July 16, 2012

Outsourcing company Journatic used previously undisclosed fake bylines on more than 350 stories published on behalf of the Houston Chronicle, Poynter has learned.

“Chad King” was not a real person.

This news comes on the heels of Journatic’s indefinite suspension Friday by the Chicago Tribune, which has retaken control of its TribLocal publications after learning that a Journatic writer plagiarized a story on one of its websites. Journatic also faced public criticism Saturday from a resigning executive.

This discovery also follows previous revelations that Journatic used fake bylines in other stories for the Houston Chronicle, as well as the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and San Francisco Chronicle.

At the time of those first revelations, Journatic CEO Brian Timpone assured Poynter that the fake bylines were limited to real-estate news briefs produced by the company’s BlockShopper subsidiary.

Timpone told Poynter several times that Journatic never has and never will use aliases. In a memo sent to staff Timpone categorically stated, “Author aliases were never a part of the Journatic editorial systems from which we produce news for clients.” In an email to Poynter last week, Timpone reiterated:

“…as I’ve said repeatedly, we have only ever systemically
published alias bylines with BlockShopper.com stories, which were cross-published in Chicago and Houston online, as well as the SF print instance. Journatic’s systems publish no byline or a writer byline, when appropriate.”

We now know that was not true.

‘Chad King’ bylines

Poynter has identified hundreds of previously undisclosed cases of news stories that Journatic published on Houston Chronicle-owned “Ultimate” hyperlocal websites using a fictional byline, “Chad King.”

Above are a few of the 342 local news stories Journatic produced under the fictional byline “Chad King” in 2010 and 2011.

These stories attributed to “Chad King” include all kinds of local news produced by Journatic, such as high school sports, school closings, crime stories and election results.

At least 342 Chad King bylines appeared on 16 of the Chronicle’s Ultimate websites. Even more may once have existed on six other now-defunct Ultimate sites.

The stories began appearing Sept. 15, 2010, and all but ceased in February 2011 (save for one story in April 2011). From their original dates of publication until this weekend — as long as 22 months for the earliest one — the stories carried the false bylines.

This past weekend, when Poynter posed questions to company officials about these findings, most of the articles were suddenly converted to a “Journatic News Service” byline. No corrections or disclosures were appended. The company’s clean-up effort seems to have missed most of the photo galleries, which still carry the Chad King bylines.

On Saturday, after Poynter raised questions about the fictional “Chad King” bylines (top), Journatic altered almost all of them to “Journatic News Service” (bottom). No corrections were posted to notify readers.

Howard Decker, neighborhood news manager at Houston Chronicle, referred questions to a company spokeswoman who provided a statement saying Hearst is reviewing all its Journatic content.

It remains unclear why Journatic stopped the practice of using “Chad King” bylines in early 2011 but took no steps to correct the previously published stories in the year since.

Copy editor’s name used on stories she didn’t write

In a smaller, more recent case, former Journatic copy editor Irene McShane complained to the company this past weekend that her byline appears on stories that she “did not report or write … for the Houston Chronicle or its websites,” she said in an email obtained by Poynter.

Poynter was able to identify 11 stories using her name on the Ultimate sites, from late April through May of this year. Four are weekly events listings all published on May 3, like this one. Six are features on local businesses, like this one for Al’s Formal Wear. The last features nutritional advice titled “Digestive enzymes key to good health.”

Irene McShane said in an email to Journatic that she did not write this story, or any of the others attributed to her.

McShane requested that these bylines be changed, in an email sent Saturday to Journatic Community News Manager Amanda Smith-Teutsch and Editorial Director Kathryn Swartz:

Amanda and Kathryn:

It has come to my attention that my name falsely appears as the reporter/writer/author of several stories on the Houston Chronicle’s “Ultimate” websites.

I did not report or write any stories for the Houston Chronicle or its websites.

These are false bylines.

The stories with my name falsely attached include, but are not limited to, the following:

[List of nine links omitted — all included in our list]

I would appreciate it if you would promptly remove my name from all stories on the Houston Chronicle’s “Ultimate” websites.

Explanations sought

Timpone has not responded to Poynter’s questions for this article.

Journatic spokesperson Kendra Thornton provided this statement: “We are in the process of conducting a thorough review of our policies, software, technology and personnel. We are immediately and forcefully addressing the issues we find and making changes where necessary. Until we have completed our review we will decline any further comment.”

Mike Fourcher, the Journatic production manager and editorial head who resigned Saturday over its “misguided set of priorities,” told Poynter he had no direct knowledge of the “Chad King” stories, which pre-date his time with the company.

But after talking to some staff who were involved in a story that carried a “Chad King” byline, he said the bylines may have been misapplied as a result of sloppy process, not purposeful deception. “Those fake bylines were not about hiding somebody, it was about having a process that wasn’t a tight process.”

A source with direct knowledge of the process, who requested anonymity because the source is not authorized to speak for the company, explained that the Chad King byline was meant to be used as an internal placeholder in some situations, but not to be used publicly.

Use of the “Chad King” byline typically meant an editor had written the story, the source said, though Poynter has received evidence separately of instances in which the Chad King byline appeared on work by freelance writers, not editors. “On the rare occasion that the editor cobbled together a couple of graphs, they put the Chad King byline on a story to indicate to our editing staff that the story didn’t need writing — just publishing.”

Broken promises

So, why does any of this matter?

Reuters media critic Jack Shafer explored “the sanctity of the byline” in a column last week, based on what was known then about Journatic’s use of fake bylines.

“Knowing the identity of the writers makes it easier to read a newspaper critically and hold writers accountable. It’s been a good thing for journalists, too, making it easier for the better ones to convert their high reputations into better jobs,” Shafer writes. “But you can’t say that for Journatic … The application of an alias neither makes the writer more accountable nor does it really help him advance his reputation in the journalistic marketplace.”

A byline creates transparency and accountability by making a promise to the reader that this person — a real person — gathered this information, shaped these words and stands by their accuracy. If you have a problem with a story or a question, you know who to contact about it. If you doubt the story’s credibility, you know whose past work and personal entanglements to research.

“The issue is authenticity,” wrote Edward Wasserman this weekend.

By using fictional or inaccurate bylines, Journatic broke that promise and betrayed the trust of the Houston Chronicle and its readers, hundreds of times.

Related: Hearst is “reviewing” Journatic content after false bylines published on Houston Chronicle websites (Poynter) | Journatic memo to staff: “DO NOT LIE ABOUT YOUR NAME” (Poynter) || Earlier: The Sun-Times and GateHouse end their relationships with Journatic, and the Tribune suspends it after plagiarism revelations (Poynter) | Journatic worker takes ‘This American Life’ inside outsourced journalism (Poynter).

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Jeff Sonderman (jsonderman@poynter.org) is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

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