On Thursday, CEO Brian Timpone sent me a pdf of the first TribLocal print product with Journatic's stamp on it—the new TribLocal covering Homewood-Flossmoor. You can scroll through the paper minus the ads—which are too few to suit Timpone, though he's hoping for a lot more down the road.
"If you have seen Triblocal before," he wrote, "you'll note the differences in this edition—they are stark. More community news, exclusively hyperlocal (vs. subregional), more public records, etc. The design is different as well."
Then he called and elaborated. "It's more templated—more predictable, more programmed," he said. "There are more stories, and they're all exclusively local versus subregional. The old TribLocals shared content. The Tribune's not doing that any more. Everything in there is about Homewood or Flossmoor. At least that's the intention."
The sort-of promise not to share content is a big commitment by Timpone, who's got 22 print TribLocals to fill every week—in addition to as many ravenous websites. What's more, there will be no more user-generated copy. Erratic, self-indulgent, but very cheap, user contributions were a TribLocal mainstay when the Tribune rolled out its line of hyperlocal suburban news products in 2007. In this 2008 column I ridiculed the concept. Now it's Timpone's turn to be ridiculed and savaged. My blog post earlier this week reporting that Journatic was now in charge of the TribLocal websites and weekly papers was skeptical enough, and the comments posted in response are excoriating.
Timpone had told me that data was collected and processed for Journatic in the Philippines but the writing is all domestic. Someone promptly posted a Journatic ad she'd spotted on a Filipino website that contradicted him: it said, "We're looking for writers to work on events stories." Journatic wanted Filipino writers "able to commit to 250 pieces/week minimum" at 35 to 40 cents a piece.
What's the Filipino contribution to TribLocal Homewood-Flossmoor? I asked Timpone.
He directed me to the "Homewood-Flossmoor Athlete Tracker" on a back page. It's a list of athletes from the local high school now playing varsity sports in college and their latest accomplishments, however humble—such as, "Has started 26 games this year, hitting .232 with nine RBIs."
"That's the kind of stuff we do in the Philippines, if you want to know," said Timpone. He explained that when Journatic came into Homewood-Flossmoor, it created a database of around "100 newsmaking organizations"—such as women's clubs, churches, schools, and athletes. With the athletes, the schedules of the teams they play for are loaded into the database, and then the teams' websites are patrolled for results. "In the Philippines they collect the data and put it in the system. You need a program to do it.
"The school lunch menus might be formatted by Filipinos," Timpone went on. "Say there are 25 school lunch menus released every Sunday. We have someone gather them and put them in the system. It's not writing. We need people who speak English and are literate. It's a typist job, but people don't want to be called a typist."
He said, "The whole purpose of this is not to replace reporters. It's to clear the way for reporters to do what they uniquely do. No reporter wants to get the honor roll. Our clients have great reporters mired in this process, and we take it away from them. If we can get that stuff done cost effectively, can we clear a path for more enterprise stuff? I think we can.
"I'm good for journalism, Mike. My view of this is that I love newspapers and I love news. I love local journalism. This is the idea I came up with—elbow grease mixed with an algorithm."
Like me, he said, he's a University of Missouri journalism grad. "I'm not some Stanford MBA."