Journatic founder: ‘Being based in the community is not beneficial’

Brian Timpone sounded frustrated by press coverage of Journatic when he commented on a Mathew Ingram post this morning linking to a story that mentioned the Chicago Tribune had tapped his company to operate its TribLocal network.

That deal was announced Monday, to generally negative commentary focusing on the job losses the Trib said would accompany the move, Journatic’s offshoring of data-journalism jobs and an email the Chicago Reader’s Mike Miner dug up offering Journatic employees $50 to not talk to the press and alert superiors if a reporter called.

I thought it was odd that someone who made such an offer to employees would complain about not getting press coverage, so I called Timpone. “We’re a news service that’s focused on community news,” he said.

Take a look at some of Journatic’s content on the Homewood/Flossmoor TribLocal site, one of the first of the Trib sites produced entirely by Journatic.

“It’s everything from the school lunch menu to the police blotter,” Timpone said. “And we have an innovative way of doing it. What we’re doing is not traditional reporting with a single person who goes out and sources the story and researches the story and writes the story. We think that system doesn’t work in the community format. When you’re getting the honor roll from a grammar school, you can’t afford at any price to have a reporter who gets that information.”

Compare, for example, the TribLocal story about a Willow School teacher getting an award to the Homewood-Flossmoor Patch’s version of the story. Both stories make use of the same source material, leading to the sentence “Thompson was praised by Willow School Principal Mary Ann Savage for her willingness to think outside the box and experiment with new ways to help students” on the TribLocal page and “Willow School Principal Mary Ann Savage praised Thompson’s willingness to think outside the box and experiment with new ways to help students” on Patch. I’m not wild about Journatic’s use of passive voice in the sentence, but if its story cost less to produce, then Timpone might be on to something.

The company does high-quality work, Timpone said. “Look at the San Francisco Chronicle’s real estate section,” a print product Journatic produces, “and tell me what’s so bad about it. It’s a beautiful section.”

Journatic’s approach, Timpone said, is to gather as much publicly available information as possible, and automate as much as possible how that data gets turned into stories. “Our business is basically elbow grease powered by algorithms and technology.” For example, he pointed to the “Athlete Tracker” at the bottom right of the Homewood/Flossmoor site. Journatic’s offshore employees gather data on hometown kids who play in high school and college. If one of them has a breakout performance, Journatic has an algorithm that generates a brief, but the company’s system also generates a lead for a sportswriter, who can decide if it’s worth making a call to follow up.

Efficiencies like that give Journatic an edge over traditional journalism, Timpone said. “This is the purest form of journalism there is. Newsgathering is what’s been lost in the last 30 years of mass media.” The permits, licenses, and briefs that he says used to be the lifeblood of community journalism “are almost nowhere.”

I asked how this was different from Patch. “Being based in the community” — as Patch writers are required to do — “is not beneficial,” Timpone said. “There’s no beat in Flossmoor. … You can’t walk the streets in Flossmor and learn the town. This isn’t 1927.” The Homewood-Flossmoor site will eventually have 50 stories a week (“The stories are not Woodward and Bernstein,” he said).

Timpone took issue with my characterization of the $50 reward Journatic offered its employees not to talk to the press as a “bounty”: “I’ll just say this — we have clients and we respect their confidentiality. We were in the middle of working out a deal that involved sensitive things for the Tribune.” The deal is off since the announcement: “As of Monday,” he said, “talk to whoever you want. We’re the most free speech.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1288786880 Suzanne Adams

    I think Journatic is missing the point. The point of gathering all that mundane stuff (honor rolls,police blotters, permits, etc.) is to get to know the community and the people that work in. 
    If you get to know the lunch lady and she gets to know you when you pick up the lunch menus each week. Perhaps one week she hands you the menus and makes an off hand comment about the price of food or that a grant for meals for low-income students is in jepordy. I’ve gotten some great stories by walking into the fire department to pick up the call logs.
    Sure, these things are boring to do and take up time that could be used on other stories, but they can also generate some of the most interesting stories.

  • Anonymous

    Hi. Your facts are wrong. The Patch article is a press release posted on the site by District 153 PR Director Shelley Peck. It was completely free for Patch.

    The Journatic article paid Suzanne Flynn a couple bucks (I believe their pay rate is $2 for a “10-minute story” and $4 for a “20-minute story”) to put the same press release into the passive voice you didn’t like.

    So the Patch story cost less to produce. Incidentally, before Journatic, TribLocal also used to let people post press releases on their sites.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not so sure that doing it right can bring revenue. But, as you say, there is such a thing as doing it right, just as there is such a thing as human-to-human contact, trends, culture, perspective and analysis.

    And while we’re at it, how about some truth in marketing? Reporters put their bylines on stories. If a Journatic story is generated by an algorithm, it should be so labeled. If they’re so proud of what they’re doing, they should let the public in on the little secret. Each bit of content should be preceded by a credit line that says “Generated by a Journatic algorithm.”

    Or are they afraid readers might be put off?

  • http://twitter.com/markrcook markrcook

    If Boy Scouts and bird boxes are your idea of community news, then why not outsource it? Sounds like Journatic provides foundational coverage, but real community news is about trends and culture. Major metros, which feed on the conflict generated by larger special interest groups in big cities, long have ignored real trends in the outlying communities, and the success of Journatic speaks more to the low expectations of the metros rather than a more modern model. There is more in the ‘burbs than press releases and public records. Doing it right can bring revenue.

  • http://twitter.com/NNVC_fraud Tom Frye

    If you buy that Journatic writers are free to talk to whoever they want, ask Timpone to suggest a few names. They were told again this week not to talk to reporters. How about $50 for the first story quoting a Journatic writer?