The bogus story that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had filed for bankruptcy appeared on Boston.com, the sister website of The Boston Globe, through a third-party content provider that posts content without editorial approval and provides such content to more than 200 web outlets.
That provider, meanwhile, took the story from an Austrian-based blog without any editorial review or fact-checking of its own, a practice that is becoming more and more common in the Internet content sharing world. The blog has since deleted its post and all posts from the author appear to have been removed from Boston.com.
The false story, which had its roots in a satire by the website Daily Currant, was subsequently picked up by the conservative site Breitbart.com, a move later criticized by Krugman himself and numerous news outlets from The Atlantic to Politico. Breitbart.com has deleted the post, with its author blaming Boston.com, which he says he "trusted" for the story.
But according to Boston.com, they played no role in the creation of that post, an editorial mechanism which troubles some observers.
He said he reached out to financialcontent.com at roughly 9 a.m. EDT today to have the item removed. It was removed at 11:34 a.m. EDT.
"The reason why we partner with them is to provide stock data," Agrella explained Monday, just hours after the item was taken down. "That is why we contract with them. The stories are additional content provided on the side. We have partnered with them for 10 or 12 years."
Financialcontent.com had picked up the item from an Austria-based business blog, Prudent Investor, without any editorial review of its own, according to financialcontent.com CEO Wing Yu.
"We are a technology company, we don't have an editorial desk," Yu explained. "There is an RSS feed that we parse from each content provider. We have categorized [Prudent Investor] as a business content provider and the content is syndicated along with the byline."
YU said Prudent Investor is one of more than 400 content providers that financialcontent.com draws on for news and data, which it then forwards to some 200 news outlets such as Boston.com, as well as others owned by McClatchy, Media News Group and AOL.
The Prudent Investor website is based in Vienna, Austria, and run by Toni Straka, who describes himself on the blog as "an INDEPENDENT Certified Financial Analyst who worked as a financial journalist for 15+ years and now evaluate global market trends."
Straka said he picked up the item from the Austrian online magazine Format, which he says posted it without any notice that it was satire. Straka said he posted the item on his own website on March 7 and removed it within an hour after Format advised him it was bogus.
But by then the damage had been done, as financialcontent.com and thus Boston.com had already picked up the post. Asked why he did not inform financialcontent.com that he removed the item because it was bogus, Straka said, "I do not always know where" the content is picked up.
Agrella said financialcontent.com is one of a dozen content providers that are able to post content on the Boston.com site without Globe or Boston.com review. He said Boston.com pays a fee to each provider, but did not disclose the amount.
Financialcontent.com actually posts the items on its own websites, which are linked to Boston.com and appear with the Boston.com shell around them so that they remain under the site's web brand. The Krugman item appeared on the financialcontent.com page that provides market information for Boston.com.
"The page is run by them," Agrella said of financialcontent.com. "They have a multitude of partners that are pulled in by a variety of blogs."
Yu criticized Breitbart.com for wrongly attributing the bogus item on Boston.com to the newspaper rather than to Prudent Investor, whose byline was on the story.
"It seemed that Breitbart should have attributed it to the right outlet," Yu said. "It should have been attributed to Prudent Investor."
Such second- and third-hand sourcing for online news is becoming more commonplace, and more worrisome, according to Al Tompkins, an instructor at The Poynter Institute who lectures about online news.
"You see the cost of mechanical aggregation, the cost is that a lot of junk is going to flow through when you just open the gates to things that look like they are legitimate, that is the curse of human editing," Tompkins said. "If it was as easy as running it though an algorithm we would have no need for human editors. But you need human editors to ask questions like, how do we know that? Has anyone called him? All it would have taken is to actually report it."
Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, and a former Globe ombudsman, offered similar concerns.
"The danger is that news organizations, if not careful, could be increasingly diminishing their reliability in the eyes of a public that already has some doubts," he said.
Yu said no policy changes were expected related to how the service draws content from outside sources. He did say he had stopped taking content from Prudent Investor for the moment, stating they are "on probation for lack of a better word," and described their content as "on hold."
Agrella called the bogus story appearing on his site "obviously a concern of ours," but also said no changes in procedures were planned.
"In the past, we have had very few problems if any," he said. "It appears this one slipped through and we are trying to determine how it slipped through and prevent it from happening again."