10 Months After Furor, Hyperlocal News Service Journatic Presses On

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journaticIn April of 2012, Journatic, the for-hire community news shop, was a hot property in the hyperlocal industry. The company had struck a deal with the Chicago Tribune that put it in charge of producing all editorial content for the paper’s print and digital TribLocal network covering 78 communities in sprawling “Chicagoland.” That wasn’t all. Tribune Co. became a minority investor in privately owned Journatic, and announced that the two companies would have a “significant operating relationship going forward.”

But less than three months later, this joined-at-the-hip partnership was yanked apart. Following a report on the public radio broadcast “This American Life” about some questionable Journatic practices, Tribune suspended all work by the company for what it called “serious breaches of the Tribune’s journalistic standards,” citing fake bylines and one case of plagiarism, and ordered a full-scale review of Journatic’s journalism.

In December, the Trib resumed its relationship with Journatic — but is no longer quite joined-at-the-hip. The paper said Journatic would resume compiling events and other information listings for TribLocal — the network of community sites —but the Trib would continue to produce all “reported” stories, which it had been doing since the July suspension of Journatic.

To cut through the blare of heated opinions and accusations that have surrounded the Journatic story and find out what was actually happening, I went to  to the shop’s new vice president of media services and former Tribune managing editor for news, Hanke Gratteau, for answers:

Why did you join Journatic?
Hanke GratteauI joined Journatic in December, 2012, as the Tribune announced it was resuming services with Journatic following their internal review of Journatic’s work. That review confirmed that there were no major issues beyond those raised last summer when work was suspended.

A mutual friend recommended me to Journatic CEO Brian Timpone, and he approached me about coming aboard. I was impressed with his vision and passion and agreed to come aboard. I report directly to Brian. The Tribune is our client, and I work with various execs and editors there collaboratively.

Did you provide any assistance to longtime former Trib editor Randy Weissman, whom the Trib appointed to lead a “rigorous review of editorial procedures, policies and practices of Journatic to determine if and how it can meet Chicago Tribune standards?” Did you agree with the findings of that review?
When I came aboard, most of the changes in editorial policies and practices recommended by Randy, such as consistency in including attributions from press releases, had already been made. Randy and I have partnered to address technical and editorial issues to get the TribLocal/Journatic work back on track. If he and his team spot a problem, we work together to devise a solution. Randy believes in our product, and, by working together, we have made great progress.

Once you were on the job at Journatic, how did what you saw of journalistic practices  correspond with what some critics call its history of “fake journalism?”
I have seen nothing but the highest standards of journalism at Journatic, and those kinds of labels are unfair and insulting to our professional, dedicated, and talented staff

Frankly, I spent a good amount of time trying to reconcile what I had read and heard about Journatic and CEO Brian Timpone with my own experiences with the staff and Brian. The truth is that those stories relied on twisted facts and half-truths.

Last summer, there was one instance of plagiarism and that reporter was fired. That was terrible and a breach of trust with our readers and our client. But again, that reporter was fired. Major publications around the nation have faced similar charges, and they have not been pilloried in the way we were. When we received the allegation, we investigated. When the reporter could not produce notes or a tape recording to verify his reporting, he was dismissed. That’s the same procedure that major publications employ.

There were allegations that we use offshore employees to “write stories.” Our offshore employees fill out forms that are then turned by algorithm into copy. That copy is reviewed by editors before it is published.

I think most upsetting to me were the allegations that we were putting journalists out of work by employing technology and using offshore workers. First, there are an awful lot of companies out there using foreign workers — including major newspapers like the Tribune who have been using them for call centers. Secondly, journalists already have been put out of work because the business model is collapsing. In fact, we are putting journalists back to work.

We are not a threat. We have a great idea, and we  can be part of the solution to reinvent local news.  We produce the kind of journalism that readers want news about their local communities, notices of meetings, programs at the library, school lunch menus, business licenses, performances that most journalists in major markets don’t want to do.  We can do that for them, and that can allow their editors to use reporters (that increasingly scarce commodity) more wisely to get the kinds of stories that only reporters on the ground can get.

Even if the Journatic editorial model didn’t lead to “fake journalism,” does it actually work?  To cover an issue in, say, Evanston, does the reporter have to be “on the ground” there? What, in your view, are “best practices” about how editorial staff can and should be deployed in community coverage?
We do not claim that our editorial services alone will replace our client’s own local coverage. We offer a baseline of coverage that captures events and community life that then should be augmented by local reporters.

Journatic produces commodity news that largely has already been eliminated but that readers want. You don’t need to be in Evanston to obtain and publish a story about what’s on their city council meeting agenda. You do need a reporter there to cover issues — and we don’t pretend to do that.

Did you recommend or put in place at Journatic any stated policies and ethics guidelines that brought changes in how stories and other editorial content was collected, edited and reported?
Policies and ethics guidelines were already in place before I got here. I reviewed them and found them to be of the highest standards.

Could the Journatic journalistic model in place today be adopted, and with positive results, by any local media organization that cares about journalistic standards and best practices?
Yes, because our  standards and best practices match or even exceed theirs.

The untapped future of journalism, we are often told,  lies in the local and hyperlocal digital space. Yet, for the most part, the journalism that’s practiced in that space doesn’t differ significantly from what’s practiced in traditional local media, particularly print and broadcast.  Should we see, will we see, a “re-invention” of local journalism in this digital era?
One of the reasons I came to work for Brian is that he is really smart and  shares my belief and passion for local coverage. I am not overstating when I say I believe local journalism is crucial to the health of our democracy. Local is disappearing from the media landscape and that is a threat to our communities. People need to be engaged with their neighbors and their local institutions. It is what keeps communities healthy, safe and economically viable. What does that look like? Keep your eye on us.

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Gratteau deferred a couple of questions to the company’s CEO, Brian Timpone, who told me that while the Chicago Tribune has limited Journatic’s editorial contributions to TribLocal to events and other information listings in the new relationship, Tribune Co. papers elsewhere “subscribe to our community news wire service — news briefs, not just listings.”

I asked Timpone what has happened to his client list since the byline-plagiarism furor of last summer, and whether the company the former TV reporter founded in 2006 was profitable. He replied: “As a rule we don’t talk about our specific clients or what we do for any of them. We also wouldn’t comment on our internal financials other than to say that business is good, demand is high, and we’re more bullish on the future today than we were last summer.”

I asked a spokesperson from Tribune, Maggie Wartik, whether the company might fully resume its original relationship with Journatic, and got this response: “We are utilizing Journatic’s services exactly as we outlined [providing “listings and other informational items submitted or distributed by community organizations, local government and other groups in areas served by TribLocal”] when we re-instated them and plan to continue this practice, as is, indefinitely.”

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.