In an apparent attempt to neutralize a high-level critic, Journatic is now claiming it was about to fire an editorial executive who resigned from the company Saturday.
The resignation of Mike Fourcher, who worked at Journatic for only 10 weeks, is the latest sign of increasing trouble at the company, which provides brief stories for Hearst-owned news organizations, Tribune properties, and until recently for the Chicago Sun-Times and GateHouse, which both said they ended their contracts with the company.
After discovering that a Journatic writer had plagiarized a story, Tribune announced Friday night that it would suspend work with the company, though it is an investor and laid off about 20 journalists in April when it shifted responsibility to Journatic for its TribLocal suburban websites.
It was Fourcher who dealt directly with the Tribune when it was discovered that writer Luke Campbell had taken material from a Patch site and a Chicago Sun-Times hyperlocal suburban site, Fourcher told me by phone. It was Fourcher, along with another editor, who discussed the incident with Campbell and subsequently fired him, Fourcher said. And it was Fourcher who briefed CEO Brian Timpone on the firing Friday afternoon, he said.
Fourcher spoke again with Timpone Friday evening, when the CEO explained that Tribune would be suspending work with Journatic. At the time, Timpone did not know whether that suspension would be only for TribLocal or all Tribune properties, Fourcher said. Timpone later emailed Fourcher to say he’d provide more information the next morning, according to Fourcher.
But Saturday morning, Fourcher resigned by email. Timpone replied and asked Fourcher for “the courtesy of a phone call.” Timpone also left a voice mail for Fourcher, which I heard. The message did not suggest Timpone had been about to fire Foucher, instead it was a request for information about Fourcher’s decision to resign.
Despite multiple opportunities Friday afternoon and evening to discipline Fourcher, Timpone instead entrusted him with confidential information about the company’s future, according to Fourcher.
But in a statement sent just before 8 p.m. Saturday, Journatic spokesperson Kendra Thornton said on behalf of the company that it had planned to fire Fourcher:
“When we discovered that plagiarism had occurred this week under Mike’s watch we made a decision to terminate him. He resigned before we could do so. His characterization of his departure is entirely inaccurate.”
The company declined to answer specific questions about the intent to fire Fourcher, saying it doesn’t discuss the deliberations that go into personnel decisions.
Chicago Sun-Times reporters Tina Sfondeles and Kim Janssen describe their attempt Saturday to ask Timpone about Fourcher’s resignation and about Journatic.
Timpone wasn’t keen to discuss the latest criticisms of his business on Saturday afternoon, when the Sun-Times found him outside his home on a leafy River Forest block, leaning into a pal’s Maserati.
“Don’t you know your CEO is an investor with us?” Timpone asked a reporter, referring to Sun-Times CEO Tim Knight. Knight said in a statement Saturday: “I received back my entire investment in Journatic when Tribune Co. completed its deal with the company. My remaining holdings amount to about 1% of the company.”
Asked how he could restore Journatic’s damaged credibility, Timpone said, “There’s so much going on right now, I’ll have to decline … one day I’ll sit down and tell you the whole story.”
Offered a chance to tell a reporter the whole story there and then, Timpone said, “You’re not here for the real story — come on, you know you’re not.”
A woman who emerged from his home in sportswear then exclaimed, “Make sure you describe my tennis outfit!”
It was brilliant white and navy blue.
In a phone interview Saturday morning about Journatic’s problems, Fourcher 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.”
Fourcher says his biggest regret is not quitting sooner.
Related: Tribune newsroom takes over TribLocal work done by Journatic | Journatic memo to staff says, ‘DO NOT LIE ABOUT YOUR NAME’ | How Chicago Tribune discovered Journatic plagiarism