Tribune Hands Off TribLocal to Data-Rich Journatic

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.

Now is the time to reserve your tickets for Street Fight Summit West. Join the top minds in hyperlocal in San Francisco on June 5th.

  1. AJ
    April 24, 2012

    My understanding is that Journatic pays on a per-article basis. The $12/hr figure comes from an estimate of a writer being able to produce about three $4/article stories in an hour. How much journalism do you think there is in a $4 article?

  2. April 24, 2012

    Here’s the recent want ad where Journatic seeks copy editors at $12 an hour for a 30- to 40-hour week (go to second ad, for copy editor) —  I couldn’t find an ad for what Journatic classifies as writers, but I can’t see the pay being higher than for copy editors. If Journatic does indeed require three articles per hour, that may not be a stretch to produce “journalism.” Structured data run through an algorithm can produce results that can be whipped into an article in minutes. If Journatic was smart operating TribLocal, it would leave the data context to community contributors. Let them react to data on real estate, health care quality and cost, schools and crime in their community.

  3. Journatic Writer
    April 24, 2012

    Journatic does pay some of its reporters $12 an hour. And some of its editors get a decent salary in the $35k a year realm. This is more than a lot of community papers pay for full time in-the-field reporters. 

    The problem with Journatic is that the Trib  just laid off 30 reporters living in the Chicago area. Journatic will replace them with reporters living around the country, having no connection to the community they cover, doing it entirely by email and phone. And they have the gall to call this hyperlocal.

    Further, Journatic does almost nothing in the way of critical journalism. It is almost 100% fluff. The only negative news to speak of is a police blotter and courts roundup.  Take a look at the Houston Chronicle’s Ultimate sections.

    1. Fedge
      April 25, 2012

      So much for integrity in journalism.

  4. Journatic victim
    April 24, 2012

    Tom, you say ” 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”. Getting training from experienced Tribune editors? This deal means they are FIRING the Trib editors.

    Taking notes requires talking to people. Writers calling sources at their own expense. If they talk to someone on a story for ten minutes, can they whip up a decent news story in another ten minutes to make the $12/hour rate? Maybe. Now do 23 more of them that day, without getting up from your computer, and you have have an “8 hour” day. That’s assuming you reach every source on the first try. Also, that you have 23 more story ideas (including names and numbers of sources) lined up nice and neat after completing the first one.

    It’s impossible. Try it sometime.

    Yes, you read that right – they pay experienced copyeditors the same rate as the rookie writers they hire. Plus, they don’t pay the editors overtime since Journatic claims they are all contractors. These sort of “resources” are non-sustainable ones.

    It’s completely about cutting costs.

    1. Journatic Writer
      April 24, 2012

      The stories that are $2 and $4 don’t require calling sources. They are press release rewrites. Reporters who write feature stories that require actual calls being made and interviews conducted are paid a $12 hourly rate. 

      1. pawn
        April 24, 2012

         Great. So companies stupid enough to hire Journatic are paying for something they could have gotten a high school intern to do?

      2. Journatic victim
        April 24, 2012

         JW, I know enough people there. Paying “contractors” at $12/hour isn’t a long-term solution. A matter of time before the IRS starts nosing around, asking why these “permatemps” aren’t considered employees. At that point, everyone will be paid by the piece.

    2. Writerbob4
      April 25, 2012

      trib local pays 20 bucks …. their editor is a completely unqualified wanna be nail polish tech.. the paper proper editors are ego maniacs holding on to a model long since gone and riding the paper into the sea like a titanic reference… Clueless…………… classless, and heartless,, and self serving,, but that’s ivy league…..

  5. Mpm09005
    April 24, 2012

     It’s no simpler than this: Tribune nationwide has or is getting rid of a lot of people making $50-$60K a year (like me last year) and replacing them with people at a third the rate without benefits using this Journatic as a shell company. Gerry Kern and his band of merrymen  and the cat who is patting himself on the back for ‘innovating’ with Journatic will bring home six-figure bonuses.
    After Tribune laid me off last year I came across Journatic last fall.  The low salaries (no higher than $14/hour)  almost kept me from applying, but when I researched the outfit and saw they were in same address at Trib Tower I said no fing way.
     The old journo career path was start at a small place w/small salary and your salary would grow accordingly as you moved to bigger papers. Now thanks to Tribune, bush league talent at bush league talent is being brought to the sink the ‘big city’ papers. Journatic first took their name out of postings; now they’re gone completely. Now comes news of the $50 bonuses for not talking to reporters.
    These guys obviously have something to hide. Or maybe they have guilty consciences.

    1. Mpm09005
      April 24, 2012

       that should be ‘bush league talent at bush league prices’

    2. Fedge
      April 25, 2012

      Bonuses for not talking to reporters?? What!?

  6. Journatic, rhymes with lunatic
    April 24, 2012

    Excuse me?
    “Reporters … aren’t needed for most data
    journalism. That can be produced by software and algorithms — see Crime

    Who do you think writes, maintains and updates that software and those algorithms? Data journalists, who make more than $12/hour.

    1. May 3, 2012

       Actually, they don’t make more than $12/hour – at least not at Journatic:

  7. llllttlthe
    April 25, 2012

    I’ll just leave this here:

    Per Piece Writer (English)Submitted by Eva Connors on February 7, 2012 – 4:01am. Full-time Job | journatic | per piece writerDetails:Company: JournaticHours: 20-40 hrs/week; must be able to commit to 250 pieces/week minimumLocation: RemotePay: Per-piece. Submitted events are $0.35/piece, and short stories are $0.40/piece.We’re looking for writers to work on events stories. We run a virtual office so you can work from home. Must have decent internet access.We’re flexible – you can work from anywhere. You can write stories anytime but we’re especially looking for people who have some day availability. If interested:1) Send your resume to jobs(at)journatic(dot)com2) Include the number 80887 and the words “Philippines Writer” in your email subject header3) Answer the following question in one paragraph: “Who is your favorite movie character and why?”4) Let us know your availability: # of hours/week

    1. Fedge
      April 25, 2012

      So much for paying “reporters” $12 an hour. Some things make sense to outsource. News stories isn’t one of them! 

  8. pete
    April 25, 2012

    Twelve dollars an hour (as a contractor) defines the quality of local news you can expect from Journatic.  The kids on the newsprint newspapers around here make more than that but can’t write their way out of a paper bag or recognize a story even when it’s biting their ankles.

  9. Rusa2191
    April 26, 2012

    Anyone care to wonder what the coverage would have been like had Journatic covered the Watergate break-in? Probably one 200-word story. for example:

    WASHINGTON — A break-in and burglary occurred Xxxxxxday at the Watergate Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C.

    Police say that the room suffered a moderate amount of damage, but the hotel guest reported that several files had been taken.

    “We’re not sure exactly what happened here, but we are treating this as a priority case,” said a spokesman for the District of Columbia Police Department, who would only comment on condition of anonymity. “Apparently the burglars were after records of some type.”

    There were no injuries. The investigation is continuing. 

    THAT would have been the extent of the Watergate coverage, as provided by Journatic.

    I’m not disparting the Journatic staffers. I’m sure they’re working their asses off. But if this is journalism, then jelly beans are health food.

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