July 22, 2012

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.

Tony Hunter, Vince Casanova and I are in full accord with the appointment of Randy Weissman to conduct a rigorous review of editorial procedures, policies and practices of Journatic to determine if and how it can meet Chicago Tribune standards. I have worked with Randy for more than 20 years. I trust his knowledge, experience and integrity. Randy is a demanding editor who cares deeply about the reputation of the Chicago Tribune.

Tony and Vince have assured me and our senior newsroom leadership 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. I have told them that my confidence level is at zero right now. Ultimately, I will make the call.

Journatic’s breaches are disturbing and inexcusable. I believe the changes required to remedy this situation will be profound.

The Tribune has been working with Journatic on TribLocal for about three months. It invested in the company in April and laid off or reassigned the Tribune journalists who had been responsible for TribLocal, which launched in 2007 as a user-generated community network.

In 2010, Tribune hired more journalists to work on TribLocal; late last year the company “began exploring ways to increase the amount of hyperlocal content but at a lower cost,” reports the paper. That’s when it approached Brian Timpone, co-founder and CEO of what was then BlockShopper.

In April, Tribune Co. announced an investment of an undisclosed amount in Timpone’s company, which had changed its name to Journatic. In May, Journatic filed a brief notice with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it had sold stock in the company valued at $3.2 million. Tribune Co. spokesman Gary Weitman declined to comment on the amount of the company’s investment.

Tribune Co. also added two corporate executives to Journatic’s five-person board of directors, replacing [Timothy] Landon and Timothy O’Neil, a Sun-Times executive.

Journatic’s Timpone graduated in 1995 from the University of Missouri with a journalism degree, reports the Tribune’s Becky Yerak. He was a broadcast journalist for five years, according to his LinkedIn profile, and owned several community newspapers in Illinois for two years before founding a series of media companies.

In 2004, the Washington Post reported how a Timpone-founded legal journal, the weekly Madison County Record in Edwardsville, Ill., was being bankrolled by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as “a weapon in its multimillion-dollar campaign against lawyers” who file what it believes are frivolous lawsuits.

Timpone told the Post that he chose not to disclose the Record’s connection to the chamber because “I was afraid we’d be prejudged. I thought, ‘Let people judge us by our actions.’ ” Timpone also acknowledged to the Post: “I’m a biased guy. I’m a Republican.”

Timpone founded BlockShopper in 2006.

Newspapers, including Hearst, GateHouse and the Chicago Sun-Times, relied on BlockShopper and later Journatic for real estate listings, school lunch menus and other similar content.

Some people doubt, though, whether this outsourced approach can work. Ted Mann, who ran Gannett’s hyperlocal sites in New Jersey, told the Tribune, “It all comes down to this: You’re trying to build a community on your site, and you cannot do that unless you’re in the community.” In an April interview with Poynter, Timpone expressed the opposite: “Being based in the community is not beneficial,” he said.

In the end, the winner of this debate may be the one who resolves the underlying business dilemma:

“The unsolved problem is how to deliver a high-quality informational good at lower costs,” [NYU professor Jay] Rosen said. “That problem remains no matter what happens with Journatic. I think the economics of the industry will lead to more such attempts, and (news organizations) will learn from the failures.”

Related: Sun-Times fires photographer for fabricating sources, quotes

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Julie Moos (jmoos@poynter.org) has been Director of Poynter Online and Poynter Publications since 2009. Previously, she was Editor of Poynter Online (2007-2009) and Poynter Publications…
Julie Moos

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