Tucked neatly beneath a photo of Pitbull and next to the lotto numbers in 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 affiliate Blockshopper had used pseudonyms instead of actual writer names.
The admission by the Houston daily was the result of a story from National Public 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.
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.
The relatively startling admission by Timpone that they change names to increase search rankings and protect their 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.
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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," said Jeff Cohen, editor of the Chronicle. "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 the NPR and Chicago Reader stories linked above, 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.
Props to the Chron for being honest about the admission. Here's hoping the service they are using hasn't contributed to their recent layoffs.