The Chicago Tribune recently laid off many of the reporters and editors who produced its hyper-local editions, and announced that it was outsourcing those functions to a startup called Journatic — a move that drew criticism from those who saw the company as a Demand Media-style “content farm,” replacing journalists with algorithms and poorly-paid freelancers. In an interview with GigaOM, however, Journatic CEO Brian Timpone said that not only is his model more efficient than that of a newspaper, but it can actually help produce better journalism.
Timpone — who got his start as a journalist working for TV stations and broadcast affiliates in Duluth, Minnesota and Springfield, Illinois and at one time owned several community newspapers — said he got the idea for what became Journatic after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, when he started a content-management service for newspapers (Timpone also runs a data-driven real estate service called Blockshopper). He said that at the time, he was fascinated with the difference in market penetration between smaller community papers and large metropolitan papers:
[I]n Chicago, the penetration is so low, but in a small town it can be huge. So I started thinking about how you can build higher penetration in those kinds of markets… there are suburbs of Chicago with 50,000 people and there’s no newspaper at all, not even a weekly.
The Journatic founder said that he reacted negatively to suggestions that his company is a “content farm” because he believes it is completely different from what someone like Demand Media does, which involves aggregating information in the hope that it will do well in search. “We produce a ton of content, but we are completely different,” Timpone said. When asked how many stories or items Journatic produces, he said he couldn’t say exactly but it was in the range of “tens of thousands a month, and growing quickly.”
A lot of community news doesn’t need a reporter
What the company produces for clients like the Tribune — and a number of other papers such as the San Francisco Chronicle and the Houston Chronicle — is community-level news, Timpone says, but it is able to do so much more efficiently:
The base of community news is what they call in the industry ‘process news,’ and it doesn’t really require a reporter, it just needs some cleaning up. This is not some new concept, it’s how community news has worked for decades. Who makes community news? Churches, schools, municipal governments, all the town councils that have 5 meetings a month where no one ever goes to them. This is the same stuff you’d read in a community newspaper in the 50s.
Some of the information that Journatic generates — which turns into stories like the ones at a TribLocal site for the suburbs of Homewood and Flossmoor, which it has taken over producing from the Tribune — comes from press releases issues by schools, or various community groups. Journatic gets a lot of this the old-fashioned way, says Timpone: by calling people on the phone or emailing them. “We talk to the women’s club or the church or the school — so it’s a lot of elbow grease.”
The company also does a lot of data collection in various ways, including Freedom of Information Act requests, says the Journatic CEO. “We get foreclosures and other data through FOIA and then we clean them up. We have a big document collection team, and we know how to get that data. One problem newspapers have is their reporters just don’t have the time to do that kind of thing.” Journatic gets building permits and child-support records and other data as well, he says, and much of it comes through digging. “When it comes to small towns, almost nothing is on the internet, so we can’t just scrape a website. We have to go out and get it.”
Much of the negative commentary about Journatic has come because the Tribune laid off 20 of its staff, and replaced them with a company that reportedly pays freelancers $2 to $4 to write a story, or about $12 an hour. But Timpone says those fees are for “part of a story.” The Journatic model, he says, is a process in which different aspects of the package are generated or produced by different people. So one person might come up with the source material, another might write a paragraph or two, another would add links and another might do some editing (some of which is done in the Philippines).
It’s like an assembly line, we assemble stories from these different parts; we have people who just source stories, who just generate story ideas, we have people who just generate ledes, and so on. We have 200 different types of stories — some are deep features. But if we re-process a press release, why would anyone pay reporter-type wages to do that?
Journatic says it helps journalists do better journalism
Timpone said he doesn’t like to think of Journatic as displacing journalists — he thinks of what he does as making it easier for them to concentrate on doing the things they are good at, instead of writing up press releases about school awards. “This is a company of journalists,” he says. “It does not make me happy when anyone gets laid off. But if we don’t do it, then the future doesn’t look good. We can’t keep doing it in the way that we’ve been doing it.” One client newspaper that the company started working with, he says, had a team of 11 reporters for 11 different community sites, but they only produced about four stories per person per week:
That’s not because they were lazy or weren’t capable, it’s because they were spending all their time on process news, the type of stuff we do. Why not get that stuff off their plate so they can focus on what they are good at, like breaking news or human news? Writing about the high school honor roll is a waste of their time.
The Journatic founder said that what he does is help companies like the Tribune produce content on a community level a lot more efficiently, and that allows them to reach those markets and engage with readers directly at a much lower cost — which in turn allows them to do more of that kind of news, but also frees their reporters up to do more important stories. And the data that Journatic comes up with from its automated processes can build databases that those reporters can use to do better journalism.
It’s not just fodder to fill the paper, it’s the foundation of better local journalism. We’ll have probably 100 police blotters indexed this year, that information has never been collected systematically before, when reporters get access to that it can help them produce better stories. This is a road to a new kind of journalism… a better kind of journalism. That’s the vision.
Will Journatic’s assembly-line, data-driven process enable newspapers to spend more time and resources on real journalism or better journalism? Or will cash-strapped owners simply use it and other services such as Narrative Science’s story-writing algorithms to reduce their costs and improve their profit margins as advertising revenue continues to decline? That’s the question many journalists are concerned with, and it’s something Timpone can’t answer. All he knows is that his way is more efficient.
We’ll be talking about these media issues and more at paidContent 2012, May 23 in New York City.