Muck Rack Verified (Then Unverified) These Seemingly Fake Journalists

Petar Mikonoss and Dragana Stepic purportedly write for once-popular women’s site The Frisky. There’s no evidence either of them actually exist

In its heyday, The Frisky was one of the most beloved women’s sites on the internet. Founded by Turner Broadcasting in 2008, the site offered a “unique brand of funny, informative and relatable content written by an array of authentic female voices.”

After multiple changes in ownership, in 2018 the site permanently closed and the domain name bought over by Nebojsa Vujinovic aka DJ Vujo#91, a Serbian music producer who plagiarised the site’s brand name and republished the site’s old content using fake bylines. Vujinovic currently sells backlinks on the site from his Fiverr account.

You can check out Vujinovic’s feminist credentials here:

I wrote about the site’s unhappy afterlife for BuzzFeed News last April (the story was later cited by The New York Times, Columbia Journalism Review, and even The Frisky’s own Wikipedia page). But it appears not everyone got the memo.

Around November, the site was listed on media database Muck Rack and given a green verification badge, which is similar to the blue badge Twitter uses to show that an account is authentic.

“The Frisky has been verified by Muck Rack’s editorial team,” claimed a message on the listing, which included incorrect information about the site’s current ownership.

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Shortly after adding The Frisky, Muck Rack listed and verified Petar Mikonoss and Dragana Stepic, seemingly creations of Vujinovic whose bylines currently adorn articles plagiarised from The Frisky’s former writers, and from other sites such as Showbiz CheatSheet (multiple copyright and defamation complaints have been made against The Frisky since Vujinovic took over).

Here’s Mikonoss’ verified profile on Muck Rack:

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And here’s Mikonoss’ byline on The Frisky, which includes such quality content as “Why Being a Biker Is Simply the Best” (“A: Kids are crazy about you”), “Why Do You Need to Buy an Inflatable Hot Tub?” (A: “They Are Cheap”), and “Tricky Snowflake Test Questions You Might Encounter on Your Job Interview” (Eg. “What are your thoughts on transgender people?” and “What was the last time you cried and why? WOW!”):

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A reverse image search shows that Mikonoss’ profile photo is actually of Peter Pfeffer, associate professor of Developmental Biology and Reproduction at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

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In an e-mail, Pfeffer said he didn’t give permission for Vujinovic to use his photo.

“No I did not give permission for anyone to use it,” said Pfeffer. “Odd that it was on The Frisky in the first place as I have never visited that site.”

I was unable to find the person shown in Stepic’s profile photo. But a name included in the photo’s URL suggests their name is Dragana Berbetovic.

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Former editors for The Frisky told me they had never heard of Mikonoss or Stepic.

Robyn Pennacchia, a former writer and editor for the site, said she had “no idea who those people are.”

The site’s former EIC, Amelia McDonell-Parry — whose name appears numerous times in Muck Rack’s database as having co-bylined stories with Stepic  — said she’d “never in my life” heard of Mikonoss or Stepic.

“I can assure you that any article bylined with my name AND any one of these bizarrely named fake people was ONLY written by me, and me alone,” McDonell-Parry said. “For example, the article in this screenshot (below) was 100% ALL ME not me and fake ass DRAGANA.”

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In an e-mail, Muck Rack’s editor Sean Kiely said his editorial team had used automated tools to identify and create profiles for the two seemingly fake journalists.

Muck Rack finds new articles published at media outlets around the world from RSS feeds and Twitter handles and then we use technology to identify the author of any article by that article’s byline. Once we identify the author, we add the article to that journalist’s existing Muck Rack profile or we create a Muck Rack profile for that person. These profiles you have sent us have been automatically created using our technology with the name that corresponds to the byline on the articles.

The green verified badge on Muck Rack lets people know that a profile page meets Muck Rack’s criteria to be defined as a verified journalist, and that the information is maintained by Muck Rack’s Editorial team. We understand that many journalists and writers use pen names, so one of the most important factors our Editorial team considers when verifying a profile is the frequency at which the journalist is published, which is why these profiles are verified.

Asked to clarify if Muck Rack’s verification process is strictly automated, Kiely said his editorial team is “made up of humans who are reviewing profiles.”

While Muck Rack does have an Editorial team made up of humans who are reviewing profiles, we create hundreds of profiles a week, so we do our best to stay on top of these issues.

We’ve removed this outlet and these profiles from Muck Rack’s search.

Muck Rack’s listing for The Frisky now redirects to a directory of media outlets.

Mikonoss and Stepic are still listed in Muck Rack’s database, although without their verification badges.

Journalism 404

Don’t miss this Columbia Journalism Review Q&A with former editors of The Frisky, whose transformation from popular women’s site to pay-to-play nightmare I documented for BuzzFeed News

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Earlier this year, I wrote an investigative story for BuzzFeed News about how a Serbian music producer had purchased The Frisky — once one of the most popular women’s sites in America — and turned it into a parasitic digital marketing platform that recycled the site’s old content using a host of fake bylines. In an interview this month for Columbia Journalism Review, two former editors of The Frisky discussed the site’s strange but not-so-wonderful afterlife.

Via “Preserving work in a time of vanishing archives,” by Tiffany Stevens, Columbia Journalism Review, November 5, 2019:

Jessica Wakeman, women’s issues journalist with work in Bustle, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times

I wrote and edited for The Frisky for six years, which is a sizeable chunk of my career and also a very important period of my life. During that time I developed a lot as a thinker and as a feminist and as a human being. It’s disappointing and even a little painful when the record of that time disappears without my choice. Going to search for an old article that I wrote is a jarring way to find out that something is not online.

All of us had our bylines replaced with somebody else’s name. It’s just dummy bylines. At the very bottom of the story, it would say, “Original by Jessica Wakeman.” All of a sudden, things that I wrote were now being attributed to another person. As time has gone on, I haven’t been able to find pieces that I wrote.

I feel really cynical about digital-media ownership and the priorities of people who own websites and blogs. So, as disappointed as I am, I’m also not surprised by it. I think the current status quo for many owners is that the work isn’t valuable. Content that currently gains traffic is what they care about.

I started writing for a local newspaper when I was 15. My first job out of college was at a newspaper. I spent many years physically cutting out all of my articles and putting them in my binder. I can remember in 2004 and 2005 and 2006, applying to jobs and having a physical binder as my calling card. This is a new problem, but the answer might be that we as writers have to save every single thing we write as a PDF or that we have to print it out and put it in a binder and go the analog route, which seems crazy.

All of that being said, there’s a certain amount of relief that maybe some of the pieces I wrote are no longer accessible, because I wrote them between the ages of 24 and 29, and I don’t hold all the same viewpoints or use the same words. Which is the thinnest silver lining on this whole thing.

Amelia McDonnell-Parry, independent journalist whose work has appeared in Undisclosed

There were a couple of people who wrote for [The Frisky] that were like, “Is there a way for us to buy it?” And I was like, “Listen, more power to you, but I don’t got it in me anymore.” In a way, it’s kind of freeing to just have it go. I was running the site, I got hired when I was 28, and I left the site when I was 36 or 37, and I’m about to turn 40. You change a lot.

The things that I got that were valuable to me, I still have. But there was something oddly freeing about it, I have to say. And I also just knew I didn’t have any power over it.

I still get Google alerts for my name. Every few days, I’ll get a Google alert, and it’ll be for The Frisky, but it’ll be something I wrote seven years ago. A personal essay, or some strident opinion piece on something that I’m like, “I don’t think I even have an opinion on that anymore.” Or, I’m like, “Oh yeah, that really sucked.” And it’s presented by this person who’s not me — it has a fake byline — but then my name is still at the bottom.

I’ve been doing mostly audio stuff lately. That’s stuff’s preserved. And for quite a bit of time I was writing for Rolling Stone’s website. I don’t expect Rolling Stone to go anywhere anytime soon. But seeing what happened [at The Frisky] did sort of remind me it’s a good idea to save actual, physical copies of your work in some sort of way. PDFs. You can’t rely on Archive.org to have everything and you never know when shit might disappear. And you don’t know when it might reappear again in some bizarro environment with someone else’s name on it.

Click here to read the full article.
Click here for my BuzzFeed News story on The Frisky.

Byline at BuzzFeed

The Frisky was a popular site for women. Now it’s a marketing scam leeching off the brand. Read my latest at BuzzFeed News.

Via “How A Popular Women’s Website Became A Pay-To-Play Nightmare” by Dean Sterling Jones, BuzzFeed News, April 22, 2019:

On first glance, the Frisky appears to be a thriving women’s entertainment and lifestyle website. Founded in 2008 “for women, by women,” the site currently attracts over 1 million pageviews per month.

But beneath the surface, the site is filled with a strange mix of awkwardly written celebrity clickbait, articles promoting floorcare and acupuncture, and a post that attacks Long Island attorney Frederick Oberlander, a nemesis of onetime Trump business partner Felix Sater. The bylines of the site’s original authors have also been scrubbed and replaced by pseudonyms and stolen profile photos.

The Frisky as it once existed is gone. Today it’s a vampire website feeding off the property’s former popularity and brand name to sell pay-for-play articles in order to influence search engine rankings. The site is one of a growing number of once-lucrative web domains that are taken over and then milked for every last drop of search engine optimization value before they are inevitably downranked for shady practices.

Click here to read the full story.