Write and Wrong

Highlights from Hair Balls

SPACED CITY

Write and Wrong
Journatic faked Chron bylines.

BY JEFF BALKE

Tucked neatly beneath a photo of Pitbull, and next to the lotto numbers in last Tuesday's Houston Chronicle A section (page 2, if you're curious), was a "Note to our readers" that detailed the Chron's recent discovery that stories provided to them by Journatic and its affiliate Blockshopper had used pseudonyms instead of actual writer names in story bylines.

The admission by the Houston daily was the result of a story from syndicated radio program This American Life, which ran an extensive report about Journatic, a news outsourcing service that provides content for lager newspapers for real estate and hyper-local online and print editions. In the case of the Chron, Journatic provides content for the paper's Ultimate sections. In the "note," the local news daily clarifies Journatic's decision to run the fake bylines.

The briefs and business releases containing the false bylines were written by a group of Blockshopper writers and editors. Journatic Chief Executive Officer Brian Timpone said he made the decision to use the bylines to improve the search engine performance of the content, while insulating his writers from reader complaints.

Papers including the Chicago Tribune have come under fire recently for using the controversial service, which outsources its local news reporting to writers and content gatherers in the Philippines and hires freelance reporters for a few dollars per story. In the case of the Tribune, it laid off 20 writers after hiring the service according to the Chicago Reader.

The relatively startling admission by Timpone that Journatic changes names to increase search rankings and protect writers from complaints underscores the controversy surrounding the organization, which apparently offered $50 to its writers if they did not speak about the company to other publications.

According to the Chron, Blockshopper has now ceased using false bylines. In fact, the company has simply stripped stories of any byline.

"We apologize for this misrepresentation," Jeff Cohen, editor of the Chronicle, said in a statement. "We have expressed our disappointment to the vendor. We have clearly conveyed our expectations to them and will monitor them closely to be certain this does not happen again."

This does, however, bring up the bigger question: Is outsourcing news really a good idea? As pointed out in both stories, this not only costs journalists their jobs, but it calls into question how in-depth stories can be when written by people not from the community. It also makes one wonder if the somewhat shady practices of Journatic and Blockshopper are contributing to the demise of the print journalism industry.

The Chron should be commended for being honest about the admission, even if the story was at the bottom of page two. Here's hoping the newspaper's use of the service hasn't contributed to its recent layoffs.
_____________________

SURREAL ESTATE

Fourth Ward Gentrification
Last historic shotgun houses in jeopardy.

BY JOHN NOVA LOMAX

And so, after all these years of condofication, it has come to this: one last row of shotgun houses in the Fourth Ward. The transformation from funky and proud Freedmen's Town to go-go, oontz-oontz Midtown is almost complete.

Gone or boarded up are several historic churches, the Fa Real bar, King Cole's Liquor and This Is It! soul food, replaced by creperies, tapas bars and coffeehouses.

And in the sweltering summer sun, out in front of the boarded-up houses on the corner of Victor and Gillette, as he has ever been before, Lenwood Johnson is there, trying his level best to save these ten remnants of Houston's first black neighborhood.

Johnson says he chose the week of Independence Day to speak his piece because the Fourth of July should mean something for the people of Freedmen's Town, too.

"We want freedom and independence just like everybody else," he says.

More specifically, he wants these last shotguns to be preserved. He believes that about a million dollars in TIRZ money that could have been allocated to preserve and restore these houses has been misallocated.

He points out that the city evicted all the tenants in 2005 and has since denied the houses' owners an occupancy permit, thus forcing them to pay taxes on a non-income-producing property. Johnson says they will be forced to sell soon and that real estate company Trammell Crow would be the likely buyer.

He is also outraged that Mayor Parker has found a way to save the East End's Cage elementary school building. In October, it was announced that the city would take over the 100-year-old, 12-years-vacant school on Telephone Road and preserve it until such time as it can be taken over by a nonprofit organization.

Johnson wonders why these almost 100-year-old homes don't get the same respect. As he points out, they are on the National Register of Historic Places and very much an endangered breed. Virtually all of the rest in Fourth Ward have been leveled, their places taken by luxury condos for upscale downtowners.

Johnson seems personally disappointed by Annise Parker. He says that many black people voted for her against the wishes of their moralistic preachers. They believed she would understand what they've gone through, Johnson says.

"We had thought that coming from a background where she was discriminated against, she would be more sympathetic to us," Johnson says. "But looking back, we've had a woman in Kathy Whitmire and a law enforcement person in Lee P. Brown, and they didn't help us, either."

Johnson believes that despite all Freedmen's Town's culture and history, City Hall and the town's monied developers want it, too, to be erased.

It isn't just hard-core economics. That Freedmen's Town existed so close to downtown has been an embarrassment to many Houston boosters, who cringed every time a visiting photographer would snap a picture of a dilapidated shotgun shack in the foreground of Houston's glittering skyline, and some still see houses like those on Victor as more of a disgrace than a treasure.

"They started by pushing us over the freeway and they've been trying to get us out of here ever since," he says. "This is a land takeover, just like they did with the Native Americans."

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