August 15, 2013

Chicago Sun-Times owner Wrapports LLC announced this week that it has launched a service called Aggrego, its own version of the troubled local news service Journatic, Lynne Marek reported in Crain’s Chicago Business Tuesday.

Aggrego CEO Tim Landon made an early investment in Journatic, Wrapports CEO Tim Knight told Poynter in a phone call, but “they had some disagreements about how to drive the team,” he said.

“I fundamentally disagreed with Journatic’s management’s approach to the content and operating model,” said Landon, who was also on the call. “I do believe in data and big data, but that’s not enough.”

Journatic made structural mistakes, Landon said, “then you layer on top of that very poor decisions that were made in terms of managing content and integrity and managing third parties.” Landon and his partners sold “most/all” of their investment in Journatic to Tribune, Wrapports says.

The Sun-Times is separate from Aggrego, company spokesperson Alisa Alexander told me, and Aggrego will not supply news to it. It had a partnership with Journatic’s Blockshopper service but decided to wind it down last summer after fake bylines were discovered in Journatic-produced stories at other newspapers. The Tribune Co., whose Chicago Tribune competes with the Sun-Times, has made an investment in Journatic.

Content will be organized in channels on Aggrego sites, which will begin in the Chicagoland area (“and going elsewhere is not too distant,” Knight said). They’ll cover high school sports, for example, and weddings. Local content “must have ‘warmth/soul,’ Wrapports’ presentation says. “We do do school lunch menus, but you’re not going to build a big audience and engagement around school lunch menus,” Landon said. “We want it to be almost Facebook-like.”

The content will be intensely local, not regional. It can back into some of the Sun-Times Media Group’s print papers, Wrapports Managing Director Jim Hickey told Poynter via email.

“Currently, content pieces produced by Aggrego that are regularly published in print as well as online are: weddings, auto, real estate, weekend travel, local events calendars, building permits, and local faces,” he wrote. “In the digital age, we believe the weekly print paper should be a ‘best of’ what was first published online.”

STM Local is Aggrego’s first media partner, Hickey said. “STM Local has contracted with Aggrego to power its 36 suburban titles with Aggrego’s three-part platform, which consists of a mobile-optimized content management + website system, a suite of content services, and an advertising program.”

Aggrego, pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable, will take as its model Classified Ventures, the ad service Landon cofounded when he was an executive at Tribune. It aims to fix what a presentation they prepared calls “The Trap” afflicting community news operations: the “Production model is human-intensive and low-tech, so publisher’s ability to adapt is hamstrung.”

It will be directed at mobile users, Landon and Knight said, and will target that audience with intensely local content — some produced by news organizations, some sponsored. That sponsored content will generally take the form of SEO-optimized servicey stuff, like this guide to dressing for a funeral, sponsored by a Naperville, Ill., funeral home.

“This is going to sound like a tough statement, but we don’t see a bright future at all in the banner and tile business, and we think that that’s particularly problematic as you move to mobile,” Landon said. “You’ve got to re-engineer local around a very different approach to monetization. And core to that for us is native content, which plays very well in a mobile world.” What Landon calls “essential content” will become “the currency of digital marketing,” he said.

Teams of two people will oversee three sites. There will be a “community news manager” whom Landon said would act like “a ‘Today’ show producer” by slotting content into homepages like the Naperville Sun’s, and a “Web presence manager” who will provide services, including content creation, to about 75 advertising accounts, 25 per site. That individual will not be a salesperson, Landon and Knight said.

The sites may grow as they add more advertising, Knight said. They won’t be organized the same way Patch is, he said: “We don’t think that scales.”

That community news manager won’t be creating much content: They’ll repurpose press releases from schools and civic organizations, for instance, Landon said, “but 80 to 90 percent of their job is slotting content and making sure it plays well on mobile, social, whatever.”

That manager “slots that content, and all of a sudden you have this very, very vibrant site, and everything is optimized for SEO, everything is pushed out on social, everything is structured for mobile, and all of a sudden you start changing this downward trajectory and creating a new model,” Landon said. “Now I can also put native content into that, and all of a sudden I’ve got a dog that hunts.”

“We really don’t want to use third parties,” Landon said. “As much as possible, we want to control all aspects of the process.”

Sun-Times Editor Jim Kirk and Deputy Managing Editor for Features Linda Bergstrom were “extremely involved at the early stages of forming this thing, and so we’ve hired really good editorial people, journalists, to help get this off the ground,” Knight said.

Aggrego will not have mobile apps to start with, they said. It will launch with HTML5 pages that scale to mobile screens. “Right now we’ve got to execute across all platforms,” Landon said. He expects that most usage will eventually be mobile. Here’s a screenshot of how the Naperville Sun site looks on my iPhone:

I asked how Aggrego’s revenue model was different from its competitors. Landon pointed me to another echo of the structure of Classified Ventures: The site’s reps will meet with advertisers each month to show them how well their content is doing.

“It’s that type of accountability, it’s that type of focus, and us saying to them, ‘This is our unique competency, no one else can do this for you, we’re producing high-quality content for you, Mr. Advertiser, and here’s how that content performed for you, and here’s how it drove value and ROI for you.”

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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