Chicago Tribune discovers plagiarism, suspends work with Journatic
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One of Journatic's editorial leaders, Mike Fourcher, announced Saturday morning that he has resigned from the outsourcing company because he and the company's founders "fundamentally disagree about ethical and management issues as they relate to a successful news business." Journatic said late Saturday that it had planned to fire Fourcher before he resigned.
In a phone interview, Fourcher said, "I'm upset because I believe what Journatic was originally conceived to do was a good idea. It went off track." Fourcher, who was with the company just 10 weeks, said "what we’re seeing is the result of a misguided set of priorities. Writers and editors are implicitly discouraged from doing high quality work for the sake of efficiency and making more money. ... The only metrics that exist are to punish people for failure or to encourage them to fear embarrassment."
That embarrassment arrived, for one particular writer and the company, Friday evening in a letter to readers from Chicago Tribune President Vince Casanova. The paper announced it would suspend its relationship with Journatic, the company it invested in and hired to take over its TribLocal websites after laying off about 20 journalists. The note reads:
We made the decision after it came to light Friday that a sports story published in this week’s Deerfield TribLocal contained elements that were plagiarized and fabricated. ...
An investigation by Tribune editors determined that the writer of the story titled, “Epstein shows effectiveness on the mound,” did not contact the main subject.
One quote attributed to the subject originally was published in a June 7 Deerfield Review story by Bill McLean. A second quote in the TribLocal story was fabricated; it was based on information in a story by Steve Sadin that ran March 29 on Deerfield.Patch.com.
Journatic says it will discontinue use of the freelance writer, Luke Campbell. A review of his previous stories for TribLocal did not find any other plagiarized or fabricated work.
We take these issues very seriously. We will not use Journatic content until we are confident that it meets Chicago Tribune standards.
The TribLocal story about high school pitcher Aidan Epstein took material from stories on competing hyperlocal north suburban neighborhood websites. Campbell fabricated a quote inspired by a story about Epstein on AOL's Patch site in Deerfield. Campbell also lifted a quote from the Sun-Times' Deerfield Review story.
Fourcher said that Journatic learned of the plagiarism when Epstein's father contacted TribLocal. "His father apparently has a news background, and his father read the story and thought, 'Nobody from TribLocal actually interviewed my son.' "
Epstein's father contacted TribLocal's managing editor and then Journatic investigated.
Fourcher said he got in touch with Campbell and asked whether the writer had any evidence to document an interview with Aidan Epstein; Campbell said no, "I delete my notes every week," Fourcher recounted, "which I didn't find credible."
A Journatic spokesperson provided this statement from the company: "We deeply regret this incident and apologize to Chicago Tribune and its readers. ...
"We are committed to meeting the high standards of our customers and, in that regard, we are conducting a thorough review of all of our editorial policies and processes to ensure that occurrences such as these do not happen again. We respect the Chicago Tribune’s decision and will work hard going forward to attempt to regain its trust."
How Journatic hopes to regain trust
In a memo sent to Journatic staff Saturday morning, Amanda Smith-Teutsch, the company's community news manager, explained the impact of this plagiarism revelation and of the Tribune's decision.
This is what it means for us:
- Yes, we all still have jobs.
- We will no longer be producing content for TribLocal, until further
notice. Will it resume? I don't know. Do I know what happens next? No. But you will notice that the statement says suspended, not cancelled.
- We have other clients and other markets. Starting Monday, I want each of you to strive to meet those goals. Continue to work in those other markets.
- If you are contacted by a member of the media for comment, and feel you have something to say, remember that our policy is that you first notify your supervisor and have approval to speak.
I also want to make sure that everyone on my team is operating in an ethical manner.
We here at Journatic:
- Do not lie about who we work for and where we are working from. We say, I am a freelancer for (PUBLICATION NAME) and Journatic News Service. If the person asks where you live/work, DO NOT LIE.
- Do not take information from other media sources and claim it as our own. This goes for ALL SOURCES and ALL LEADS. BE 100% CLEAR WHERE YOU GOT THE INFORMATION FOR THE STORY FROM.
- DO NOT LIE ABOUT YOUR NAME. If any of you are working under an assumed/pen name, now is the time to tell me.
CEO Brian Timpone has claimed in multiple interviews that fake bylines were used only for BlockShopper real estate stories, not Journatic stories. But Smith-Teutsch's note to staff makes it clear that management does not know for certain whether its writers are using fake or real bylines.
Tribune Editor Gerould Kern told staff in a note quoted by Phil Rosenthal that its investigation into Journatic's work is incomplete. "These are the most egregious sins in journalism," Kern said. "We do not tolerate these acts at the Chicago Tribune under any circumstances, whether from a staff member or an outside supplier like Journatic."
Sun-Times Media Editor-in-Chief Jim Kirk told his paper, “We were just made aware of the situation and are investigating.” The Chicago Sun-Times announced last week that it would end its relationship with Journatic early, after revelations that the company was using fake bylines on some stories.
GateHouse announced its deal with Journatic would also end, saying, "We spent too much time centrally and locally addressing errors with their content." Instead, GateHouse will produce its own similar content out of a hub in Rockford, Ill.
'Don't let the noise interrupt you'
Journatic has been the subject of increased scrutiny in the last two weeks, after "This American Life" broadcast an episode on the company's questionable practices. Journalists have continued to uncover fake bylines since the program aired and to critique the company. Readers have also weighed in.
At least one Tribune reader commented on the difference he saw when the company outsourced its content to Journatic. Lake Forest College professor emeritus Michael H. Ebner writes to Gazebo News:
"The altered format appeared garbled. News and advertising sometimes seemed indistinguishable. Reporting was now mediocre, verging on the disreputable. TribLocal in its outsourced format discredited a historic newspaper that has prided itself on high standards of journalism since the nineteenth century.
"Now I am left to contemplate whether the Chicago Tribune, already burdened by its outsized financial dilemma that has defied resolution in court, might be well advised to fold TribLocal altogether."
Fourcher says the company could have avoided this fallout:
"I'm upset because I believe there were a number of occasions when the company could have corrected course. Brian Timpone knew about the 'This American Life' story weeks in advance and told me about it, but downplayed its importance. If we had taken it seriously, we could have had time to prepare a response or actually make changes in the structure of the company or the policies.
"And even after the actual incident with fake bylines, I urged the founders to make policy changes, to establish a clear mission. The company has no written mission, has no written values. I encouraged them to do so explicitly and they chose not to."
Fourcher says his biggest regret is not quitting last week. "I don’t regret joining," he said. But, "last week it should have been clear to me. When you’re in the middle of a fight it’s hard to lift your head."
According to an Associated Press report, the Tribune has not given up on working with Journatic. During the indefinite suspension, the company hopes to help Journatic improve its practices. "We're not writing them off," said Chicago Tribune President Casanova.
Journatic CEO Brian Timpone told staff last week, "Don’t let the noise interrupt you ... bumps are going to be part of the ride." He also said the company, which works with Hearst-owned newspapers as well as Tribune, was close to a deal with a large publisher in Canada.
Updates: Tribune newsroom takes over TribLocal work done by Journatic | Journatic published hundreds of stories under fake bylines on Houston Chronicle websites
Anna Tarkov contributed to this report.