Chicago Tribune staffers: Relationship with Journatic ‘threatens to jeopardize our credibility’

Chicago Sun-Times
In a letter delivered to Chicago Tribune Editor Gerould W. Kern Thursday, staffers outline Journatic’s documented journalistic sins — including plagiarism and use of fake bylines — then ask why the Tribune is “seeking to salvage its relationship with Journatic when as a matter of policy it declares zero tolerance for such behavior?” Kim Janssen reports:

The letter, delivered to Kern Thursday morning, refers to other incidents of plagiarism and false bylines at other Journatic clients, including the Houston Chronicle, and says “repeated incidents of false bylines and false datelines, along with plagiarism, have been exposed at several Journatic clients.” The Tribune suspended the use of Journatic following the discovery of the plagiarized article earlier this month.

The journalists know Kern shares “our concerns about the Tribune’s credibility,” they write. But they say they want answers from Tribune management about what the Tribune’s relationship with Journatic will be in the future.

Here’s the letter’s text:

July 25, 2012
Dear Gerry:
There is deep frustration and concern in the newsroom over the Tribune’s continued relationship with Journatic, one that threatens to jeopardize our credibility–the one thing that most distinguishes us to our readers and advertisers.

Details of the Journatic business model remain unclear, but the operation has across the country demonstrated questionable practices difficult to explain away. Repeated incidents of false bylines and false datelines, along with plagiarism, have been exposed at several Journatic clients.

As employees concerned about both the reputation of the Tribune and its future, we have been disturbed not just by the relationship with Journatic but also a lack of detail about how this relationship came about. We also want to know what form, if any, it will take going forward.

We know you share our concerns about the Tribune’s credibility, and are enlisting your help in getting answers to these critical questions not yet addressed by Tribune management:

How much has this company invested in Journatic and what percentage of that entity does this company own?

When the decision to invest in Journatic was made, what specifically was done to vet the background of its owners and prior investors as well as its business practices? Who conducted those reviews, what was the outcome and how did they assess the firm’s ethical standards, methods and quality controls in providing so-called content?

Who was involved in the decision to salvage the relationship with Journatic despite broad evidence of practices antithetical to our fundamental beliefs and traditions as a newsroom?

The code of ethics that all Tribune employees must sign makes clear that it is a firing offense to engage in the kinds of practices that Journatic has engaged in again and again. Why then is Tribune seeking to salvage its relationship with Journatic when as a matter of policy it declares zero tolerance for such behavior?

We have been told that there will be a firewall between the use of Journatic copy and that of the newsroom. Yet the newsroom was called to fill in the coverage gap with the sudden moratorium on Journatic earlier this month. If the relationship is revived, how can we be assured that a separation will be both inviolable and clear to readers?

The Tribune has spent considerable efforts positioning itself as an exemplar of watchdog reporting, devoting major resources to exposing malfeasance, exploitation and greed. How do you expect customers to believe in our credibility as a watchdog if we don’t demand the same high standards of conduct from our business partners that we do of others?


Your colleagues (see attached page)

David Kidwell John Chase
Jeff Coen David Heinzmann
Bob Secter James Webb
Noreen Ahmed-Ullah Lisa Black
Kathy Bergen Dawn Rhodes
Christopher Borrelli Lolly Bowean
Manya Brachear Jonathan Bullington
John Byrne Jeff Carlson
Mary Kate Chambers Jodi Cohen
John Cooper Jeff Danna
Hal Dardick Joe Darrow
Julie Deardorff Cynthia Dizikes
Duaa Eldeib Monica Eng
Hugo Espinoza Liam Ford
Peter Frost Monique Garcia
Ted Gregory Eric Hahn
Anne Halston Melissa Harris
Michael Hawthorne Alexander Helbach
Jon Hilkevitch Dan Hinkel
Jared Hopkins David Jackson
Jim Jaworski Melissa Jenco
Trevor Jensen Chris Jones
Blair Kamin Gregory Karp
John Keilman Rick Kogan
Eric Krol Todd Lighty
Jeff Long Kristen Mack
Brian MacQueen Joe Mahr
Michelle Manchir Alan Marumoto
Colleen Mastony Bob McCoppin
Bill McDonald Mark Misulonas
Jason Morris Shanna Novak
Matt O’Connor Antonio Olivo
Vikki Ortiz-Healy Kevin Pang
Rick Pearson Michael Phillips
Mary Ellen Podmolik Diane Rado
Brian Rausch Regina Robinson
Michelle Rowan Angela Rozas
Max Rust Joseph Ryan
Nancy Ryan Ameet Sachdev
Mary Schmich Deborah Shelton
Stacy St. Clair Annie Sweeney
Saleema Syed Trine Tsouderos
Tracy Van Moorlehem Jennifer Weigel
Julie Wernau Stu Werner
Wailin Wong Jon Yates

Last week, Kern said the paper was bringing in a consultant “to conduct a rigorous review of editorial procedures, policies and practices of Journatic to determine if and how it can meet Chicago Tribune standards” and that “we will not consider reinstating the use of Journatic until we are 100 percent confident in its ability to meet our professional and ethical standards.”

Related: The hard truths of hyperlocal journalism reveal themselves in Journatic trouble |
Tribun newsroom takes over TribLocal work done by Journatic | Chicago Tribune
discovers plagiarism, suspends work with Journatic
| Chicago Tribune investigates Journatic’s work

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  • Larry Kart

    But, then, selling for scrap what’s left of the whole shebang may be the master plan here.

  • Anonymous

     Well put.
    I agree.
    When money is put first, the product suffers.
    And then the money-grubbers waste more resources to defend the eroded product, and thus hamper any attempt to improve it.

  • Anonymous

    I wouldn’t bet that Journatic’s content attracts “massive amounts of clicks,” K. Kindred. In fact, I’d bet most “stories” don’t get more than 50-100. But then, that’s a problem TribLocal has faced from the start. Aside from the serious concerns about plagiarism and fake bylines, I seldom see the quality issue discussed in any detail. Journatic’s content sucks–and the suits in the corporate suite think suburbanites are too stupid to notice. They aren’t. Sadly, the legacy media and upstarts like Patch are intent on holding onto an outdated definition of “community news.” Eventually someone will demonstrate that hyperlocal can be profitable for those who don’t condescend to their small-town readers with an unending series of lunch menus, DVD rentals and “best dentist” features. 

  • Ryan L. Williams

    Sadly, the only question relevant to Tribune management is whether the $3.2 million investment in journatic can be made back. Should have spent that $3.2 million on your reporters, guys.

  • Anonymous

    You are in the whale oil business, but unfortunately petroleum has been discovered. You have just restated the problem, which is not helpful to your situation.

    Your cheese has been moved…

    There are plenty of other metaphors that come to mind.

  • Larry Kart

    No doubt others have made this point before, on this thread and elsewhere, but all those who use economic practicality/necessity to justify newspapers freely cutting staff, ethical corners, etc. don’t seem to see that the eventual next day’s/next week’s/next month’s product still has to sell and thus to have significant value compared to what present customers can recall and what future customers think they can get elsewhere. A policy whereby, a la the exciting conclusion of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days,” one uses the superstructure of one’s ship for fuel is a policy that has only one likely outcome — one may arrive in port in time, but in a vessel that is of no further use as a vessel and that can then, at best, be sold for scrap. That is, there may be no good alternative here, but don’t tell us a wholesale dismantling of the enterprise is anything more than a very limited, short-term “solution.”

  • Larry Kart

    Frankfurter46 — I left the Trib in 2002, after 25 mostly happy years there.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Larry, I appreciate your help.

    And don’t worry. There is still a chance you might get lucky and be offered a buyout on your way out.

  • K.Kindred

    I applaud their effort, and I’m sympathetic to their cause. No one will ever know, for sure, if bylines in ANY newspaper or newspaper website are real people, nor will anyone ever know where the content is being produced. However, Journatic and all other content farms like it will continue to feed fake news to the masses. Tribune and Hearst really do like the amount of content Journatic and their other contracted content farms produce for them. 

    As Randy pointed out, only journos are interested in the issue of producing print and online content under the guise of news and/or journalism. Media moguls just want ad clicks, and from appearances, content farms provide enough ad wrapping to drive massive amounts of ad clicks to sustain the fake writer/fake news business model. Suspensions and/or investigations of Journatic’s antics only were implemented to buy some time for Tribune/Hearst/Journatic to come up with more trickery. Get used to it. As Journatic and other content farms hit bumps in the road, they continuously will come up with more innovative ways to hide what they are doing from not only the readers but from newspaper staffers. 

    Bottom line: Do not trust anything in the media — there are more farms like Journatic that are doing the very same thing. 

  • Larry Kart

    Frankfurter46 — “Should of”? No, words are not your thing.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with you Randy, but that argument has to made in numbers not words. That’s how business solutions are made and journos aren’t good at that.

    As for advertisers, they only care about eyeballs and how many of those eyeballs walk in their store or business. They care about journalism and writing about as much as reporters care about their business, which is zilch.

    There are thousands of poorly written blogs, mommy blogs, and single interest blogs that are being contacted by huge companies and marketers every day because they can reach customers and produce results. They’re small, but they produce. I am familiar with several who have never even made a sales call! Business comes to them without trying!!!

    I’m not sure anyone who signed this letter understands this shift and what it means to them. If they did, they might of written it differently and at least taken a stab at a solution.

    And these emerging bloggers are writing out of their homes and apartments, not office towers on some of the most precious real estate in the country.

    Journos need to be more business savvy today. Continuing to make a journalism or a writing quality argument is a loser. Journalism is easy for them. It’s what they do and are expert at. That’s why they’re at the Trib and not some backwoods weekly. Understanding what is really happening to the industry takes work and a different mindset than is displayed in this letter.

  • Randy

    There is a strong business argument to be made in favor of ditching Journatic. The New York Times and its paywall experiment have been a bit uneven, but the idea seems to be gaining traction (and money). Newspapers will have to settle for lower profits, no doubt, but profits are still out there to be made.

    Once examined from a business standpoint, posting a ton of copy that nobody reads, while making a million mistakes, will not serve the Tribune or Journatic well. Neither will Filipino writers pretending they live in the Chicago suburbs.

    Look at the TribLocal print sections from a few weeks ago. Not only is the copy of questionable interest to anyone in a given town, but there’s hardly any of it. What advertiser would pay for placement in such a section?

  • WriterGirl

    Frankfurter, did you read the letter? It doesn’t seem like it. There’s nothing in there about everything being about to collapse or you can’t live without us. Goodness.

  • Anonymous

    WriterGirl you are naive. Everyone who signed this letter is naive. And it will be largely dismissed by your execs who are currently trying to plug the hole in a fast sinking ship that is larger than the hole in Journatic.
    You will never win trying to make a journalism argument to your execs in the floors above you who speak business. This is a business problem. A whiny letter about journalism is a waste of time.

    Instead of opening a Word document, someone should of opened an Excel spreadsheet. The group all should of gotten together and figured out how to make a business argument to get rid of Journatic. They should of figured out how they can create that added content just as cost effectively or manage it and SAVE the company money. That they will listen to. A whiny letter about journalism is a waste of time.

    The only reason Journatic exists is because it’s an effort to cut costs and increase revenue.

    But this letter reads like a bunch of self righteous old media newspaper reporters making the same old “you can’t live without us” sort of argument and journalism comes first sort of thing.

    Journalism is down on the list. Revenue is first in a business. Without it you have no money and no place to write.

    Journalists hate to hear this truth. They have been allowed to wallow in ignorance for years because money flowed in so easy they never had to actually know much about how their income is generated or why people buy (or bought) papers.

    And no one in the public knows what Journatic is. No readers know that this debate exists. It is totally inside baseball. So, claiming that everything is about to collapse is 
    just a bunch of tired old newspaper reporter rhetoric. It’s 2012 for God’s sake. Wake up.

    Don’t get me wrong. You should speak out about phony stories and bylines. It’s not right. And you should stand up and fight to preserve your jobs from being farmed out to content farm. But the letter never says what you want should the Trib execs actually answer the question.

    Make a business argument, not a journalism argument. Speak their language, not yours, and you might win.

  • WriterGirl

    We are not naive, Randy. Give me a break.

  • Randy

    The naive staff asks why the Tribune is “seeking to salvage its relationship with Journatic”  rather than follow the policies of a real newspaper. Missing the point. They are a big investor in Journatic. They aren’t trying to salvage a relationship with a sleazy operation – they are working to become one with it. Four legs good, two legs better! 

    They don’t want to “fix” Journatic, but make the rest of the Tribune staff accept it by making some weak promises. No problem with the “relationship” as the two sides are one and the same. They just want to get their investment back, and having standards would block that.

  • Randy

    The naive staff asks why the Tribune is “seeking to salvage its relationship with Journatic”  rather than follow the policies of a real newspaper. Missing the point. They are a big investor in Journatic. They aren’t trying to salvage a relationship with a sleazy operation – they are working to become one with it. Four legs good, two legs better! 

    They don’t want to “fix” Journatic, but make the rest of the Tribune staff accept it by making some weak promises. No problem with the “relationship” as the two sides are one and the same. They just want to get their investment back, and having standards would block that.

  • Robert Knilands

    All of this could have been avoided if the journalism industry had ever bothered to establish a licensing and certification process. As long as this was done through the industry, rather than the government, it never would have been a threat to the First Amendment, as some have tried to claim.

    Also, Tribune employees should have been resisting the erosion of the focus on content long before this. It’s probably way too late to expect change now.

  • MrJM

    Anyone surprised by the Tribune’s holding corporate persons to a lower standard than human persons hasn’t been paying attention.
    – MrJM