Journatic made ‘very poor decisions’ about content, say Aggrego founders

Chicago Sun-Times owner Wrapports LLC announced this week that it has launched a service called Aggrego, its own version of the troubled local news service Journatic, Lynne Marek reported in Crain’s Chicago Business Tuesday.

Aggrego CEO Tim Landon made an early investment in Journatic, Wrapports CEO Tim Knight told Poynter in a phone call, but “they had some disagreements about how to drive the team,” he said.

“I fundamentally disagreed with Journatic’s management’s approach to the content and operating model,” said Landon, who was also on the call. “I do believe in data and big data, but that’s not enough.”

Journatic made structural mistakes, Landon said, “then you layer on top of that very poor decisions that were made in terms of managing content and integrity and managing third parties.” Landon and his partners sold “most/all” of their investment in Journatic to Tribune, Wrapports says.

The Sun-Times is separate from Aggrego, company spokesperson Alisa Alexander told me, and Aggrego will not supply news to it. It had a partnership with Journatic’s Blockshopper service but decided to wind it down last summer after fake bylines were discovered in Journatic-produced stories at other newspapers. The Tribune Co., whose Chicago Tribune competes with the Sun-Times, has made an investment in Journatic. Read more


Executive: Journatic’s standards ‘match or even exceed’ those of other news orgs

Street Fight

Hanke Gratteau, Journatic’s vice president of media services, talks about the news organization, which published stories under fake bylines at many newspapers, including The Chicago Tribune. The Tribune announced last December it would resume working with the company on a limited basis.

Stories about Journatic’s journalistic foibles “relied on twisted facts and half-truths,” Gratteau says.

Last summer, there was one instance of plagiarism — and that reporter was fired. That was terrible and a breach of trust with our readers and our client. But again, that reporter was fired. Major publications around the nation have faced similar charges, and they have not been pilloried in the way we were.

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Chicago Tribune resumes work with Journatic after 5-month suspension

In a note to staff and in a story published on the paper’s website, the Chicago Tribune announced it is resuming work with Journatic after suspending relations following a range of ethical breaches at the Tribune and other publications.

The Tribune will use Journatic for listings, but not reported stories, according to the messages from Editor and Senior Vice President Gerould Kern and Chicago Tribune Media Group President Vince Casanova. Those listings — usually “submitted or distributed by community organizations, local government and other groups” — include “park district programs to village meeting agendas to youth sports scores” and will be copy edited by the Tribune to verify their accuracy.

The Tribune, an investor in Journatic, suspended work with them in July after discovering plagiarism and fabrication in a story published for TribLocal, a hyperlocal news network serving Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs. Prior to that discovery, “This American Life” revealed that Journatic used fake bylines and took other ethical shortcuts.

The Chicago Sun-Times and GateHouse end their relationships with Journatic around the same time. Read more


AP promises members it won’t break news on social media

Associated Press
At the Associated Press Media Editors confab in Nashville, Tenn., AP Executive Editor and Senior Vice President Kathleen Carroll promised the service’s users it wouldn’t scoop them:

“You all pay us a chunk of change to break news to you, and so we do,” she said. “And once it’s broken to you, we promote it on the social networks.”

This isn’t a new policy for the news co-op: Last year it admonished staffers who tweeted about the arrest of an AP reporter and photographer at an Occupy protest before the news hit the wire. It’s the first time I’ve heard it expressed in business terms, though. Read more

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Chicago Tribune combines local editions as Journatic suspension continues

Crain’s Chicago Business
The Chicago Tribune has cut the number of its local editions by “about half” since suspending work with journalism-outsourcing company Journatic, Lynne Marek reports. “For instance, coverage of Evanston formerly appeared in a single edition of its own, but is now part of a broader North Shore edition,” she writes.

The paper announced in April it was investing in and hiring Journatic to produce its 22 local editions and cutting about 20 jobs from its TribLocal staff. Read more


Report: Journatic lays off staff

Anna Tarkov
Journalism-outsourcing company Journatic has laid off an unspecified number of full-time staffers, according to Anna Tarkov. A source tells her that Jeremy Pafford gave employees the news. “The reason given was that the workload has decreased significantly and the company is restructuring,” Tarkov writes. All independent contractors have been let go too, Tarkov writes.

Before his stint as Journatic deputy production director, according to his LinkedIn profile, Pafford worked for five years for the Houston Community Newspapers, whose clients include the Hearst-owned Houston Chronicle, which works with Journatic.

The Houston Chronicle is reviewing Journatic’s work after learning it used fake bylines on hundreds of stories published on the Chronicle’s behalf. The Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle says it too is reviewing Journatic’s work.

The Chicago Tribune suspended its relationship with Journatic after it discovered plagiarism in one of the stories the company provided to a Tribune local site. Late last month, Tribune brought on former editor Randy Weissman to review Journatic’s processes and standards. At the time Tribune editor Gerry Kern told Poynter by email: Read more


Report: Daily Press removes Journatic bylines, but stories remain

Williamsburg Yorktown Daily
The Tribune-owned Daily Press in Newport News, Va., has removed evidence of Journatic’s involvement in content on its local sites, Desiree Parker reports. That follows Parker’s earlier report that a Journatic writer with the byline Mike Moreau muffed a fact about a city council meeting, and that another with the byline Austin Prickett had bylines in Delaware and Ohio as well as in Virginia on July 3.

Now, Parker writes, the bylines are gone. But the content remains:

Inside Williamsburg, a Virginia Gazette online product, and Inside York County, a Daily Press online product, are filled with content supplied by Journatic writers whose bylines appear on hyperlocal news stories all over the U.S. The writers’ names appeared under each Williamsburg and York County article when WYDaily ran its story; the following week, those bylines had disappeared, but the content remained the same.

Also missing on Inside York County is the disclaimer on the bottom that used to let readers know the content was supplied by Journatic; in its place is an “about us” link that, when clicked, tells readers “this community news site is brought to you by the Daily Press Media Group.” As of Thursday, Inside Williamsburg still notes that its content is supplied by Journatic.

Parker’s story doesn’t have links to the original stories, but Prickett has author pages on Inside Williamsburg and Inside York County, as well as: Read more

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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.

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The hard truths of hyperlocal journalism reveal themselves in Journatic trouble

It’s become clear that Journatic has some problems: Using incorrect or fictional bylines, plus plagiarism and fabrication of news.

But what if it didn’t?

Could Journatic’s model of cost-efficient outsourced journalism offer a viable future for hyperlocal news? If its ethics and standards of quality were exemplary, would it otherwise serve a community’s needs?

Most signs say: no.

You can’t be hyperlocal while hyperdistant

Journatic founder Brian Timpone told Poynter in April that “being based in the community is not beneficial” to local journalism.

But when I look around at hyperlocal success stories, many are driven by the will and personal commitment of a local individual. The Batavian is Howard Owens. Tracy Record is West Seattle Blog. That’s not to say others don’t contribute, but the sites wouldn’t exist or sustain themselves without individual dedication.

Of all the factors that shape coverage for West Seattle Blog, Record recently told Poynter, the most important is this: “We listen. When readers start to ask about a particular type of thing we hadn’t been covering … that’s a signal to us that it’s time to start covering. But that means you have to have a relationship with the community.”

Who’s in charge of listening at Journatic?

Many hyperlocal sites do not allow anonymous comments, because they believe online communities are built the same way offline ones are — real people with real identities connecting with each other consistently over time.

Relationships matter. They matter a lot on small sites in small communities.

But you can’t have a relationship with Journatic authors. They don’t know you; you don’t know them. You don’t know anyone in common or go to any of the same places. You can’t email them, and they don’t stick around to reply to article comments.

And then, of course, there’s some news that you really have to be on-location to cover well. Record told Poynter WSB’s most valuable crime coverage is not rewriting police press releases, but witnessing breaking news: “When something big happens, we’re there. In person. And we report on it as it unfolds.”

Each hyperlocal site has to be uniquely tailored to its community

Hyperlocal websites succeed not just by saying they target a specific underserved community, but by giving that community a unique, organic solution to its unique information needs.

This was one of the major lessons from the early years of the Knight News Challenge, which spent spent more than $2.8 million on at least nine hyperlocal community news projects.

“There’s a reason Front Porch Forum is in Vermont, there’s a reason Village Soup is in Maine, there’s a reason DavisWiki is in Davis [Calif.],” Knight Foundation senior adviser Eric Newton told me in 2011. “The thing about citizen media is, it’s all about the citizens — it’s all about the right thing in the right place at the right time, in the right combination for that particular community. One size does not fit all.”

Given these lessons, it’s very hard to see how hyperlocal could ever be successfully outsourced. Perhaps some minor clerical and production tasks can be farmed out cheaply, but the principal editorial decisions, product decisions and voice of the site must be authentically local.

Irrelevant and inconsistent content

Other aspects of Journatic’s approach to outsourcing also raise barriers to producing a successful local news site.

One major flaw is the focus on quantity.

When the Chicago Tribune hired Journatic to take over its hyperlocal sites, editor Gerould Kern said “we think we can do more of it [hyperlocal news] in this way.” When the Tribune decided last Friday to bring on a consultant to work with Journatic, an internal memo said “our goal was to increase the amount of hyper-local content we provide.” (Emphases added.)

Similarly, the content Journatic once produced for former client GateHouse newspapers “was based on an agreed number of stories that would be published each month,” David Arkin, vice president of content and audience, told Poynter by email.

The basic model is this: Newspaper companies pay Journatic to generate a certain quantity of stories. Journatic pays contracted writers to provide a certain quantity of stories.

Nobody is paying anyone anything based on quality.

As a result, Arkin said, “sometimes production goals got in the way of good content decisions.” These are among the problems that he said led GateHouse to stop using Journatic:

Some stories that were selected were of little use and didn’t meet our story-selection standards. Example from an editor in Illinois: A hotel chain has an offer for families, but there’s no indication if the chain has businesses in the community the brief appeared. Another example would be state press releases like “State fire marshal marks elevator safety week.” Not valuable content, but it’s content they would often move.

Some stories were completely untimely. For example, this brief was posted on our site 18 minutes after the event was supposed to start. …

From one of our Delaware newspapers: There were 27 lunch menus posted on one of our Delaware websites on a single day. The volume blocked out all other content and looked a bit ridiculous. We don’t have a fundamental problem with posting lunch menus, but perhaps one post a day that lists all of them, would be more appropriate and would allow Journatic to post other kinds of content.

In some of our communities, they did post police items, but sometimes struggled to be consistent, which is an issue when we would depend on the content in print, which would leave a significant hole in print. We made staffing decisions around what Journatic committed to doing and when we would go without blotter for an entire week in some communities, it was a significant issue.

To understand why Journatic coverage is inconsistent, you have to understand how it is assigned and produced.

Potential stories come in through “lead generators.” They are placed in a pool of story assignments, from which the dispersed army of freelancers each choose the ones they will write.

The writers, paid on a per-story basis, decide what to produce — likely driven by the primary consideration of “how fast can I finish this, get paid, and move on to the next thing?”

As a result, one day you get dozens of stories about school lunch menus, but the next week nothing on the cafeteria culinary scene. One day you get exhaustive write-ups of arrests by local police, but the next week your local bandits and vandals go unmentioned.

Consistency would require an editor in charge who determines the overall coverage needs and assigns each writer. Or it would require experienced, salaried writers who choose the best articles to create the best possible publication. But then you’re basically back to the newsroom hierarchy and planning model, which reintroduces the costs Journatic exists to eliminate.

The hard truth

The hard truth of hyperlocal is that it does not scale.

As Chicago Tribune reporters Peter Frost and Ameet Sachdev wrote this weekend, “Some of the largest, most influential newspapers and media companies in the country have tried it: The New York Times. The Washington Post. The Chicago Tribune. Gannett. AOL. None has succeeded.”

Hyperlocal is the opposite of scale. It is the antithesis of The Huffington Post’s formulaic colonization of every imaginable content vertical (a “Prom” section, really?).

Hyperlocal is news for 100 or 1,000 people at a time.

If you seek scale by making that news appeal to more people, it becomes less relevant to any of them.

If you seek scale by stamping dozens of identitical hyperlocal sites on dozens of communities, they all become too inorganic and inauthentic to take hold.

It’s time for any publisher who wants to move into hyperlocal to say to themselves, “This is the business we have chosen.” There’s some money there, in small chunks, but not a gold mine.

And so it is often produced by someone local who cares more about quality than money. Or sadly it may be produced by the Journatic alternative: Someone who cares enough about the money to ignore the quality.

Editor’s note: Portions of this story appeared in earlier reports on Read more


Tribune brings on consultant to work with Journatic, ‘profound’ changes required

One week after suspending its work with Journatic, the Chicago Tribune has enlisted Randy Weissman, a longtime former employee, to consult with the outsourcing company on its processes and standards.

The Tribune suspended work with Journatic after revelations that the company had published stories with fake bylines and that a writer there had plagiarized a story on TribLocal, the network of suburban papers and hyperlocal websites Journatic published on behalf of Tribune.

Tribune editor and vice president Gerould W. Kern said by email:

The suspension remains in force and is indefinite. We are not using any Journatic news content now in print or online.

There is no timetable — indefinite means what it suggests. Journatic has no control over the length of the suspension or when it might be lifted.

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