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Chicago Tribune staff demands answers from editor over Journatic

Updated: August 28, 2012 6:14AM

The editorial staff of the Chicago Tribune has written to its editor, Gerould Kern, demanding answers about the company’s continued relationship with under-fire content provider Journatic.

Continuing questions about Journatic’s ethics and business practices came into sharp focus earlier this month with the discovery that it had supplied a story to the Chicago Tribune’s TribLocal edition that contained allegedly plagiarized and fabricated elements.

The concerns first emerged when WBEZ-FM’s “This American Life” broadcast a story showing how Journatic used cut-rate staff in the Philippines to write stories using fake, American-sounding names.

Now 90 Tribune journalists — including Pulitzer prize-winning columnists Mary Schmich and Blair Kamin and several Metro desk editors — have written to Kern, citing “deep frustration and concern in the newsroom over the Tribune’s continued relationship with Journatic, one that threatens to jeopardize our credibility.”

The letter, delivered to Kern Wednesday, refers to other incidents of plagiarism and false bylines at other Journatic clients, including the Houston Chronicle, and says “repeated incidents of false bylines and false datelines, along with plagiarism, have been exposed at several Journatic clients.”

Tribune suspended the use of Journatic following the discovery of the plagiarized article and announced an internal investigation earlier this month. It then said it had hired Randy Weissman, a former employee, to consult on standards for Journatic.

The journalists write that they know Kern shares their concerns about the credibility of the Tribune. But they say they want answers from Tribune management about what the Tribune’s relationship with Journatic will be in the future. Specifically, they are demanding to know how much the Tribune invested in Journatic; what percentage of Journatic it owns; how the company was vetted; who decided not to immediately sever ties with Journatic; how content provided by Journatic will be labeled for readers if it is brought back; and how the Tribune’s credibility as a watchdog can be maintained if the Tribune doesn’t demand the same high standards from its business partners.

The letter notes that the code of ethics that all Tribune employees sign “makes it clear that it is a firing offense to engage in the kinds of practices that Journatic has engaged in again and again.” It adds, “Why then is Tribune seeking to salvage its relationship with Journatic when as a matter of policy it declares zero tolerance for such behavior?”

Kern did not return calls Thursday and Tribune communications manager Maggie Wartik said the company would not be commenting on the letter. A staff meeting was called for 4 p.m., apparently to discuss the issue, newsroom sources said.

Journatic CEO Brian Timpone also did not respond to requests for comment.

Timpone’s business has suffered a series of damaging headlines in recent weeks, including the resignation of its head of editorial, Mike Fourcher, who offered a withering criticism of Journatic when he quit, saying its business model sacrifices quality for quantity in the interests of profits.

Journatic claimed at the time that Fourcher was about to be fired and jumped before he was pushed.

The Tribune announced an investment of undisclosed size in Journatic in April, and it laid off 11 reporters who had previously been writing for the TribLocal editions.

Sun-Times Media, which includes the Chicago Sun-Times, cut its own ties with Journatic’s Blockshopper service earlier this summer. Sun-Times CEO Tim Knight, an early investor in Journatic said earlier this month that he had received back his entire investment when Tribune Co. completed its deal with Journatic. “My remaining holdings amount to about 1 percent of the company,” he said.

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