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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. And those, by the way, are our real names. We clarify that as we begin a report about news stories written under fake names.

Newspapers in Chicago, Houston and San Francisco are among those that acknowledge they published dozens of items under fake bylines, as they're called. The public radio program THIS AMERICAN LIFE first disclosed the items were not even written by reporters on the staffs of the papers. They were written by employees of what is a kind of news outsourcing firm called Journatic. NPR's David Folkenflik reports on what this episode says about the newspaper business.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The stuff in question involves the stuff lives are lived on: information about local arrests, real estate sales, weekly school lunch menus, high school game results.

BRIAN TIMPONE: Yeah, how do you get police blotters from 90 towns? It's not easy. But that's what we do.

FOLKENFLIK: Brian Timpone is a former television reporter and small-town newspaper owner who created what became Journatic six years ago. He would provide a lot of news and information - mostly highly granular information - for publishers serving small communities around the country.

TIMPONE: Metro papers don't do that. You know, how do you get youth sports scores from 90 towns? These are the challenges that newspapers face every day. They're the most important ones, in our opinion, and we help you solve them.

FOLKENFLIK: Journatic has dozens of clients, many of them strapped for cash, but all hungry to serve up local news for their readers. The Tribune and Hearst companies are among their chief clients, and Tribune just invested in the company.

Journatic started as a smaller outfit called BlockShopper, focusing exclusively on real estate information. Now it boasts 60 full-time employees and 200 freelancers. The company hired more than 100 people abroad, too, as a way of keeping costs down. That means you have people in Asia writing about real estate in the Bay Area, and sometimes under fake bylines.

Journatic freelancer Ryan Smith told THIS AMERICAN LIFE that he'd reworked pieces written by foreigners who were paid dimes and would report his own stories for papers in places he had never been.

RYAN SMITH: I don't know those communities. And I have no stake in them. And so it didn't matter to me that I found out all the information and I got it right. And so there's just something inauthentic about the whole process. And, you know, the picking of fake names for these writers in the Philippines is just a symptom of that.

FOLKENFLIK: Journatic's Timpone concedes the use of fake bylines was a mistake, but he said they were just real estate items with transactional data - like who bought what when - and shouldn't have had bylines at all. He said the bylines were added just so the items would pop up in Google News searches. Tim McGuire doesn't buy it. He's the former editor-in-chief of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

TIM MCGUIRE: They are engaging in deception, and some would even call it fraud. They are pretending they're producing local news with people who are not local. I think it's naive to think that local news is only about things that happen locally. I believe local news also has to be locally produced.

FOLKENFLIK: And therefore, McGuire says, Journatic is operating on a fundamentally flawed premise.

MCGUIRE: It's a short-term, cost-cutting measure. And that's all it is. It's not a long-term solution to providing local news to people who want it.

FOLKENFLIK: But paying reporters to pursue such hyperlocal information is expensive. And many newsrooms have been deeply cut over the past decade, some by more than half.

DAVID ARKIN: David Arkin is vice president of content and audience at GateHouse media, which owns more than 350 smaller daily and weekly papers. GateHouse subscribes to Journatic, but is replacing it with its own center for processing such material that will serve 30 of its papers beginning next month. Arkin says the company hopes to free up its reporters from such mundane tasks to do actual local reporting.

It's a major time-suck to do that kind of content. As we look at what our content goals are in our organization, we need and want more enterprise storytelling. We want more what it means-type stories and packages.

FOLKENFLIK: Journatic CEO Brian Timpone says he thinks community newspapers must offer hyper-local content to survive. His critics argue you can't be local from thousands of miles away.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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