Now They're Even Outsourcing "Local" Journalism -- Reporters Living in the Philippines Are Beat Reporters for Chicago and Houston Papers
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Then, a weekly paper in West Los Angeles I worked for folded in dramatic fashion, and I was left jobless and broke. I moved to Chicago in the fall of 2007, at a time when journalism jobs were drying up and blowing away like tumbleweed. I managed to land a steady freelance writing gig with Chicago Tribune's RedEye edition writing the Dr Fantasy sports column and random news features, but my finances were hardly the stuff of fantasy.
Considering I'd spent a lot of the last few previous years supplementing my writing with odd jobs like video-game testing, soul-sucking office temp work and even working for a media data company turned Ponzi scheme, I was ecstatic about when offered the copyediting job from Blockshopper shortly before Christmas 2010. The lack of an interview or vetting process felt bizarre (though I did previously take a brief editing test), and the offer of 40 hours a week for $10 an hour with no benefits or vacation pay wasn't exactly ideal. But I immediately replied to the short email titled "Job Offer" from a Blockshopper managing editor that asked just one simple question: "When can you start?"
I officially began working for Blockshopper in January 2011 and immediately learned that the lack of real communication between employees was standard. My supervisor would only speak to me via instant messaging or emails, and more detailed instructions were parceled out via private YouTube videos. I never once had contact with any of the Filipino writers or researchers crafting the stories – instead, having to go through my boss to communicate with them. It felt like I was part of either a secret spy network or a terrorist cell group.
The work itself was more tedious than most other copyediting jobs. Each story is a four or five-paragraph brief about a personal property real estate transaction, with colorless headlines like "Cardiologist sells 6 BD for $1M in Uptown." The stories include information gleaned from real estate records, as well as biographical information about the buyer's or seller's employment history and alma mater ripped from LinkedIn profiles or biographies on corporate websites.
Unsurprisingly, the idea of posting individuals' names, addresses, and biographies in a very public way on the internet didn't sit well with a lot of people, leading to lawsuits and histrionic websites calling Blockshopper execs "scumbags". The suits and threats were the impetus, according to Journatic CEO Brian Timpone, for the fake bylines to begin appearing on the stories in 2007.
"We were writing things that were controversial," Timpone told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Our writers were being threatened individually by the subjects of stories. We did it to protect them from the threats."
The writers weren't the only thing protected by Journatic's fake name policy. Even their director of customer service listed on their Blockshopper website – someone named Scarlett Simpson – was a fictional character.
I noticed the alias system on the stories almost right away – a Filipino writer named Junbe, for example, could become Jimmy Finkel and Gisele Bautista might have a byline with the porn star-sounding moniker Jenni Cox. It struck me as strange and a little unethical, but at the time, I figured all of this information was appearing only on Blockshopper.com, which seemed to me little more than a content farm dumping ground. I wasn't aware that some of these stories also appeared in Hearst newspapers.
I was more offended, meanwhile, by the kindergarten quality of writing I witnessed from the Blockshopper writers. The most basic rules of spelling and grammar were violated and tortured on a regular basis. Some writers didn't even understand the concept of inserting an article like "a" or "an" before a noun. I emailed my supervisor to complain and was told I should give them a break because they were from the Philippines. English may have not been their first language.