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Thursday, July 12, 2012 03:39 am

Outsourcing local news

Rockford “content hub” to write for SJ-R

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The State Journal-Register plans to publish local stories written outside its building on South Ninth Street.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

While some of the most prestigious newspapers in the nation are tarred by a scandal involving fake bylines on stories produced by overseas writers, the State Journal-Register is making plans to start publishing stories produced in Rockford.

GateHouse Media, parent company of the State Journal-Register, will establish a so-called content hub in Rockford where writers will produce stories for several newspapers in the chain that publishes nearly 80 daily newspapers in several states.

State Journal-Register editor Bob Heisse confirmed that stories written up north will be published in Springfield. The stories will be small, he said, and will include such topics as gas prices and meeting agendas.

“Things are changing,” Heisse said. “I think right now in the media landscape, we’re looking for efficiencies and things like that. A lot of people are concerned about things like this, but this is happening all over the country.”

In establishing a centralized writing operation, GateHouse is ending a relationship with Journatic, a company with offices in St. Louis and Chicago that produces content for some of the biggest newspapers in the country, including the Chicago Tribune, Newsday and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Journatic material has appeared in 28 GateHouse newspapers in Illinois and elsewhere, according to a recent story published on the website of the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to journalism education and issues. GateHouse, which started a relationship with Journatic more than a year ago, wasn’t satisfied. David Arkin, GateHouse vice president of content and audience, told Poynter that the company had hoped to free up reporters to produce more enterprise stories, but that didn’t happen because newspapers that published Journatic material spent too much time on quality control.

State Journal-Register employees last year were told that the newspaper would use Journatic in some way, but Heisse said that hasn’t happened.

“We’re basically not using Journatic now,” Heisse said. “(The Rockford content hub) is going to provide what Journatic was supposed to provide. That’s on target for later this summer.”

Scandal recently erupted when “This American Life,” a public-radio program produced by WBEZ in Chicago, reported that Journatic stories published in the Chicago Tribune came with fictitious bylines and that some of the stories had been generated in the Philippines by writers paid as little as 35 cents per article.

After the initial report, other newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times, discovered fake bylines on stories supplied by Journatic. The Sun-Times immediately ended its relationship with Journatic. Days after the damning radio report aired, the Tribune, which invested money in Journatic last spring, said that it would investigate the matter.

“Publishing stories under false bylines is a violation of the Chicago Tribune’s ethics policy,” Tribune editor Gerould Kern said in a July 1 story announcing the newspaper’s investigation. “It has never been acceptable and will not be tolerated.”

Quoted in the same story, Brad Moore, vice president of targeted media for the Chicago Tribune Media Group, said that the company was “working with” Journatic to ensure that ethical standards are met.

“It would be unfortunate if this incident clouds the otherwise fine work Journatic is doing to further local community news coverage,” Moore said.

In the original radio report, Moore denied that Journatic stories were produced overseas.

“Just to be clear, all of the writing and the editing of everything that Journatic is doing is happening by professional journalists here in the United States,” Moore told an interviewer.

But Brian Timpone, Journatic’s chief executive officer, acknowledged in the radio report that the company employs writers in the Philippines, and WBEZ reported that Journatic has also hired writers in Africa and eastern Europe. Timpone disputed that foreign workers are actually writing anything and described a process akin to an assembly line, with the articles started by overseas workers and finished by domestic employees.

“Really, what they’re doing is assembling and copy-editing a bunch of facts,” Timpone told an interviewer. “To say it’s written in the Philippines, there might be a paragraph of it, the first draft is written in the Philippines.”

Neither Timpone nor anyone else from Journatic could be reached for comment. The company’s website includes no telephone numbers, and the only email address is for the company’s sales department. An email sent to that address bounced back as undeliverable.

After WBEZ broke the fake-byline story, Poynter reported that Journatic writers who produce stories based on telephone interviews are supposed to tell interview subjects that they’re working for whatever newspaper is paying for the story. Poynter also reported that Journatic employees who conduct telephone interviews use phones with area codes that correspond with a newspaper’s coverage area.

Timpone in a July 3 memo to employees acknowledged mistakes but said that writers have never been told to conceal the fact that they’re employed by Journatic when speaking with sources.

“To be sure, we made a mistake when we gave…stories with alias bylines to our customers,” Timpone wrote in the memo obtained by Poynter. “Or more specifically, I did.  It was a detail I personally overlooked; it shouldn’t have happened.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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