd journalists.

Not perfect

“We’re a small, very fast-growing company,” he said. “We’re not perfect, and we weren’t perfect here…. I take it seriously because I want to live up to the standard of our clients.”

Using pseudonyms is not unusual in European publications, where the practice harks back to literary nom-de-plumes. In the United States, with its ethos of objective newsgathering, they are seen as a serious breach of ethics.

In Journatic’s case, Timpone said, they were used on its sister service BlockShopper — which trawls public records to find out who bought or sold what house at what price — so as to protect its writers from legal action while displaying a byline that would get its stories to appear in a Google search.

BlockShopper writes up the most eye-opening property transactions in a given neighborhood, but when the often-affluent subjects didn’t like seeing their identities out in the open, they threatened lawsuits, he said.

Originally a website, BlockShopper went on to resell its production to local newspapers, and that was how in most cases the bylines — since replaced by “BlockShopper News Service” — ended up on the newspaper websites, he said.

On the Chicago public radio show “This American Life,” former Journatic editor Ryan Smith alleged Journatic favored false bylines to conceal the fact that local news items were being handled by non-local reporters.

“There’s something inauthentic about the whole process,” Smith said.

Journatic’s stock in trade is gathering routine “hyper-local” news items and sending them offshore, notably the Philippines, to be formatted for publication. The items then go back to the United States for a final edit.

Some say its business model amounts to sending jobs in the hard-hit US news industry overseas. Paper Cuts, a website that tracks media job losses, says there have been more than 1,110 newspaper layoffs and buyouts so far this year.

But Timpone — who says Journatic has “dozens” of clients across the United States and is looking to expand abroad — said it actually enables news organizations to free reporters from mundane tasks and focus on bigger stories.

“When you disrupt (the way news media have long functioned), people take shots at you,” he said. – with reports from Agence France-Presse