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By Dan Haley
Nobody cares about Journatic, a colleague said to me Monday. Then he allowed that maybe 200 people in all of Chicago, mainly local news folks, cared about Journatic. I say you add in the devoted Tribune haters and very quickly you're over a thousand people who care about Journatic.
What, you ask, is Journatic? It is the latest embarrassment for the Trib which just recently turned over the keys to its TribLocal gambit — both online and in print — to a company founded by River Forester Brian Timpone. Even worse, when it made its TribLocal deal with Journatic, the Trib bought a chunk of the company.
Timpone's conceit was that he could do local news better and cheaper than the old-line media with its "broken model" of locally-based reporters who actually went out and reported news. Well, it turns out that Timpone was right about the cheaper part. He focused on data-driven reporting. That's a method of scouring public data — police reports, property transfers, high school basketball results, LinkedIn pages, whatever — and then finding some inexpensive way to put a few words around the factoids.
This results in coverage such as last week's page one bombshell in the local version of TribLocal that Oak Park and River Forest had, between them, about 100 practicing dentists. Stretched across two inside pages, this remarkable report was produced, the story told us, by "the TribLocal Research Team."
Who might this crack team be? There were some reporters and copy editors on this continent. There were fancy software programs that could spin out some sports clichés to wrap around a box score. But as NPR's "This American Life" reported 10 days ago, mainly there were people in the Philippines being paid 35 cents a story to gin up a few paragraphs for a local story for the Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, and a lot of other notable newspapers.
Since the radio report scalded Journatic, more actual reporting has taken place and, not surprisingly, the other key to the efficiency of the high volume, half-buck per story model was to violate every rule of journalism. So we've got faked bylines (Hello, Amy Anderson), plagiarism and the always frowned-on journalism practice of just making stuff up.
This has led the Trib to dump Journatic "indefinitely" and to promise that, going forward, TribLocal would be written by Trib reporters and "trusted freelancers." Old school, but hey, it just might work.
I know this sounds like gloating, but I don't mean to. We are in a moment of "disruptive chaos" in the news business, as the smart folks like to call it. The old model isn't going to get us through, and certainly here at Wednesday Journal we have many challenges. The future is uncertain and change — digital first news reporting, pushing content through social media and e-mail, engaging readers on social media, more video, unique print content, reader-submitted pictures and content, live comment boards, and, yes, data-based reporting — well the change can't come fast enough.
But there is something at the core of what we do that is unchanging. And that's what Journatic's model can't imagine. It is what a once-great company like the Chicago Tribune lost track of in trying to pump up the volume and squeeze the unit cost of its community coverage.
A good local story is about connection. Connections exist between people. Connections come with a sense of place. Connections come with context. It's great that there are 100 dentists in Oak Park and River Forest. But tell me one great story about one dentist who has done something extraordinary. That's community journalism.