Tribune Hands Off TribLocal to Data-Rich Journatic

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Old-media Tribune Company’s decision to invest in new-media startup Journatic, and let the fast growing content production company take over operations – but not ownership – of its TribLocal hyperlocal network, isn’t just about cost-cutting.

To be sure, costs will be cut. Journatic pays editors and reporters a barely living wage of $12 an hour — and sometimes less. That’s well below, I’m sure, what Tribune pays reporters who cover suburban news at its 88 TribLocal sites. (Tribune wouldn’t say what it pays, calling that information confidential, but if the company is “phasing out” about 20 of its TribLocal staffers, it must be paying them more.) But Journatic has the resources and, just as important, the vision to use data to drive editorial content, all the way down to the neighborhood level.

The comment by Brad Moore, vice president of Targeted Media and Business Development for Tribune Co., which runs TribLocal, came close to saying it all: “[Journatic] can tell you what the most popular movies are in Oak Park versus the most popular movies being rented in Schaumburg.” What Moore didn’t add was how cheaply Journatic would be able to find and deliver that information.

Actually, Journatic can deliver a lot more important and useful information than movie rental preferences from community to community, and at not much higher cost. In real estate, for example, it can send homeowners a daily or weekly email about who’s selling their home and who’s moving in, provide a complimentary property tax analysis, and deliver all kinds of useful information to sellers and buyers.

The open-data movement is pushing tons of new information on to the Web — about real estate and many other local news topics, like the quality of health care and its costs, crime and school performance. The problem is too much of that information consists of hard-to-digest heaps of metrics — what the experts call “unstructured data.”

The unstructured data has to be slimmed down to “structured data,” which is far easier to format so it can be run through an algorithm tailored to produce interesting news like “Crime L.A.,” a feature in the Los Angeles Times that lets local residents map crime by major incident in their community and compare results with other localities. The L.A. Times, of course, is part of Tribune Co., so there should be some good synergy between the data experts at the Times and Journatic.

But what about Journatic’s low-end pay scale – what will that do to the quality of TribLolcal? I don’t see why $12-an-hour reporters, with training from experienced Tribune editors, can’t do a lot of the basic note-taking coverage (like in the April 20 story from Evanston TribLocal, “Sherman Avenue high rise evacuated after electrical problem causes light smoke; no fire or injuries”).

Reporters, at $12 an hour or higher rates, aren’t needed for most data journalism. That can be produced by software and algorithms — see “Crime L.A.” If the data needs context, as it often does, then TribLocal should make it easy for community contributors to publish articles that would provide it. The site’s present policy covering community contributions isn’t very welcoming, and the format doesn’t permit articles to be packaged in a way to produce good and sustained discussions. Tribune was smart to turn to Journatic for help with its TribLocal hyperlocals. It can be a case of old and new media learning from each other as both find themselves in the still largely uncharted landscape of the digital age.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.

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