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For weeks it's been advertising for writers and offering these terms:
Position: Per Piece Writer
Treatment: 1099 Independent Contractor
Time: You choose when you work, but we are looking for day availability
Location: Remote. As a contractor, you choose where you work
Pay: Per-piece, roughly $12/hr. For example $4 stories take about 20 +/- minutes, and $2 stories take about 10 +/- minutes.
Interest in Journatic heated up a month ago when it put together a 20-page mock neighborhood section for the Tribune. That's when executive editor Peter Behle sent employees a notice that said in part, "Reporters will be sniffing around—and they are not authorized to talk with anyone about Journatic under any circumstances. Better yet, if you receive a reporter inquiry and tell us about it (without responding), we'll pay you a $50 bonus."
That's good money for dropping a dime. A Journatic writer would have to write 13 stories to earn as much, and that's even if they were the important $4 stories.
But now that word is out Journatic's less guarded, and I just got off the phone with Brian Timpone, the CEO. "It's important people see this as positive," he told me. "I know they won't. They're laying people off." TribLocal was founded in 2007 to provide suburban communities with hyperlocal online news and a weekly print edition. It employs 40 staffers and most will now lose their jobs, according to the Monday afternoon story by the Tribune's Robert Channick. If TribLocal was an exercise in cutting-edge hyperlocal journalism, Journatic has honed the edge to an even finer point. "We're more efficient because we're really good at collecting data," Timpone said.
Brad Moore, the Tribune's vice president of targeted media and business development, told Channick that TribLocal has made money, but Channick went on to say that Moore "is looking to improve digital penetration from about 25 percent to more than 50 percent with enhanced local content. Mining its vast data resources, Journatic content will include real estate transactions, property tax logs, new business applications, crime blotter feeds, prep scores, test scores from schools, even things like marathon results."
"We are a pro-journalism, pro-content, pro-local, pro-original company," said Timpone. "There's no company like us." He mentioned algorithms being used in the data collection, but he also mentioned elbow grease. He said Tribune Tower is full of superior journalists "who don't make it to this point in their careers to go get the honor roll." But Journatic will get the honor roll and publish it. "It's a newsgathering job more than it is a reporting job," he said—the difference in his mind being that reporters talk to people and Journatic endlessly sucks up and massages data. "We're really good at collecting data," he said.
Timpone and the other founders of Journatic got their feet wet with real estate transactions, which in 2006 they turned into little narratives posted on their site blockshopper.com. The controversial site boasts, "We’re one part community newspaper, one part ultimate hyper-local real estate research tool. Read our daily news stories and learn who’s buying and who’s selling in your neighborhood."
"Not only can you access what your neighbor’s house sold for," says this 2009 look at BlockShopper that I found at aimgroup.com, "you can see who’s actually moving in (or out), along with tantalizing details such as what your new neighbor does for a living and how much he or she earns."
Curious about how well it does that, a few weeks ago I asked BlockShopper for information on houses I knew something about, including the financial status of their owners. The information I got back was bizarrely wrong just often enough to keep me from having any faith in anything the site told me. "They're county records," said Timpone, laying the responsibility elsewhere. But the larger problem, in the view of BlockShopper critics, is that the information it scrapes together from various public databases collectively amounts to an invasion of privacy.
Here's a lamentation from a blog where BlockShopper critics gathered to nurse their hurts: "I, too, am horrified to learn that not only have they advertised my property, but also list our full names along with an aerial photo of the exact location of our property. This is a clear danger of not just identity theft, but to our physical health and well-being."
Timpone offered the aimgroup.com writer a response to this line of criticism. “If people are promoting themselves on the Web, they’ll be on BlockShopper,” said Timpone. “If you don’t want to be on BlockShopper, don’t promote yourself on the Web."
That hyperlocal news offered by Blockshopper about local real estate doings requires someone to write it. Aimgroup.com reported that Blockshopper "has found a super low cost-solution: the stories are all written in the Philippines."
But Timpone says that isn't accurate. Data is collected and processed in the Philippines, but the writing, of necessity, goes on back home. "We hire all levels of writers," he told me. "At the lower end, they aren't writing an end to end story like a traditional newspaper reporter would. At the high end, they're writing feature stories like you'd read in a major metro paper."
The Tribune deal is a huge step forward. Journatic has what Timpone calls a "virtual workforce" of 40 employees, half of them in Chicago. But he's adding 40 more jobs in Chicago. In addition there are "hundreds" of freelancers.
Journatic even has its own freedom of information group he said. How big? I wondered. About five people, he said.