Tribune, Fourcher, drop Journatic

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Mike Fourcher
  • Mike Fourcher
The reinvention of neighborhood journalism just ran into a bad patch. On Friday the Tribune announced that it's suspending the use of Journatic to provide content for its TribLocal websites and weekly papers. On Saturday Mike Fourcher announced that he's resigned from Journatic as production manager and head of editorial.

Vince Casanova, president of the Chicago Tribune Media Group, said in a statement that a quote in a story that appeared this week in Deerfield TribLocal was lifted from the Deerfield Review and another quote was made up, though it was inspired by a March story on deerfield.patch.com. The Review is a Sun-Times Media paper, and the Deerfield site is part of AOL's Patch network.

It was only two months ago that I reported Fourcher joining Journatic, but given Journatic's last two weeks, it seems like another lifetime.

"I am joining Journatic because I believe they are improving the way people get the news they want," Fourcher said in May. The creator of Brown Line Media, which is a cluster of north-side hyperlocal digital news sites, and the late Chicago Independent Advertising Network, Fourcher was a good get for Journatic. It had just taken over the Tribune's TribLocal operation, but it suffered from a serious image problem.

Said Fourcher: "Journatic is providing news organizations with a whole new set of newsgathering tools that are simple yet revolutionary. That is too exciting a transformation for me to pass up."

Today, he's not taking back what he said about the business model. "I would say Journatic’s core premise is sound," says Fourcher in a statement he posted online: "most data and raw information can be managed much more efficiently outside the traditional newsroom; and, in order for major market community news to be commercially viable, it needs be conducted on a broader scale than ever before."

But —

"The company’s model falters, however," Fourcher goes on, "when it attempts to treat community news reporting the same way as data reporting. Inevitably, as you distribute reporting work to an increasingly remote team, you break traditional bonds of trust between writers and editors until they are implicitly discouraged from doing high quality work for the sake of increasing production efficiency and making more money."

Fourcher says he "suggested changes to company policy and made numerous recommendations and attempts to refine how Journatic collects and reports news. Every attempt either fell on deaf ears or was thwarted by demands for the creation of more and more performance metrics.

"All consequential decision-making is closely guarded by the founders with little or no consulting of the senior editorial staff, whom together have close to 100 years of news experience.

"In two separate meetings with the founders just yesterday" — that would be Friday — "I pushed for the company to consider writing and copy editing quality when determining pay and promotion. Both founders responded with new plans to focus on production efficiency metrics while ignoring methods to promote work quality and pride."

They might want to think twice about work quality. The Tribune decided to take the second look at Journatic it should have taken the first time when This American Life reported on June 29 that Journatic was providing TribLocal with stories written in the Philippines under phony bylines.

Then Ryan Smith, the Chicago-based Journatic scrivener who'd been the original source of the American Life account, published a tell-all in Britain's Guardian. "If the best trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn't exist, Journatic's greatest ruse has been to convince the world that the company and its workers barely exist," Smith wrote.

"Journatic's ranks are full of people like myself — home office-based US freelancers located far from the area they are covering. . . . A second group of the company's workers have been recruited from beyond the North American continent in developing countries like the Philippines and various African nations.

"A final group of Journatic workers would be literally impossible to track down. Why? Because they don't actually exist. They're as fictional as Sherlock Holmes or the Sasquatch."

Fourcher tells me he decided to leave Journatic even before he found out that the Tribune was dropping it. He discussed the Tribune suspension with Journatic CEO Brian Timpone by phone late Friday — "He wanted to know why our copy editors aren't googling every quote," says Fourcher — and talked to him again e-mailed him Saturday morning and resigned.

He also said that "Luke Campbell," the byline on the Deerfield article in question, is genuine, and a study of some 20 other articles Campbell had written for TribLocal turned up no infractions.

UPDATE: I asked Timpone to comment on losing the Tribune's business and then Fourcher. A spokesperson responded with the following statement:

"When we discovered that plagiarism had occurred this week under Mike's watch we made a decision to terminate him. He resigned before we could do so. His characterization of his departure is entirely inaccurate."

Fourcher calls this "a ham-fisted attempt to gain credibility for an organization that has no credibility. Pathetic."

He says he sent Timpone and Timpone's partner Eddie Weinhaus an e-mail Saturday morning that said: "I regretfully inform you that I hereby resign my position with Journatic, LLC effective immediately."

Timpone called two minutes later, Fourcher says. He didn't pick up because "I had nothing to say to him." Fourcher played me the message he says Timpone left in voice mail: "I'd appreciate just a call to tell me what you're thinking. I totally respect your decision. Obviously I'm not going to — I just want to know what you're thinking."

It doesn't sound like a message whose subtext is "...and good riddance."

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