Does the New TribLocal Deserve Time Out Chicago’s Trash Talk?

TribLocal under new operator Journatic is “a worthless piece of garbage.” That was the verdict of veteran Chicago media critic Robert Feder in his May 26 blog in Chicago Time Out. Feder, who regularly lambastes what he sees as poor performance by newspapers, TV stations and other Chicago media, wrote on May 28:

“I used to look forward to receiving TribLocal, the weekly hyperlocal news insert in my Chicago Tribune. But now it’s become a worthless piece of garbage….I’ve seen nothing in this new rag but press releases, computer-generated junk and, of course, ads. Major news stories in my suburb are completely ignored. What passes for a police blotter is a long list of street names, one- or two-word descriptions, and a time and date.)…. it’s worse than an embarrassment. It’s a fraud.”

Feder has written about Chicago media for years — he started at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1980 — so what he says deserves attention. But his judgment about the new TribLocal is more diatribe than critique.

I’ve looked at what Journatic has produced at TribLocal. It’s only editing the print version of the Chicago Tribune-owned suburban hyperlocal network so far, and it’s not worthless garbage.

Here’s one story from the print edition of the Algonquin-Crystal Lake-McHenry Trib Local (see image above).

This piece isn’t garbage, and it’s nowhere near being a press release. Incredibly, Metra, the metropolitan rail service board under the Chicago Regional Transportation Authority, can’t afford to count its passengers per station stop. So TribLocal, showing admirable enterprise, did its own analysis to determine there was an uptick in passengers in its community coverage area.

Here’s another piece, an interview with a local restaurateur who’s had financial troubles surviving (see image at left).

You don’t see such frank pieces in  many community or even bigger local publications. Again, TribLocal showed enterprise.

Puzzled why he was so totally trashing what Journatic was doing with TribLocal, I asked Feder if he had any new thoughts about the subject. His reply: “Compared with the former TribLocal I used to get, the new Journatic version still sucks.”

Once again, he didn’t provide any examples. It was just more trash talk.

Journatic CEO Brian Timpone said he respects Feder as a longtime, knowledgeable observer of the busy, always rapidly changing Chicago media scene. So he chose his words carefully in responding to what Feder says about TribLocal under Journatic. “I’ve read Feder for years,” Timpone said. “I have great respect for his media criticism. He’s a legend. I would call what he said unfortunate. TribLocal used to publish press releases intact. We abolished that practice. We’re getting calls from newspapers around the country, and they want to do what we’re doing.”

What happens to TribLocal under Journatic needs careful analysis because Journatic is one of the most serious disrupters in the local news media, particularly the digital space, where old and new media are pouring their resources in the pursuit of billions of dollars of ad revenue.

If the Journatic model, which depends much more on repurposing data than relying on structurally inefficient scribblers, succeeds in Chicago, I’m sure we’ll see it replicated in many more major markets.

Despite all the flag planting locally, there isn’t yet a widely accepted, much less proven, model for hyperlocal journalism. Patch is in close to 900 communities, but it’s losing many millions of dollars yearly with its staff-heavy operations (although AOL CEO Tim Armstrong forecasts the service will be profitable by 2014).

Much more successful is an even bigger but more informally structured operation — the 1,900 sites powered by DataSphere and owned by TV stations. Middleman Datasphere provides the long-distance sales telephone banks for cold calling local merchants and the technology, while the stations provide the news and other information, most of it police reports and press releases. This conglomeration of sites includes multiple owners, among them Gannett. It’s not a one-owner network, but the sites look and read like one.

By the end of 2012, I predict that Journatic, Patch and Datasphere will be, or close to, dominating the digital scene in a majority of the 6,500 communities of at least 5,000 population in the 50 states. They are the Big 3. There are, to be sure, strong independent sites, but they don’t number more than 50. The Big 3 are pushing toward 3,000 sites nationally, albeit some of them overlapping in some markets. So what happens to TribLocal deserves close attention. But invective is no substitute for analysis, even if it’s coming from the blog of a longtime, well-placed Chicago media critic. The trash talk should be put in a Hefty and dumped.

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.

  1. Robert Feder
    June 28, 2012

    If you had asked me for examples I’d have given them to you, Tom. Plenty of them. I even offered to discuss the matter with you, but you did not respond. Your only questions were whether I based my opinion on the Highland Park edition and whether I stood by what I had written. I answered both directly. I also told you I had spoken with current and former employees before writing my piece —  a fact you chose to ignore. And in the excerpt you ran of my original item, you deleted several parts, including the sentence about inadequate staffing levels and the context of my comment directed at Tribune editor Gerry Kern. As the saying goes, I saw what you did there.

  2. WhoNeedsNews
    June 28, 2012

    Sorry, but Feder is right. Journatic IS producing crap for  TribLocal. Solid examples abound in the Oak Lawn section it produces online for the Trib.  “It’s going to heat up fast”, the lead story announces. Only in Oak Lawn? Is this “hyperlocal”? Nice obit on Richard Crowe, but it’s also cribbed from the Trib, and over two weeks old. Nothing interesting has happened in Oak Lawn since? But wait – Journatic has those super-advanced algorithms to bring you news at stunning speed. Just look at the “lowest gas prices in Oak Lawn” blurb. Oh wait, that’s over three weeks old. Good thing gas prices haven’t changed since then. At least they cover the Bridgeview taxpayer controversy extensively. Wait… this isn’t Bridgeview?

  3. June 28, 2012

    Could you at least get your facts right? Journatic is doing the online content too, as Timpone himself has said in a previous comment to Romenesko.

  4. TomGrubisich
    June 29, 2012

    It’s a hybrid print-digital process, with Journatic
    successively producing more stories for more communities. When I wrote the
    column — in mid-June — Journatic was midway in the transition. The
    “TribLocal” domain has disappeared and been absorbed into 
    But more important than this operational detail is what the reader is getting
    — more news about his/her community and with more variety. There’s no question
    that Journatic is occasionally tripping over itself. That’s what happens when you
    quadruple the number of stories that used to be generated by TribLocal, and you
    do it in a couple of months.

  5. June 29, 2012

    Tom, thanks for the nice words. One correction though. TribLocal NEVER published press releases or any other User generated content without editing and fact checking. The new TribLocal will evolve, improve and grow as the Journatic partnership grows. In the 5 years we have been around we grew from nothing to profitable and respected. The transition has been rapid and we are learning every day. It will NOT be the same paper it was. Rob Feder liked that paper and many others did as well. We don’t want to disappoint them and I hope in months and years to come they will come to appreciate the new TribLocal the same way. Stay Tuned!
    Kyle Leonard/TribLocal Managing Editor Print

  6. WarDepartment
    July 2, 2012

    The new version of  TribLocal Evanston is a huge disappointment in terms of content and design.  It used to offer an attractive mix of local enterprise reporting and a usually well-chosen selection of contributed pieces from community groups who posted news and events in the online edition.  “Garbage”  is too mild a word for what it’s become.  I don’t need  filipeons  harvesting online local data to be fed back to me as “news.”  Everything about this operation and its editorial product  screams “cheap.”  Journatic ought to be called Journemetic because it induces  vomiting.

  7. Brian Timpone
    July 4, 2012

    I’ve decided to post this with a bogus byline, since it shouldn’t really matter whose name I put on it, right? Does anyone else find it funny that the Trib, according to Kyle Leonard, fact-checked material sent in by users… but not the content for which it paid Journatic?

  8. Sandra
    July 23, 2012

    As a small business person it was really nice to be able to post events happening in our community, photos of local events and it’s unfortunate that it’s gone now.

    1. July 23, 2012

      Sandra, you have other avenues for doing that.  Most importantly, you should do them on your own. On your own website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, etc. Be your own promoter. That’s the way it should be anyway.

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