A story that has circulated widely on the Internet claiming a customer complaint had prompted the warehouse giant Costco to remove a dinosaur birthday cake design from its website has been deleted from the website The Inquisitr after it was revealed to be a hoax orchestrated by the reporter and his girlfriend.
The July 13 article written by freelance writer John Albrecht, Jr. claimed that Costco had pulled a dinosaur cake design from its online ordering platform after an Arizona woman complained the depicted dinosaur’s feet resembled the number “666,” a symbol Christians commonly associate with the Antichrist.
The customer, identified in Albrecht’s piece as Jessica Eckerdt of the Mesa area, claimed she was “extremely shocked and upset” to find that her local Costco would sell her the cake, which she said was “very distasteful.”
It was the kind of story that was made for the Internet: It spread like wildfire on Twitter and Facebook and was aggregated by news websites like the Independent Review, The Frisky and Raw Story.
It was also entirely made up.
The Costco in Mesa? A manager told The Desk by phone they have no records of a customer complaining about a birthday cake.
The online ordering site? Costco doesn’t offer online ordering of birthday cakes in the United States.
The customer at the center of the story? She is the reporter’s girlfriend.
The Inquisitr is an aggregate news site owned by Daniel Treisman, an Israeli businessman who relaunched the website as a tabloid-style content house shortly after purchasing the site away from its founder, former TechCrunch writer Duncan Riley.
The website is staffed by a skeleton crew of global news editors who work remotely — from coffee shops or their own homes — overseeing a vast network of freelance writers and reporters who are paid a small per-post fee with the promise that their pay will go up based on performance.
Prospective freelance writers are subjected to an application process that feels less like a job interview and more like a talent competition. During the first part of the process, writers are directed to a website containing a handful of trending keywords — things like “Apple,” “Taylor Swift” and “earthquake,” to name a few — and are instructed to write a 400-word article based on any keyword of their choosing.
The writing sample is critiqued by a panel of editors and executives who choose whether a writer goes through or whether the process ends there. If a writer is picked to go through, they are sent a link to a lengthy operations manual that explains in detail how the Inquisitr machine works.
The manual makes clear that Inquisitr is a news aggregate that repurposes stories found on other websites and condenses them into tight, 400-word articles. Reporters, the manual says, are expected to link to at least two outside news sources (six news sites are blacklisted) and at least one story that already exists on Inquisitr’s website. All articles must be 400 words in length and must repeat a “hot keyword” throughout the article for purposes of search engine optimization.
(Click here to read the full operations manual for Inquisitr.com)
If printed, the operations manual would exceed 30 pages in length. Prospective reporters are asked to study the guide in preparation for a 40-question test as one final part of their application process. If a potential writer doesn’t achieve a score of 90 percent or higher on the test, the application process ends there.
But if they do pass, they are sent two e-mails: A job offer and a two-page employment agreement that, among other things, stipulates that a freelance writer won’t link to articles they’ve written on their own or for other websites.
The second e-mail sets a probationary term for the first month of the freelance reporter’s employment in which the writer is expected to produce at least five 400-word articles a week at a rate of $10 per article. The probationary period lasts four weeks with a cap at 40 articles during the first month, meaning the most a freelance writer can make the first month at Inquisitr is just $400.
(Click here to read the two-page employment agreement for Inquisitr.com)
Writers are promised that the rate set during their probationary period will be re-evaluated from time to time, and that they have the potential to make quite a bit more depending on how well their stories perform.
For Albrecht, the promise of higher wages was a catalyst to invent a highly-creative work of fiction and pass it off as news. And it worked.
On Saturday, Albrecht took to his Facebook page bragging about how his Inquisitr story on the Costco cake — his inaugural piece for the website — had been a huge success.
“I just found out that my first article with The Inquisitr went super viral,” he wrote. “It is being reported (or re-reported rather) nationally by television news stations, radio stations and other news site.”
He was sort of right: Since the article was published on July 13, it had spread across the Internet — first on social media websites, then on small time blogs. Eventually it was picked up by the Independent Review, Raw Story and Examiner.com, the website where Albrecht began his freelance career.
It was also the website where Albrecht broke the story of the purported Costco cake nearly a year ago, using the same source and the same quote as the Inquisitr story.
But the Inquisitr story did not contain a link back to his earlier Examiner piece, something that would have been a violation of his freelance employment agreement with the website. It did not contain a disclosure that the source he was using was his girlfriend. And it did not explicitly note Costco’s U.S.-based website does not have an online ordering service for birthday cakes (the piece links to Costco’s Australian website, which does allow cakes to be ordered over the Internet, but has never offered the dinosaur design in question as an option).
That didn’t stop Albrecht from seeing dollar signs. On Facebook, he told followers that his Inquisitr piece was a follow-up to the earlier one he had written for Examiner, which he claims also went viral and earned him around $3,000.
Eckerdt, his girlfriend and the source for the story, also celebrated his success. In the story, she told Albrecht that when she received the cake last year, she was “extremely shocked and upset” and found it to be “very distasteful.” But on Facebook, she took a different tone, writing in a comment that the couple “ate the cake and found it hysterical.”
When reached via Facebook for comment, Albrecht wouldn’t say if he stood by his story. He called The Desk‘s inquiry into his story “pathetic” and compared it to that of a “stalker.”
Tom Boggioni, the Raw Story journalist who aggregated Albrecht’s Inquisitr piece, added a update to his own article saying the publication was “attempting to verify” claims about the Costco piece. The update was included after The Desk reached out to Boggioni on Twitter. Another Raw Story reporter, David Ferguson, published a separate story early Monday morning declaring Inquisitr’s piece to be a hoax.
The Independent Review amended their story Monday afternoon with a link to the Raw Story article on the hoax, but otherwise left the majority of their story intact. Examiner has yet to update their version of the story.
In a Skype conversation late Sunday evening, Treisman said Inquisitr was made aware of the fabricated story only after The Desk reached out to him by e-mail. Treisman said the site immediately pulled the story when the concerns were reported to him.
“Clearly he overstepped the mark in several ways, including stepping all over our rules,” Treisman said. The editor-in-chief said the the website would consider publishing a full retraction on Monday.
Since the piece was pulled, Albrecht has created several Facebook posts claiming a reader has made unspecified threats against him and his family. He also asserted that the article was removed from Inquisitr because he had deleted it after the website claimed “full ownership and control of my content.” (Treisman denies Albrecht deleted the article himself.)
“I never hoaxed or lied about anything in an article, ever,” he wrote in a final Facebook post on the subject. “If there is a line in one of my articles, the person I quoted is the liar.”
Eckerdt, the sole source for Albrecht’s story, said her Facebook comment about the cake being “hilarious” had been taken out of context.
“John’s article was correct and he did quote me word for word,” she wrote. “It was hilarious as an adult joke. It was not hilarious and was upsetting to receive a child’s cake that way…I found it offensive and in bad take for a six-year-old’s birthday.”
Treisman denied the notion that Inquisitr’s low pay might be an incentive for writers to submit fabricated stories. But he did acknowledge — in a statement he later tried to declare was off the record — that their editorial “system can be abused” and that the site’s focus on search engine optimization and page views over content was in line with the conventional tenets of journalism.
“News is about what’s trending,” Treisman said, “and SEO is all about how to write at certain levels of readability…the system can be abused — that’s not a news story, that’s life — and if it means as a result systems need developing and building then welcome to the real world. And none of this is my official statement.”
(Editor’s note: Since this article was originally published on Monday, Inquisitr has published a “full and frank retraction” of Albrecht’s story, saying it did “not meet the Inquisitr’s standards on multiple fronts, including accuracy and disclosure.”
This article has also been updated with information about the Independent Journal’s revision of their report based on the Inquisitr story. It has also been updated to correct the title and spelling of the name of the Inquisitr’s original founder — he is Duncan Riley, not Duncan Reily.)