Journatic’s ‘Darth Vader’ Takes Lightsaber to TribLocal

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The initial reaction to Journatic taking over the TribLocal network of community sites in metro Chicago was almost totally negative. Brickbat after brickbat was hurled at Journatic in comments on Street Fight’s article. But then the full-throttled criticism suddenly stopped. There were even half-way compliments.

The biggest reason for this letting up, I think, was Journatic’s quick distribution (including to critics) of its pilot production of a new TribLocal site — for Flossmoor (pop. 9,464), a multicultural, upper-middle-class village in Cook County south of Chicago, and the village of Homewood (pop. 20,094), its largely white, middle-class neighbor. For any user of TribLocal, the change was like stepping out of your father’s Oldsmobile (when they were still being made) and into an off-the-showroom-floor, 180-hp, 2.4-liter, True Blue Dodge Dart and going for a spin on scenic Lincoln Highway. (The pilot was only for the print version. The changes in content and design the pilot features will be gradually added to the digital version of TribLocal as Journatic’s takeover of operations gains momentum.)

I do not exaggerate. Compare Journatic’s Homewood-Flossmoor to the conventionally produced Homewood-Flossmoor site on  TribLocal. The latter is digital journalism from the 20th century. There’s lots of news there, but too little of it captures the character of Flossmoor and of Homewood. And it’s presented in a boring way, with too many stories on the homepage, almost all of them promoted in the same size. What’s most important, most interesting on the site? You have to figure it out yourself, if you haven’t already clicked away. When GM shut down production of Oldsmobile, did they send the design team to TribLocal?

Brian Timpone, the founder and CEO of Journatic, has been described as the “Darth Vader” of community journalism.  He actually is a destroyer, and it’s a good thing because community journalism needs entrepreneurs who will clean out the stubbornly resistant vestiges of 20th century “best practices.”

The worst best practice is depending on one reporter to cover the entire community. The 20-something reporter is expected to go to every “important” local government and school board meeting — some of which drone on for four, five or more hours —  rewrite every press release and, when he or she is not otherwise busy, roam the streets and shopping centers looking for stories in a community that he or she was parachuted into a few months previously. If the reporter has to stay home sick or wears out his or her ballpoint pen, the site  goes on defcon alert.

The real problem, though, is that even when the reporter is on the scene, he or she will miss most of what’s important or interesting about the community. It’s not that the reporter is lazy — most work non-stop. It’s that too much of community journalism is built on an outdated model. Under that model, the one reporter is the Ptolemaic center of the news-gathering universe. News is only what the reporter succeeds in scribbling in his or her notebook or rewriting from press releases.

But all kinds of significant and interesting news is embedded in the terabytes and petabytes of data that stream through cyberspace, and whiz right past the  reporter.

Journatic captures a good chunk of that data and, through its software and algorithms and editors and writers, presents it in ways that can give revealing glimpses of a community’s character. It’s true that Journatic pays some of its editors and writers $10 and $12 an hour. I say: so what? Those staffers are assigned to very basic duties that involve repurposing data. Besides, they are learning the ins and outs of data journalism which they can port to new, higher-paid jobs at Journatic or to other digital publications that need to enter the 21st-century of news gathering.

Journatic brought some fascinating nuggets of data journalism to its pilot Flossmoor-Homewood site. I liked its chronicle of achievements by local high school athletes at the college level. It would be almost impossible for the most diligent scribbler to come up with this where-are-they-now-and-what-are-they-doing? information. The real estate section was loaded with useful information and stories that every homeowner would devour.

Timpone told me he realizes that Journatic’s takeover of TribLocal is a work in progress. “We’ll be doing a lot of things we haven’t done before” at other publications already using the service, he said. One thing Journatic should consider is expanding the number of news topics that get covered by its data wrangling — health and wellness is an obvious add-on — and invite the community to form on-site groups where articles and videos covering the topics can be self-published without gate keepers.

Still, Timpone is on the right track in repurposing data to develop new kinds of news. “There’s not a lot news gathering going on at the local level, he  says. “Twitter chatter is not news gathering.”

Warming up, he continues: “Mundelein” – a Cook County suburb – “is not Libertyville, it’s not Highland Park. It’s 31,000 people who make a lot of news that’s exciting or relevant about Mundelein. We want to capture that news and deliver it to the people of Mundelein.”

I say, good for this former Duluth, Minn., beat reporter.

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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