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

Share this:

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.