Aggrego: an assault on journalism

Aggrego, a new Journatic-like venture that Sun-Times parent Wrapports is using to provide low-cost content for the company’s Pioneer Press suburban newspaper chain is causing an uproar among Pioneer’s regular editors and staffers.

Aggrego news gatherers, who say they represent Pioneer newspapers, The Sun-Times or Wrapports, have been contacting officials and community activists in north and west suburbs covered by Pioneer seeking information for publication.

Aggrego and/or Wrapports material has been popping up in Pioneer print and online editions and Aggrego people have been editing online editions of Pioneer newspapers.

This is taking work away from Chicago Newspaper Guild reporters, editorial assistants and copy editors, said CNG Executive Director Craig Rosenbaum. The work done by Aggrego has been done traditionally by Guild members.  A handful of non-union freelance reporters have been used for years by Pioneer and many other area newspapers but never to this extent.

“They unilaterally took out the work done by our workers and that violates the National Labor Relations Act.  In addition to the impact on our Guild, there’s something for the greater good of the communities that’s at stake here,” Rosenbaum said.


Aggrego employees or freelancers based in the Sun-Times offices in downtown Chicago edit or manage Pioneer Press online editions, too.

Sun-Times Media company managers said they wanted reporters embedded in their communities to deliver hyper local content when they closed down all the suburban offices, Rosenbaum said.

“They’ve fired all the photographers, so they don’t have them in the field anymore and now they’re having some Aggrego workers report from downtown on communities they’re not familiar with at all. This is the way the Chicago Tribune went with Journatic and that did not go well. The communities deserve better than strangers  reporting from Chicago,” Rosenbaum said.

Aggrego employs computer software engineers working on “data collection” and “data analysis” systems to produce media content, according to statements on its Web sites.

In addition, there are ethical concerns about the new look of Pioneer’s online news pages. The Aggrego-managed online pages are now sprinkled with ads posing as news stories. The “sponsored” stories, like “Snook Fishing Returns to Southwest Florida” are sandwiched between local news stories. They look like news but they’re paid ads disguised as news.

 Aggrego’s “content producers”  have caused some confusion: a regular, full-time Pioneer reporter said one of his police sources thought he had been replaced after the officer was contacted by an Aggrego “content producer” who said he was from Pioneer.

“The work that these Aggrego people are doing should be done by Guild members. This is disrespectful to Guild employees, who have sacrificed their own standard of living to keep the company in business. This is shameful and I encourage Aggrego employees to take note of this and join us in our struggle for employee fairness,” said Guild President Dave Pollard.

Aggrego employees have e-mail address with a Wrapports handle. They also Tweet on behalf of the Pioneer Press publications. Some local news editors at Pioneer have said they no longer have a role in the layout of online pages unless it involves breaking news.

Aggrego somewhat resembles the disgraced content provider Journatic , used by the Chicago Tribune last year until it was revealed that  fake bylines were used in Journatic stories. There was also one confirmed story that was plagiarized. The Tribune resumed using Journatic last December.

A Sun-Times spokesman said Aggrego does not use Journatic’s questionable methods.

The Newspaper Guild attempted to learn more about Aggrego at a recent contract bargaining session.

Ted Rilea, a Sun-Times spokesman and the company’s labor relations director, said Aggrego provides “hyper-local” content to customers and that Wrapports has only “some ownership” of the enterprise.  He said Aggrego employees started with the company in July 2012 and now has “10 or 11” “content managers” who are all supervised by John Puterbaugh, who is Wrapports’ “content manager.” He said he did not know if Aggrego used freelancers.

“We have a business relationship with them,” Rilea said. “We’re a customer.”  Aggrego is attempting to get business around country, he added. “We’re in discussion with a half-dozen newspapers and businesses in Washington state, Michigan and Canada.  It’s a business we’re trying to get into that will bring revenue to the company.”

Rilea compared the use of Aggrego “content producers” by Pioneer as similar to using Associated Press or Getty content. Rilea did not know how much of Aggrego is owned by Wrapports.

A directory lists nearly 30 individuals associated with Aggrego at The Sun-Times, including persons involved in editorial and others working on software programs.  Another dozen or more are estimated to be working as “content producers,” apparently from their homes.

Pioneer reporters have said they were told one Aggrego producer is assigned to three or four Pioneer-covered communities.

“Why were Pioneer Press editors and reporters kept in the dark about Aggrego?” asked Craig Rosenbaum, director of the Chicago Newspaper Guild.  Pioneer editors were given no notice that Aggrego content was going to appear in their newspaper, said a reporter.

“It hasn’t been a secret,” Rilea said. He said he did not know why some Aggrego writers used “Wrapports” instead of Aggrego in their email addresses.

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