The PoynterOnline.org URL has been degraded into an “All Technology News” spam blog.
Unbeknownst to the Poynter Institute, a prestigious journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida, since April 2011, the PoynterOnline.org website has been featuring fake “product reviews” for everything from “Laser Hair Removal ” and “erectile dysfunction” to software that “rewrites” articles. All of these are published under the trusted Poynter brand.
Our story follows one by Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton, who reported this week on how the URL for OJR.org, the once-distinguished Online Journalism Review, was “repurposed as a spamblog.”
Unlike the now-defunct OJR.org, the famed Poynter Institute still exists. And it continues to use “Poynter Online” as its brand name in places like Facebook, despite having jettisoned the URL, originally created in 2001, during a 2008-09 redesign. Here is what PoynterOnline.org looked like when it was still an authentic Poynter URL on Jan 29,2009.
PoynterOnline.org, with only one article that mentions journalism (which links to a shameless custom essay-writing service), has a rank of 6 out of a possible 10, a ranking that the spam blog could only attain under the false clothing of being affiliated with Poynter.org. On its own, the spam blog would likely earn a zero and be kicked out of Google.
iMediaEthics called and emailed Varlashov using the contact information provided by Whois but we have not received a response.
It’s Not Poynter!
Landing on the home page of PoynterOnline.org, the first thing one sees is the call out: “Poynter Online’s Web site and print publication have won more than 100 awards in the past five years alone!”
But there is no place for submitting reviews or any way to communicate with the site. “Miranda Pranston,” a smiling young woman (most likely a stock photo model) who is labeled as the “last winner” of $200, gushes, “I am happy, not only coz I got an easy $ 200, but – I actually won! Thank poynteronline.org!”
The trouble started in 2008/2009 following a major Poynter redesign where Poynter apparently decided to drop PoynterOnline.org and use only Poynter.org. See the Wayback Machine timeline below. The history of saved pages for PoynterOnline.org, beginning in 2002, suddenly stops in 2010.
Poynter lost control of its URL in 2011 and Varlashov or like registrant launched his PoynterOnline.org “All Technology News” spam blog as shown from Wayback screen captures.
The Poynter Institute continues to use “Poynter Online” as its social media brand, despite abandoning the URL in 2010, which only compounds the confusion. See the use of “Poynter Online” as an identifier even in Poynter’s YouTube Channel.
Web directories, such as SourceWatch, mistakenly list PoynterOnline.org instead of Poynter.org as the web address for the Poynter Institute.
Even the Poynter Institute advertises the editor position for its website, Poynter.org, as “editor of Poynter Online.” A Sept. 23, 2013, news story on the real Poynter website, Poynter.org, stated “Poynter plans to hire a new editor of Poynter Online.”
An additional problem was, at least when we last checked on April 27, 2012, web engineers for Poynter.org still used “PoynterOnline.org” in their coding, which also helps the spam blog’s rank and traffic.
Poynter owns up to being fooled
PoynterOnline.org tried to trick readers into believing it is an authentic Poynter web site but it’s not.
iMediaEthics spoke with Sandy Johnakin, “Interactive Learning Administrative Assistant” and a longtime Poynter employee, who works on the Poynter website, about the spam site.
“Wow,” Johnakin said in complete surprise. “We really need to do something about this,” she said. “I’m starting right away!.” She had no idea this spam blog had stolen the Poynter brand. “If it’s Poynteronline.org, that’s not us,” she said by phone yesterday. I suggested that she look at the Wayback Machine to see how PoynterOnline.org was 100% the Poynter Institute’s site in 2009, down in 2010, and back up by April 10, 2011, as the fake “technology blog.”
IMediaEthics asked why no one at Poynter, including its tech people, caught this. Johnakin answered, “Well, we are kind of small. In fact, we are quite small and we don’t…we just don’t have the manpower.”
We offered to send her more information including our forthcoming report.
Johnakin said, “Well, I do appreciate very much your calling. And I think from what you have given me on the telephone, I think that we can take it from here and try to figure out what’s going on.”
When iMediaEthics asked Johnakin today if there is anyone else we should speak with at Poynter before publishing our report, she said to call Poynter.org’s Andrew Beaujon, Senior Online Reporter, and that she had emailed him about the matter.
Beaujon told iMediaEthics he had received her email. He said that the PoynterOnline.org spam blog site was “outside of my experience.”
“I don’t know anything about the site,” he continued, saying he was on a story deadline.”I started here in Feb. 2012,” he added.
Meanwhile, the WayBack Machine screen shot (see image below) stands sentry as a foreshadowing of what was to come on April 10, 2011. The PoynterOnline.org URL that day stated: “Welcome! Site poynteronline.org just created. Real content coming soon.”
UPDATE: Nov 21, 2013: 2:51PM EST: Added link and image to what PoynterOnline.org looked like when it was still an authentic Poynter URL on Jan 29, 2009.
UPDATE: NOV 21, 2013: 3:00PM EST: Screen shot added from WayBack Machine showing PoynterOnline,org on Jan 29, 2009 as an authentic Poynter website.
UPDATE: NOV 22, 2013: 3:40PM EST: Updated story to include where registrant lived in addition to the registration of the domain, according to Whois.