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.”