Transcript

468:

Switcheroo
Transcript

Originally aired 06.29.2012

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/468

Prologue.

Ira Glass

This spring my friend, Etgar, was visiting the United States. He's Israeli. And we went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to see this exhibit by this artist named Cindy Sherman. And this very strange thing happened that we didn't know what to make of it. It was truly a mystery. And I invited Etgar here onto the radio show to talk about it. We recorded this conversation a few days ago when I was still getting over a cold. So you'll hear that my voice is a little croaky in this recording.

Ira Glass

So I've been thinking about how to describe the exhibit. Do you want to describe it?

Etgar Keret

No, no. I think you will describe it better.

Ira Glass

OK. Well, basically, Cindy Sherman-- she photographs herself as hundreds of different people. And to say that-- if you haven't seen these pictures, just to get it across, she's utterly and completely transformed in them. And some of them-- they look like old movie stills. And some on them-- they look like Renaissance paintings. And some of them are super bright garish colors. And in some she's beautiful. And in some she's grotesque. And in some she's this composed matronly lady. And the way I remember the story is that you and I were walking into the third room of this exhibit. So we had seen two rooms of these things.

Etgar Keret

I think that it was about the time when I realized that it was her in all the photos. Because before that I thought it was different people.

Ira Glass

Right, right. And then you said, oh wait. It's all the same person? And then a woman came over to us.

Etgar Keret

And she said that she is Cindy Sherman.

Ira Glass

Yeah. And--

Etgar Keret

And that she comes to the exhibit every day to see how people react to it.

Ira Glass

And so she-- if I had to describe her, I'd say that she looked like she was about 55 or 60, wire rim glasses, gray hair.

Etgar Keret

Yes. She looked to me like a pretty well educated upper middle class lady who likes books.

Ira Glass

Yeah. Looking at her, thinking that she might be Cindy Sherman, I thought if you were to try to put on a costume to exactly blend in with the crowd at the Museum of Modern Art, this is the costume.

Etgar Keret

But the thing about it is that when you see the Cindy Sherman photos, you will realize that she can look as old or as young or as beautiful or as ugly as she wants. So I just, as I spoke to her, I looked at the photos around me. And the range of appearance that were in them kind of-- I said, OK, this woman could be one of those photos.

Ira Glass

And I remember-- like I did the same thing. I was looking at the pictures on the wall. And I was looking at her face. And I was trying to think, could this be her face. And I was just trying to get her to stay there and keep talking to us so I could figure this out. Were you also trying to keep her there talking to us? Was that your experience of it too?

Etgar Keret

No. My experience was that oh, Ira is so excited. And kind of thinking maybe I'm missing something. Or maybe Ira is gone crazy. But I never saw you so excited.

Ira Glass

You never saw me so excited?

Etgar Keret

No, no. Maybe this says something about our relationship. Maybe you are always excited. But just went I'm around, you become this kind of cold fish.

Ira Glass

I'm a really good friend. Yeah. And so I guess that I noticed that she was getting a little bit put off by my interest. And then she said to us, oh, I'm not really Cindy Sherman. And I took that as oh, she is Cindy Sherman. But she has to end this conversation. That's it. She's had enough of me. And did you take it as she's not Cindy Sherman? Or did you just think she was trying to get away from us?

Etgar Keret

No. Later I thought to myself that if I would pretend to be Cindy Sherman, the last thing I would do would be to tell people I'm not Cindy Sherman. I would be too embarrassed to say in the end I'm not Cindy Sherman. So I kind of thought in the end, like after she had left, that she probably was Cindy Sherman.

Ira Glass

I agree. To me it made her very credibly Cindy Sherman.

Etgar Keret

Yeah. And it was also like be about the nature of the exhibit. Because she's a woman with 100 personas coming with her 101 persona. And I would say that even if she wasn't, I think it would be smart of the museum to hire women who would go around and say that they are Cindy Sherman.

Ira Glass

I thought about this for weeks after it happened. And I really did not know what to think. You know if it wasn't Cindy Sherman, if it was not her in a way, the whole thing is even better. If there is some Upper East Side 55, 60-year-old lady who just walks up to people in the Museum of Modern Art and claims to be Cindy Sherman, I love that lady. I love the balls on that lady. That is somebody embracing life. For Etgar, when we talked about this on tape, he surprised me by insisting that it is better not to now. He said it is a better experience to just never find out the truth.

Etgar Keret

Look. I can walk you through all the scenarios, OK? A, she is Cindy Sherman. She says I'm Cindy Sherman. You say hey, Etgar, can you take a photo in your iPhone of me with Cindy Sherman? This is the one experience. The second experience-- she says, I'm not Cindy Sherman. I'm just a bored woman who's into harassing people in exhibit. We say to her go away, woman. And we throw things at her. And she goes away. Or c, she says I'm Cindy Sherman. No, I'm not Cindy Sherman. And we still contemplate about that. I think that from the three options, this is the most interesting and exciting one. And we got our money worth. You know, we went. We saw a show. We met a woman. She said she's Cindy Sherman. She said she wasn't Cindy Sherman. We still don't know if she is or she isn't. I mean I wish all exhibitions were like that.

Ira Glass

I'm going to get Cindy Sherman. I've set up a phone call to speak with Cindy Sherman about this.

Etgar Keret

Leave poor Cindy alone. Why do you want to put her in that spot? I think it's not going to clarify anything.

Ira Glass

Because you're saying that she might lie either way.

Etgar Keret

Because I'm saying if it was Cindy Sherman, then she had already lied. And if it wasn't Cindy Sherman, then Cindy Sherman could still lie.

Cindy Sherman

Hello.

Ira Glass

Hey. Is this Cindy Sherman?

Cindy Sherman

Yes.

Ira Glass

Cindy, it's Ira Glass.

Cindy Sherman

Hi. I'm so sorry about yesterday. I feel like I'm always--

Ira Glass

I reached Cindy Sherman this week. She's saying she's sorry right there. Because she accidentally forgot our phone appointment on Tuesday. And I'm only playing you that part of the recording to give you a sense of what an utterly normal, straightforward, undeceptive person she seemed like on the telephone. And I told her the whole story of the woman who walked up to me and Etgar at the Museum of Modern Art.

Cindy Sherman

Wow.

Ira Glass

So was that you?

Cindy Sherman

Not at all. Oh my god. But I'd love to know who she is or-- I mean-- if this person really comes every day. Or I mean I've just vaguely fantasized about being in the exhibit while the public's there. But then what always sort of complete turned me off of it is any particular moment that somebody would suddenly realize it was me-- that would just freak me out.

Ira Glass

Do you like the idea that she did this?

Cindy Sherman

Yeah. I think it's great. I wonder-- I really do wonder if she does it a lot or if it was just some, like, fluke thing where she just thought oh, I'm going to play with this guy. Maybe once you air this, other people will have other--

Ira Glass

Sightings.

Cindy Sherman

Yeah, right.

Ira Glass

That didn't even occur to me. Right, yeah. Let me just say, like, if you're hearing this interview and this has happened to you, please go to our website and be in touch.

Cindy Sherman

That would be so interesting.

Ira Glass

OK. So she is not part of the show.

Cindy Sherman

No.

Ira Glass

You did not hire her, put her up to it?

Cindy Sherman

No, no.

Ira Glass

Do you have a message for this lady if we find her?

Cindy Sherman

No.

Ira Glass

OK.

Cindy Sherman

I mean she should do it more often. Yeah. What would be funny is if more people were going around, pretending.

Ira Glass

Potential fake Cindy Sherman's and victims of fake Cindy Sherman's, please note. The exhibit moves to San Francisco in July. Well today on our program, Switcharoo, pretending to be somebody or something you are not. Sometimes that's perfectly fine, perfectly innocent, hurts no one. Sometimes it is not that at all. And sometimes it is really hard to tell. From WBEX Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Healthy Start.

Ira Glass

Act One, Healthy Start. So my friend, Etgar, is somebody whose work is actually here on the radio show from time to time. That's how I got to know him. Etgar Keret is his name. He writes short fiction here in the program. And he's thought a lot about this subject, about the pleasure of pretending to be someone else. And he has this short story. It's read for us by an actor. Because Etgar always prefers that somebody read his stories on the radio show whose English is easier to understand. Here it is.

John Connolly

Every night in the months after she had left him, he'd fall asleep in a different spot-- on the sofa, in an armchair in the living room, on the mat in the balcony like some homeless bum. Every morning he made a point of going out for breakfast. Even prisoners get a daily walk in the yard, don't they? At the cafe, they always gave him a table set for two and sat him across from an empty chair-- always, even when the waiter specifically asked him if he was alone.

Other people would be sitting there in twos or threes, laughing, or tasting each others food, or fighting over the check, while Myron sat by himself eating his healthy start-- orange juice, muesli with honey, decaf double espresso with warm low fat milk on the side. Of course it would have been nicer if someone were sitting down across from him and laughing with him, if there had been someone to argue with over the check. And he'd have had to struggle to hand the money to the waitress, saying don't take it from him. Avery, put it back. This one's on me. But he didn't really have anyone to do that with. And breakfast alone was 100 times better than staying home.

Myron spend a lot of time eying the other tables. He'd eavesdrop on conversations, read the sports supplement, or examine the ups and downs of the Israeli shares on Wall Street with an air of detached concern. Sometimes someone would come over and ask for a section of the paper he'd finished reading. And he would nod and try to smile. Once when a sexy young mother with a baby and a stroller walked over to him, he even said to her as he gave up the front page with the banner headline about a gang rape in the suburbs, what a crazy world we're bringing our children into. He thought it sounds like a kind of statement that brings people closer together, pointing as it did to their common fate. But the sexy mom just glared at him and took the Healthy Living supplement too without asking.

Then one Thursday, a fat sweaty guy walked into the cafe and smiled at him. Myron was caught off guard. The last person who'd given him a smile was Maian just before she had left him five months earlier. And her smile had been unmistakably sarcastic. Whereas this one was soft, almost apologetic. The fat guy gestured something, apparently a signal that he'd like to sit down. And Myron nodded almost without thinking. The fat guy took a seat.

Rube, he said. Listen, I'm really sorry I'm late. I know we said 10. But I had a nightmare morning with the kid. It crossed Myron's mind that maybe he ought to tell the fat guy he wasn't Ruben. But he found himself checking his watch instead and saying what's 10 minutes? Forget it. Then neither of them spoke for a second. And Myron asked if the kid was OK.

And the fat guy said she was. It was just said she'd started a new kindergarten. And every time he took are there, she had a hard time letting him go. But never mind. He stopped short. You've got enough on your plate without my problems. Let's get down to business. Myron took a deep breath and waited. Look, the fat guy said. 500's too high. Give it to me for 400. Know what? 410 even. And I'm good for 600 pieces. 480, Myron said. And that's only if you're good for 1,000.

You got to understand, the fat guy said. The market's in the crapper, what with the recession and all. Just last night on the news they showed people eating out of garbage cans. If you keep pushing, I'll have to sell high. You're pricing me right out of the market. Don't worry, Myron told him. For every three people eating out of garbage cans, there's someone driving a Mercedes. This made the fat guy laugh out loud. They told me you were tough, he muttered with a smile. I'm just like you, Myron protested, simply trying to keep body and soul together.

The fat guy wiped his sweaty palm on his shirt and then held it out. 460, he said. 460 and I take 1,000. When he saw Myron wasn't reacting, he added 460, 1,000 pieces. And I owe you a favor. And you know better than anyone, Ruben, that in our business favors are worth more than money. This last sentence was all Myron needed to take the outstretched hand and shake it. For the first time in his life someone told him a favor, someone who thought his name was Rubin, but still. And when they had finished eating, as they argued over who would pick up the tab, a warm feeling spread through Myron's stomach. He beat the fat guy to it by 1/10 of a second and shoved the crumpled bill into the waitresses hand.

From that day on it became practically a standard procedure. Myron would take a seat, give his order, and keep a lookout for any new person who came into the cafe. And if that person started searching the tables with an expectant look, Myron would quickly wave and invite him or her to take a seat. I don't want this to end up in court, a bald guy with thick eyebrows told him. Me neither, Myron conceded. It's always better to settle things amicably. Just remember, I don't do night shifts, a Botox-lipped bleached blond announced. Just what do you expect? Everyone else'll do night shifts except you, Myron grumbled back.

Gabby asked me to tell you that he's sorry, said a guy with rotting teeth and an earring. It he was really sorry, Myron countered, he should have come and told me himself, no middlemen. In your email you sounded taller, a skinny redhead complained. In your email, you sounded less picky, Myron snapped. And somehow everything worked out in the end. He and baldy settled out of court. Botox lips agreed to ask her sister to babysit so she could do one night shift a week. Rotting teeth promised Gabby would phone. And the redhead and Myron agreed they weren't quite right for each other.

Sometimes they picked up the tab. Sometimes he did. With the redhead, they split the bill. And it was all so fascinating that if a whole morning went by when nobody took a seat across from him at the table, Myron felt let down. Luckily this didn't happen too often. Almost two months had gone by since the sweaty fat guy when a pock marked man walked in. Despite the pocked face and the fact that he looked at least 10 years older than Myron, he was good looking, loads of charisma.

The first thing he said as he sat down was I was sure you wouldn't show. But we agreed to meet, Myron answered. Yes, said the pock marked guy with a sad smile. Except that after the way I yelled at you on the phone, I was afraid you'd chicken out. So here I am, Myron said, almost teasingly. I'm sorry I yelled at you on the phone, the guy apologized. Really. I just lost it. But I meant every word I said. You got that? I'm asking you to stop seeing her. But I love her, Myron said in a choked voice.

Sometimes you can love something. And you still have to give it up, the pock marked guy said. Listen to someone a little older than you. Sometimes you have to give it up. Sorry, Myron said. But I can't. Yes you can, the guy shot back. You can. And you will. There's no other way. Maybe we both love her. But I happen to be her husband. And I am not about to let you break up my family. Got that?

Myron shook his head. You have no idea what my life has been like this past year, he told the husband. Hell-- not even hell, just one great big stale chunk of nothing. And when you've been living with nothing for so long and suddenly something turns up, you can't just tell it to go away. You understand me, don't you? I know you understand me.

The husband bit his lower lip. If you see her one more time, he said, I'll kill you. I'm not kidding. And you know it. So kill me, Myron shrugged. That doesn't scare me. We're all going to die in the end. The husband bent down across the table and socked Myron in the jaw. It was the first time in his life that anyone had hit him so hard. And Myron felt the hot wave of pain surge up somewhere in the middle of his face and spread in every direction.

Seconds later he found himself on the floor with a husband standing over him. I'll take her away from here, the husband kept shouting as he went on kicking Myron in the stomach and ribs. I'll take her far away to another country. And you won't know where she is. You'll never see her again. You got that, you rotten piece of [BLEEP]. Two waiters jumped the husband and managed somehow to yank him away from Myron. Somebody yelled to the bar man to call the police.

With his cheek still glued to the coolness of the floor, Myron watched the husband run out of the cafe. One of the waiters bent over and asked him if he was OK. And Myron made an attempt to answer. Do you want me to call an ambulance, the waiter asked. Myron whispered that he didn't. Are you sure, the waiter insisted. You're bleeding.

Myron nodded slowly and shut his eyes. He tried as hard as he could to imagine himself with that woman, the one he'd never see again. He tried. And for a moment he almost succeeded. His whole body ached. He felt alive.

Ira Glass

Actor John Connolly, reading a story by Etgar Keret from his new collection of stories, Suddenly a Knock on the Door. So I don't know if this can be redundant or not. And there wasn't time for it in the radio broadcast of this episode of our show. But here on the podcast and in the online versions, we can go past 59 minutes. And I first read this short story, Healthy Start, I don't know, maybe a year ago. And we knew we'd be preparing it for this week's show and all that. And it was all planned. And then it wasn't until I talked to Etgar on tape for this week's show that he told me that the story was based on a real incident.

Etgar Keret

You know this story came from a real true story. But here's--

Ira Glass

What?

Etgar Keret

Yeah. You want me to tell you the story?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Etgar Keret

Well the thing is that I was in Berlin teaching for a semester. And I was lonely as a dog. It was raining. I didn't know anybody. And then one day my journal publisher, who's based in Munich, said that he's coming to Berlin. And he wants to meet me. So he gave me a name of a cafe. And then I went to that cafe. And I saw that the cafe was like the size of a football stadium, you know? And I said how the hell am I going to find this guy. I don't even know how he looks like.

So I took a table that was just facing the door. And I said, OK. I'm going to wait. And all kinds of people came. About some of them I said maybe that's him, maybe that's him. But then this guy came. And I saw that he was looking with his eyes somebody, as if he was looking for a guy he's supposed to meet. So I waved him. And he came. And he sat in front of me. And he started speaking to me in English, which is a good sign, because this is Germany.

And he said I couldn't sleep all night. And I said to him, why? And he said I was thinking about your email. And you know it flattered me, you know. Because he's my publisher. He takes me seriously. But when I thought about it, what I wrote in the email is that I couldn't make it 10:30. I could only come at 11. And then so I said to him, and? And he said, and I can't give you 300,000 euros. I can only give you 250,000. But I have them here in cash. Only you have to show me the goods first.

And then I looked at him. And I said to him, Gil? And he looked at me and he said Samir? And I said this kind of whoops. And he said to me oh, I'm sorry. And he had this big bag, which seemed very heavy. And he took his big bag. And he said some words--

Ira Glass

Etgar says that soon enough the German publisher shows up and recognizes Etgar by his author photo, and sits right down. And Etgar says that he cannot concentrate on the conversation at all. All he can think about is what he should have said to that guy before.

Etgar Keret

And I thought to myself all the time what would've happened if I just said to him OK. I'm OK with the 250,000 euros. But what's this I want to check the goods first? Did I ask you to see the money first? if you don't trust me, don't do business with me. And I went with this sentence in my head home. And I got home. I wrote the story.

Act Two. Forgive us our Press Passes.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Forgive us Our Press Passes. You know how when you call someplace for customer service, and you're on some 800 number, and somebody answers the phone and says her name is Jill, and at some point the thought crosses your mind-- this person's name is probably not Jill. This person is probably sitting in a call center in India or somewhere. And you have that thought, what other jobs can we possibly outsource to people far away at this point? Well Sarah Koenig tells this story of a fairly recent addition to the list of jobs.

Sarah Koenig

Back in November, a newspaper reporter named Ryan Smith got an assignment from his editor. Write up a student of the week story for the Houston Chronicle. The student was a senior at Bellaire High School outside Houston.

Ryan Smith

So I ended up calling the high school. And it was kind of interesting. Because I talked to the principal a little bit. He was sort of vetting me. And he's like, well why don't you just come by the school tomorrow? And--

Sarah Koenig

Why is this even vaguely funny to Ryan? Because Ryan doesn't work for the Houston Chronicle. he's never read the Houston Chronicle. He's never been to Houston. He's never been to Texas. When he made that phone call, he was sitting more than 1,000 miles away in the Midwest. But, of course, the principal of Bellaire High School can't be expected to know that. He probably pictured the newspaper business the way most of us picture it, that Ryan was from the area, that he worked at some crummy office, drove around in a beat up Honda Civic to cover local stories.

Ryan Smith

And it was a little awkward for me. Because here I am in Chicago. And he's assuming that I'm a reporter in Houston for the Houston Chronicle. So I was like um, why don't we just do this over the phone?

Sarah Koenig

You didn't tell him?

Ryan Smith

I didn't tell him. I just pretended I was from the Chronicle. I was like hopefully that they don't ask. Because I don't really feel like explaining it. Because I don't even understand it completely.

Sarah Koenig

What Ryan doesn't understand completely is the brave new world of journalism he's entered. Ryan works for a company that pays people in, say, Chicago, Raleigh, or Boise, to create stories for papers in California, Virginia, or Connecticut, which means embedded in major newspapers all over the country are local notes and stories produced by people who might not know how to pronounce the names of the places they're writing about. They call it hyper-local news. The stories are mostly short, just a paragraph or two sometimes-- the Sheriff's report from York [? Pecosine ?] County, Virginia, who died in Poughkeepsie, New York, and who got a marriage license in Pearland, Texas, the names of all the kids on the headmaster's list at Trinity Preparatory School in Winter Park, Florida.

They do bowling scores, and school lunch menus, and real estate transfers, and holiday trash pickup schedules. Nothing is too small. And the engine of this whole endeavor is data, tons of data that the company mines, and sorts, and enters into databases, public information, and also harder to find records. It works like an assembly line. One person does research. Another generates a lead. Another writes it. Sometimes a couple of paragraphs might be written by computer using an algorithm. And someone else edits it.

The goal is to create the largest local news machine ever. In the next few months, they want to quadruple their output to produce 100,000 stories a week. The company behind this vision is called Journatic, or maybe Journatic. Ryan himself isn't sure.

Ryan Smith

I've honestly never actually heard it said. But I've always said Journatic.

Sarah Koenig

Why are you assuming it's Journatic and not Journatic?

Ryan Smith

I mean the way you are saying it, it kind of sounds like heretic. Journatic sounds more like journalism.

Sarah Koenig

It does sound like journalism. But what makes Ryan uneasy is that he's not sure it is journalism. Ryan went to journalism school, has been a reporter for newspapers in Missouri, and California, and Chicago, for a dozen years. He got the Journatic job about a year and a half ago when he saw a tweet about it. He emailed his resume. But he was never interviewed. Eventually he got an email offering him some work.

And in fact in all the time he's worked at Journatic, he's never spoken directly to his supervising editor, who sits in St. Louis. They communicate exclusively through the computer. When Ryan has a question about how to do something, his supervisor sometimes answers by posting a private video on YouTube. That's the only time Ryan's ever heard the guy's voice. It's all very future.

After he got the student of the week assignment, Ryan was put in charge of editing death notices and little business briefs for Newsday, a newspaper on Long Island.

Ryan Smith

And my job was just to copy edit it and again, put it in the database.

Sarah Koenig

And where were these stories coming from? Like who was doing the writing that you were editing?

Ryan Smith

I was told, actually, that they're located in the Philippines.

Sarah Koenig

That everything you were editing was coming from the Philippines?

Ryan Smith

That's what I was told at the time, that these obituaries and these business stories were all written in the Philippines.

Sarah Koenig

I know, right? In the Philippines-- which means when you look up the death notice, say, of a man named Eugene Squeleney Jr. on newsday.com, you see a story about him. But there's no reporters name attached to it. It just says special to Newsday under the headline. But the story was actually written by someone in the Philippines. Journatics internal records listed her as Diana D. and say that Diane got the story from the obituary website legacy.com and just slightly rewrote the information there.

I called Newsday's newsroom to ask about this, why they would use Journatic for this work. I didn't get too far. Mostly I learned that Newsday has exciting hold music. I talked to an editor who didn't want to go on tape. When I pointed out the Squeleney story with no reporter's name on it, just special to Newsday, the editor said, quote, "I am totally unfamiliar with this. I don't know what it is," unquote.

Then I talked to a company spokesman who cheerfully said he'd look into it. But a few days later, I got an email saying he quote, "could not provide any information on this." He wouldn't even say whether Newsday was working with Journatic. Ryan says he learned about the Filipino writers after complaining to his supervisor that the copy he was getting was rife with basic grammar and spelling errors. That's when his editor told him to cut the writer some slack. They weren't native speakers. So Ryan wondered, why do we have these writers at all?

His editor wrote back quote, "well someone has to summarize the obits for the death briefs. And it's cheaper to pay an outsourced writer than to have an American writer editor do it. Unfortunately they're basically paid pennies for these. I have Filipinos asking for better pay on a regular basis. I wish I could do something for them." An ad Journatic placed seeking Filipino writers offered 0.35 to $0.40 per story. I confirmed with a Filipino writer that they are paid 35 to $0.40 a story and more for longer stuff. But wait, there's more. Here's Ryan.

Ryan Smith

When I ended up looking at the names on a lot of the stories-- and the names on the stories that were published weren't the ones that I saw that had written the stories.

Sarah Koenig

Here's what he's talking about. In the Chicago Tribune's local site covering the towns of Homewood and Flossmoor, for example, you can see that Eric and Joan So-and-so have listed for sale their 4 bedroom, 4.5 bath home on such-and-such a street for $695,000, that Eric is a general manager of a building company, that he attended Roosevelt University. And there's a picture of him.

The reporters name on the story is Jenny Cox. But there is no Jenny Cox. Or even if there is a Jenny Cox somewhere out there, she didn't write the story. The writer was someone named Giselle Bautista in the Philippines who works for Journatic. Again, looking at the computer system the company uses to manage its stories, it seems that when Giselle worked on this real estate story, there was a button called Select Alias. When she clicked on it, she had a choice. She could either be Jenny Cox or Glenda Smith.

Journatics real estate stories come from a real estate website it also owns, called BlockShopper. Some other fake names that have made their way onto the news sites of Journatics clients in the real estate sections-- Carrie Reed, Amy Anderson, Jay Brownstown, Christine Scott, Bettie Verdoon, Sam Andrews, Carla Andrews, Deana Andrews, Sienna Andrews, Cindy Valens, Angie Barrett, CJ Marx, John Simon, Shania Samson, Scott Johnson, and my favorite--

Sarah Koenig

Who is Jimmy Finkle?

Ryan Smith

I have no idea. He sounds like a game show host kind of.

Sarah Koenig

I feel like he sounds like a Jewish gangster. You talk to Jimmy Finkle, the Finks. He'll straighten you out. So you don't know who Jimmy Finkle is.

Ryan Smith

I have no idea.

Sarah Koenig

Yet you have edited a story with the byline of Jerry Finkle.

Ryan Smith

Correct.

Sarah Koenig

So who wrote it?

Ryan Smith

Well--

Sarah Koenig

All of this seems wrong to Ryan, which is why he doesn't tell most people where he works. He's embarrassed.

Ryan Smith

It's sort of a tattered product that's being written overseas, and half-heartedly edited, and just kind of slopped on the page. And journalism is supposed to be sort of like a local institution, and written by people that care about what's going on there. When I was a reporter on the Daily Beat, sometimes it was hard. Sometimes you had to agonize over things. And sometimes you had to make tough decisions. And you didn't always get things right, and things like that. And you actually cared about it.

With this, I was writing stories. And 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 is just something inauthentic about the whole process. And the picking of fake names for these writers in the Philippines is just a symptom of that. The whole thing--

Sarah Koenig

When Ryan agreed to this interview, I didn't realize he was going to be quite so frank.

Sarah Koenig

Oh my god. Ryan, you are so fired.

Ryan Smith

I am.

Sarah Koenig

And are you OK with that?

Ryan Smith

Um, yeah.

Sarah Koenig

When he agreed to do this interview, Ryan figured he'd be fired afterwards. But he says it's worth it if he can do something good for journalism. He says the work he does at Journatic has been weighing on his conscience. But there's another side to this, one that turns everything Ryan thinks about local reporting on its head.

Brian Timpone

I personally think that we're saving journalism with our approach.

Sarah Koenig

This is Brian Timpone, Ryan's boss's boss's boss, the founder and CEO of Journatic. And it is pronounced Journatic, by the way. Timpone says it's a mix of journalism and automatic. When I first spoke to him on the phone, he began talking a mile a minute. First of all, he loved our radio show. I'm not kidding. I'm president of your fan club. And I'm not saying this just so you'll give me favorable treatment. I mean I know you're going to make me look bad. But I don't care. I'll deal with it. Because I believe in what we're doing. We're doing God's work. We're not, like, evil. I used to be a reporter.

Needless to say, I liked him right away. And I wanted to understand how what he was doing would save journalism. Timpone's premise is that what he calls the single reporter model, the old way of doing local reporting, that Ryan used to do and that I used to do as a local reporter-- that it just doesn't work, and that it hasn't really worked in 30 or 40 years.

Brian Timpone

It's going to get better if we do it this way. That's my belief.

Sarah Koenig

What's going to get better?

Brian Timpone

Journalism is going to get better.

Sarah Koenig

How?

Brian Timpone

We need to see more things. No one covers suburban America. No one covers all these small towns. Look at that story in-- was in Dixon, Illinois, that lady stole like 30 million bucks?

Sarah Koenig

It was actually 53 million bucks in the end. The town controller had been siphoning taxpayer money off the budget for 20 years before another city worker filling in for her stumbled on it.

Brian Timpone

How'd that happen? No one was watching. And I'm not saying we're the solution. But we're certainly on the road to the solution. We're going to look at that stuff and help our partners. And there's 400 people or something in the Chicago Tribune newsroom. And they couldn't cover Dixon. They had enough on their plate. There's a darn daily newspaper in that town. I live in River Forest. There's a weekly paper there. And Maywood, next to me-- there's nothing-- literally nothing.

Sarah Koenig

Yeah.

Brian Timpone

Not a single paper covering the town. Isn't that scary? So how is that going to get solved?

Sarah Koenig

The most radical part of Timpone's pitch, at least to me, is that if you're trying to cover a town like say, Flossmoor, south of Chicago, being on the ground is actually a hindrance.

Sarah Koenig

So you're saying it doesn't matter. It just does it matter. You don't need to be there.

Brian Timpone

What I'm saying is go to Flossmoor. We should go together. Let's go walk the streets of Flossmoor together. And tell me what you learn by being there. Let's go live there for six months and tell me if you feel better equipped to cover the budget. You won't be. That's the kind of--

Sarah Koenig

Really?

Brian Timpone

Yes, really.

Sarah Koenig

Really? You really believe that, that after six months of living in Flossmoor, I would have no sense of the community or what was important to the people who live there if I actually talked to human beings who live in Flossmoor?

Brian Timpone

Here's what I'd say is if you looked at the content we produce, in most cases, you wouldn't even notice it's from a reporter who lives somewhere else, who is writing the same story. It's just done more efficiently.

Sarah Koenig

You almost said the word cheaply, didn't you?

Brian Timpone

[INAUDIBLE].

Sarah Koenig

I heard it start to come out. I heard a ch--

Brian Timpone

It is cheaply. But it's not. You got me. Yes.

Sarah Koenig

As for the source of that cheap labor, Timpone said, yeah. They've got 100 freelancers offshore, not just in the Philippines, but in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Republics, Brazil, and Africa. In the US, they've got 200 more, plus 50 US staffers and growing. If you want to see what Journatic can do for a big metro paper, look at the Chicago Tribune. About five years ago, long before they hooked up with Journatic, the Tribune decided to get into the community news business. Brad Moore, vice president of Targeted Media for the Tribune Company, told me that they were looking to bring in money, same as a lot of big metro dailies.

The notion is that if you can capture local advertising dollars, then you're not so dependent on big national accounts which can cripple your finances if they pull out. So under the title TribLocal, the Chicago Tribune launched 90 websites and 22 weekly print editions covering towns all around Chicago. To staff the sites, Tribune hired 18 reporters. But Brad Moore told me that model just didn't work. Reporters weren't generating enough stories to keep people coming to the websites. And hiring a bunch more reporters was too expensive.

So this spring, Tribute higher Journatic. It actually bought a share in the company to run TribLocal. As part of the switch over, the Tribune laid off about half of its 40 person TribLocal staff, including seven reporters. Another 11 reporters were sent to Tribune's larger suburban bureaus. Here's Brad Moore from the Trib.

Brad Moore

So far, we're very happy with what Journatic is doing for us. We're getting a lot more content.

Sarah Koenig

And when you say you're getting more content, how much more content?

Brad Moore

It looks from a sheer volume standpoint, about three times the amount of content pieces that we had before.

Sarah Koenig

And for cheaper, for less money.

Brad Moore

In most cases, yes. And then we're already looking at ways to reinvest those savings into more towns. We've actually launched two additional towns in TribLocal that we weren't in before, Homewood, and Flossmoor, and Oaklawn-- actually three towns. We're looking at the city of Chicago to see what neighborhoods we might want to launch into. So yes, it's more content. It's at a savings. But more excitingly, we hope to take that savings and reinvest it into more coverage.

Sarah Koenig

Brad Moore said the TribLocal local sites are getting more web traffic now the Jounatic has taken over. And Moore says he has no problem with out of state or offshore workers generating news briefs and small stories. But the subject was sensitive enough that he didn't want to discuss on tape who was writing what and under what name. Because no newspaper wants the story about them to be Tribune Fires American Writers, Hires Filipinos for Cheaper. All he would say on tape about it was this--

Brad Moore

Just to be clear, all of the writing and editing of everything that Journatic is doing is happening by professional journalists here in the US.

Sarah Koenig

I went around and around about this with both Brad Moore and Brian Timpone who insisted that Filipinos were not writing stories. They were more like typing information, assembling it in paragraph form, which sounds to me a lot like writing. Brian Timpone told me this was a semantic confusion I was having.

Brian Timpone

Really what they're doing is assembling and copy editing a bunch of facts, right? So they write the lead. If there's a paragraph about a person, the paragraph is technically written by someone in the Philippines, but not written. It's like they have to type out who the person is, right? So they have to know how to write to send it over. I mean but to say oh, it's written in the Philippines-- I mean there might be a paragraph of it that the first draft is written in the Phillipines.

Sarah Koenig

Timpone declined to put me in touch with any of his Filipino employees. But I reached out to half a dozen of them on my own.

Sarah Koenig

You yourself are writing those stories, right? You're not just gathering the information and sending it along to an American writer or editor. You yourself are writing those.

Man

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

That one word is all you're going to hear from this particular worker at his request. He's got a full time professional job. But he told me his Journatic work pays better. And he needs the money to help pay his family's expenses. Plus he likes the work. Back in April when the Tribune announced that Journatic would be providing stories for TribLocal, some readers and media watchers instantly began to grumble about the job losses but also about the product. It was canned, they said, barely rewritten press releases and daily stories under the news section about top DVD rentals in town or where to find the cheapest gas according to gasbuddy.com. No context, no analysis.

Chicago Media columnist, Robert Feder, wrote, "I used to look forward to receiving TribLocal, the weekly hyperlocal news insert in my Chicago Tribune. But now it's become a worthless piece of garbage. Major news stories in my suburb are completely ignored. In its first three weeks, I've seen nothing in this new rag but press releases, computer generated junk, and of course ads. What passes for a police blotter is a long list of street names, one and two word descriptions, and a time and date," unquote.

Journatic does longer stories too that actually require real reporting. But even there the quality is questionable. Take this story Ryan Smith wrote for TribLocal about the Flossmoor village budget. Flossmoor is one of the towns the Trib started covering when Journatic took over, a small upper middle class town south of Chicago. Ryan had never been to Flossmoor. But he looked at the budget online and called the village's finance director. His lead was at the village board had passed the budget, quote, "which the board says reflects a healthy state of the villages finances."

But Ryan didn't know whether there was any argument over the budget or taxes beforehand. Again he had never covered the town before.

Ryan Smith

I'm sure there was a public meeting. And there may have been people that were upset about the way that they were spending their money. Maybe they were upset that $500,000 is being used to replace the streetlights. But I didn't see those people. I didn't know if there were any objections.

Sarah Koenig

And you weren't going to call around and find out was there any dissent? Was anybody at the meeting?

Ryan Smith

I wasn't told to. I was told to talk to one source and then just get a couple quotes basically, and then just plug it in. I just had to talk to some city official, who is going to want to paint the city in the best light possible. So you don't get the other side with this kind of reporting.

Sarah Koenig

Of course Ryan could've made a few more calls to find out if there had been any controversy. But it wasn't worth his while.

Ryan Smith

Especially for a reporter, for a freelance writer, if you're only getting paid $12 for a story, it's not really in your interest to do a proper reporter's job on it.

Sarah Koenig

Is that what you got paid, $12?

Ryan Smith

For this story, yeah, I believe it's $12 or $14.

Sarah Koenig

Ryan spent three or four hours on the story, which means he was paid something like $4 an hour. At that rate, it makes a lot more sense for you to churn out as many $12 stories as you can as fast as you can, which means you don't call more than one source. And you might miss the meaning of your story. There actually is a suburban paper which covers Flossmoore. It's called the South Town Star. I called its managing editor, Joe Biesk. And he said they sent a freelancer, who lives in Flossmoore, to that budget meeting, which Ryan never attended.

The freelancer told her editor that the budget passed by the village board was a continuation of the one already in place, and there was nothing that stood out to her. So Biesk said, we made an editorial decision not to run a story.

That's the old way. Go to the meeting. Consider the context. And then decide whether it's newsworthy. Journatics' way is just the facts, lots and lots of facts.

Journatics founder, Brian Timpone, understands that his company doesn't do perfect reporting. Stop comparing us to the New York Times, he told me. All we are saying is, if you want to do community news, cover places you've never covered before, Journatic can get you started.

And if Journatic does the busy work, it frees up real staff reporters at papers like the Trib, or the Houston Chronicle, or the Hartford Current, to do more substantial hard hitting work. And it gives these reporters access to all kinds of data they might have had before. All those school board minutes, and village budgets, and city council agendas nobody wants to look at-- Timpone's saying we'll look at them.

Brian Timpone

I would posit that it's better to have somebody look at them than to have nobody look at them. You know what? Newspapers are firing people. Newspapers are struggling. They're going bankrupt. We have a solution that helps solve the problem, right? Cutting staff is not the way to growth. But empowering a reporter with people in the Philippines-- that's a really smart thing to do. The criticism's fine. But at the end of the day, what's a better solution?

Sarah Koenig

Yeah.

Brian Timpone

I mean do you have one? Tell me if you have a better idea, I'm all ears.

Sarah Koenig

I don't have a better idea. And the newspaper business as a whole doesn't seem to have a better idea, not unless consumers want to start paying properly for their news. So many newspapers are floundering and bleeding staff. According to the website Paper Cuts, something like 35,000 people have lost newspaper jobs since 2008 because of layoffs and buyouts. Unlike most newspapers in America, Journatic is hiring.

Ira Glass

Sarah Keonig. She's one of the producers of our program. After she asked Brian Timpone about the fake names on certain stories that Journatic publishes, Timpone told her that Journatic decided to eliminate the fake names. Brad Moore of the Chicago Tribune told us that the Trib is not going to allow them any more either. The stories that Filipino writers work on will be credited to the editors of the stories. We will get a generic byline like Neighborhood News Service. The real Filipinos' names will not appear in the paper.

Coming up, learning to eat fish eyes and suck marrow from chicken bones to get close to mom. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Switcharoo, people pretending to be something they are not, sometimes harmlessly, sometimes not so harmlessly, sometimes it's hard to tell which one it is.

Act Three. Runaway Groom.

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, Runaway Groom. We close our show today with parents who are pretending to be parents, though as you'll hear sometimes not pretending very hard. Jackie Clarke tells what happened.

Jackie Clarke

The life rules my father would announce to my brother, my sister, and me, were never rules that any other parents seemed to have, like when I was five and he told me, a real woman doesn't drink beer, especially from a can. Or you ever notice that only ugly people end up on welfare? Or the time he was teaching me to use a handgun in our backyard in suburban Massachusetts. Always shoot to kill, Jackie, never to wound. Shoot to kill. I was 10.

My mom-- I don't remember a lot about. She died when I was in first grade-- complications from diabetes. And for a couple of years after my mom died, my dad did his best to raise us on his own. He made a point of having family dinners. He coached our soccer teams, threw us birthday parties. Eventually he started dating. For a while he was a member of a support group called Parents Without Partners. But he quit because he said it was all chunky broads looking for a husband. That's when the catalogs started arriving.

My dad had decided he wanted a mail order bride. He never hid it from his kids. Over plates of spaghetti he'd passed out the latest mail order bride catalog and tell us to pick out the ones you like. My sister and I always picked out the pretty ones with nice smiles. I don't think we really understand what we were looking at. It seemed like a Sears wish book for moms.

Then one day this Filipino beauty arrived. Her name was Pura. She was 25 years old. And she married my father in a Justice of the Peace ceremony. And instead of taking his new bride on a honeymoon, my dad took off for one of his month long business trips overseas. And we three kids were left in the care of a woman he had found in a catalog.

My siblings and I dealt with Pura in different ways. My sister, Allie, made trouble. My brother, Jeff, became invisible. But I was the middle child. And I wanted things to work. I was 100% on board for Pura as our new mother. I asked Pura if I could call her mom. She said call me Pura. I tried to be exactly like her. When Pura ate fish eyes and sucked the marrow out of chicken bones, so did I. Pura told me that when she was a girl, she'd slept with a close pin on her nose to make it look more American. So I started pressing my nose flat to my face to make it look more Filipino.

In fifth grade when my teacher went around the room asking us what nationality we where, I told her Filipino. She looked at my pale freckled skin and blue eyes and asked again. Really? I nodded. Yep, I'm Filipino. Through my whole teenage years, I continued to expect Pura to suddenly start acting like the moms in the Judy Blume books I loved. When I was 12, I asked Pura if she could show me how to shave my legs. I had it in my mind she would jump at the chance. And we would giggle and bond. She wasn't interested.

When I got my first period, I didn't know what had happened, not because I wasn't expecting it, but because it wasn't red like blood-- more brownish. So I just put my soiled underpants in the laundry hamper. A week later, a giant box of generic sanitary pads appeared on my bed. I asked Pura why they were there. She looked down at me and said, you got your period, stupid.

It wasn't that Pura didn't like me. She just had no desire to be a mother to me. And all this made be closer to my dad. He was gone a lot for work, sometimes months at a time. But when he was around, he had this way of swooping in at key moments. He was the one who helped me shave my legs when Pura refused to do it, using his BIC razor and his Edge shaving gel. He was also the one who took me shopping for my first bra.

And I was there for him. You see, his marriage to Pura was never a good one. It was basically hellish fighting followed by silent treatments. And I was my dad's apologist. Whenever Pura or my siblings got mad at my dad, I defended him. I backed him up. So it's not surprising to me that I was the one my dad came to years later when he needed to confess to someone in our family and that he actually had a second family.

I was in college when my dad told me that after only a few years of marriage to Pura and unbeknownst to us all, he had started a new relationship with another Filipino woman. This one lived in the Philippines. Her name was Joedin and they had two children together. I was home on break for Thanksgiving when he broke the news to me, that basically he had been lying to our whole family for years, that his prolonged business trips weren't just for business. They were trips so he could visit and take care of his other family. But I didn't freak out. I wanted to be there for my dad. I knew that, yes, what my father was doing was terrible, and bizarre, and wrong. But somehow my next thought was maybe has a good reason.

Finally, after 16 years of marriage, Pura sued my father for divorce. And as a lot of you may know, divorce is hard on everybody. Raise your hand out there if your parents are divorced and they expected you to take sides. That's the worst, right? OK. Now raise your hand if your stepmother snuck into your fathers house and snatched a bunch of documents, and possibly again, and then got so mad she stabbed the couch to death with a kitchen knife.

In a divorce case lasting five years, my father appeared in court a total of 0 times. As the case progressed, the following things about my father became clear. We discovered he had moved almost all of his money to an offshore bank account in the Bahamas. We discovered he had applied for several credit cards in the name of our parrot, Ranya Clark, and then maxed them out. And we discovered that the only checking account he had access to in the United States was in the name of this Thai man my father used to do business with named [? Peishit ?] [? Asflopluprong ?].

I know it sounds like I'm making up that name, but it's a real name. And the final and most upsetting discovery was when my father informed me he had moved to the Philippines and was going to stay there with no intentions of ever settling his divorce with Pura.

So Pura had no other recourse. She sued me and my brother and sister for $200,000. Actually, technically, we had to sue her. You see the judge was going to award Pura the house we all grew up in since my dad was doing nothing to intervene. But this was the house that my mom had left us when she died. it was also the house that my sister and her son, Troy, were currently living in.

So the three of us fought Pura in court. During the trial the judge made a statement from the bench. She said she admired us kids for sticking together. Then she said my father was not a good man, which was the first time I had heard someone who wasn't married to my father accuse him of that. In the end, we offered Pura a cash settlement. And she accepted. We mortgaged the hell out of the house to get Pura the money. We kids paid for our fathers divorce, $200,000.

The last time I spoke to my dad was about a month after the trial ended. I was in a cab in New York City, late for an appointment. And my father called me from the Philippines. I told them that we lost the court case. And before I could stop myself, I asked him what he thought we should do as if he was going to fix it. I still thought he would do the right thing, that he would be a dad. But he didn't do the right thing. He didn't swoop in and help. He just avoided the question. Then he told me not to give anyone his cell phone number, especially Pura.

I hung up the phone and burst into tears. And yes, I know it's crazy that I hadn't already written my dad off by this point. I just didn't get it. I knew that Pura was never the mom I so badly wanted. But I just couldn't see that my dad was never really the dad I thought he was. I always thought that of the two of them, he was my one real parent. I was wrong. That was almost the worst part, that I had been in such denial about my dad for so long. What the judge said during our trial was right. My father was not a good man.

That phone call was seven years ago. I haven't talked to my father since. And that's not a decision I consciously made. I never said I'm never speaking to my father again. It just happened. Then a couple of months ago, I was at work when my sister told me that my father came up as a suggestion on Facebook as one of her people you may know. I asked her to send me the link.

I went into my office and pulled up his page. It was so weird seeing him. So much time had passed. He had stopped being a person to me. He had just become an idea, a story I would tell. But there he was on my computer screen, standing on a mountain with his arm around Joedin, his second Filipino bride-- smiling, older, heavier. He was real. And I thought that man-- he's my father.

Ira Glass

Jackie Clarke. She's a comedian who currently writes for the ABC sitcom, Happy Endings. Her Twitter handle is JackieClarke. It may not come as a surprise that some facts in this story are in dispute. Pura declined to comment about whether she took some documents and maybe a gun from her husband and-or stabbed a couch. Jackie's dad, who we reached by email, suggested that Jackie is an embellisher and quote, "a rather vulgar comedian." Her dad wrote that he did not have offshore bank accounts, though court documents indicate that, in fact, he did. Jackie's dad said he did have a checking account under the name [? Peishit ?] [? Asflopluprong?], but quote, "under agreement and request by a Thai Chinese associate," end quote.

He wrote that he did not apply for credit cards in the family parrot's name, though he did confirm that it's name is Rayna. Rayna is still alive. Asked if he is now or has ever been on Facebook, he replied, quote, "I do not engage in social advertising sites," end quote. Jackie's sister and brother told us that they have the same memories of her father doing these things that Jackie does.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Ben Calhoun, with Alex Blumberg, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Manjivar, Lisa Pollak, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon is our office manager, production help from Matt Kilty. Music help from Damien Grey, from Rob Gettis. Special thanks today to Michelle Harris.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know he has contracted his new memoir to writers in the Philippines. But he insists they are not actually writing the memoir for him. No, no, no. His name will be on the cover.

Brian Timpone

If there's a paragraph about a person, the paragraph is technically written by someone in the Philippines, but not written. It's like they have to type it. They have to type out who the person is, right? So they have to know how to write.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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PRI, Public Radio International.