In late April, a six-year-old digital startup called Journatic struck a deal with a 165-year-old newspaper company to take over its online community news operations. When the deal was reported on hyperlocal watchdog site Street Fight, commenters hit the fan.

One in particular, named “Fedge”, pretty much summed up the outrage, saying simply: “So much for integrity in journalism.”

Welcome to Hyperlocalville, Journatic!

What raised so many hackles was that Journatic, a Chicago-based company founded in 2006, is doing journalism on the cheap. The deal with Tribune Company was to take over its five-year old TribLocal operations, which were the beleaguered media conglomerate’s attempt to secure a local-news beachhead in its backyard. TribLocal was staffed with expensive, full-time Trib reporters and editors, but Journatic promises efficiencies around data-driven “process news”—essentially collectible commodity information like police blotters—that can be more cheaply assembled by low-cost assembly-line editors. Outsourcing in the Philippines is even part of the formula.

Speaking as someone who was the founding editor of a large, disruptive hyperlocal startup, I wasn’t exactly surprised by the allergic reaction Journatic induced. Anything bigger than a mom-and-pop that approaches the hyperlocal media space is subject to a frisking by the well-meaning but tightly wound security forces of two venerable gated communities: My Backyard and the Fourth Estate. Local citizens and legacy publications feel that the efficiencies of centralized media companies are nice, but they can’t do justice to the uniqueness of their community. Neither party trusts corporate anything to make the right, principled decisions when push comes to profit.

How grounded are these anxieties when it comes to Journatic? Let’s take a look at what we know of the now 40-person firm (plus freelancers) and its intentions regarding the Tribune and its TribLocal’d Chicago ‘burbs.

Journatic is privately held, but founders are trying to raise venture capital, including an undisclosed investment that was part of the Tribune deal. The company’s founder and CEO, Brian Timpone, has pretty solid journalism, entrepreneurial, and Chicagoland bona fides. In a recent interview, Timpone said that his company’s mission is to “help newsrooms better manage their editorial resources … [because] really talented news reporters should spend their time leveraging their skills, not gathering youth sports scores and honor rolls and police blotters.”

On the face of it, that doesn’t exactly reconcile with the fact that Tribune cut around 20 full-time staffers—many of them reporters—as they were signing the papers with Journatic. But the central logic does hold: certain kinds of local news are crying out to be more efficiently processed and packaged, like so many sardines, freeing up skilled whalers to hunt leviathans.

At this point, unfortunately, it’s far too early to judge Journatic on these claims. Its prior work included running a site called BlockShopper.com, which takes available public real-estate data and produces news stories out of it. (Think headlines like, “Local lawyer John Smith Purchases 2BRM Condo for $1.3M.”) That practice pissed off all kinds of privacy-minded folks, but also led to distribution deals with a number of major newspaper chains, including Hearst.

If you look at some of the TribLocal sites that Journatic has begun with in this new partnership (it’s phasing in to take over all 90ish over time), you won’t be blown away. Take the Homewood/Flossmoor site. I’m not from these communities, so I can’t fully judge the relevancy of the content to residents. But I can tell you that a headline on the homepage should not suffer a glaring, html-induced typo like “Five Questions with !…” for over 12 hours (which happened on the day I wrote this piece). Nor should any story, at any level—ever—feature a lede like, “They say practice makes perfect…” even if it’s about a high school tennis star’s perfect season.

While it’s fair to point out these or any other flaws and judge the current Journatic product based on them, what isn’t useful is citing them as proof of a fatal approach or mustache-twirling exploitative intent. At least not yet. Journatic’s data-driven, cost-effective model may be off-base, but the attempt is a very good thing for everyone who cares about this space, since the hyperlocal market hasn’t yet produced a perfect “you got your chocolate in my peanut butter” admixture.

At Patch, we came to the conclusion that the recipe for community news is equal parts people and platforms. You need some journalism pros, you definitely need social components and tons of engaged active users, and you need technology — not for its own sake, but to amplify, accelerate, and elevate what your people produce. (I’m leaving aside the question of local advertisers and commerce here to focus on content.)

What the right balance of all those ingredients is… well, hyperlocal scientists are still swirling beakers to find out. We felt we were on the right path at Patch, where the main ingredient is full-time, professional editors who live and work locally. Nothing replaces the trust, good will, and accruable local knowledge you get from embedding people in the communities they cover.

Speaking of people, I guarantee for all their algorithms and data-scraping, the braintrust at Journatic doesn’t think it can do compelling content without talented human beings. In fact, ironically, what they’re up against—what everyone in hyperlocal is trying to solve—is the basic paradox at the heart of online journalism: when people produce content, they’re expensive; when they consume it, they’re cheap bastards who want everything for free.

Ultimately the journalism that everyone wants can only come from a business model
that works. If Journatic thinks it’s got that model, let them prove it. Or die trying.

Brian Farnham is the former editor in chief of Patch