Patch: Good news for neighborhoods, or local-news poacher?

  When a school district repurposes a building, or a sandwich shop takes the political pulse of its neighborhood, is […]

 

When a school district repurposes a building, or a sandwich shop takes the political pulse of its neighborhood, is it news? Sure, especially if you live down the block. But when newspapers downsize, those stories [and journalists to cover them] are often the first to get chopped from the news budget.

That’s where Patch.com comes in. I first became aware of it when, as an editor, I sorted through news feeds for a newly launched, progressive news “aggregator,” called Forward STL. Included in the RSS feeds we were looking at were stories from some of the nearly 100 municipalities in the very balkanized St. Louis, Missouri metro area. The “Brentwood-Maplewood Patch” had a story about a high-school beekeeping project. The “Creve Coeur Patch” showed up with a piece on a school building that had recently been purchased by the local school district.

But this is not a just St. Louis metro story. It’s both smaller and bigger than that. A quick check of Patch.com reveals a service map that shows Patch organizations in about half of the states. By the end of 2010, Patch is reported to have established 400 to 500 outlets, including, for example, the Dunwoody, GA Patch, the Gulfport FL Patch and the Mercer Island, WA Patch.  [In the St. Louis metro area, Patch currently has 24.] A sampling of recent hyperlocal headlines of interest to community residents include:  “Important presentation on Medicare at Senior Center.” “Garden Club heads out on winter walk.” “Wildcats come back to beat Lady Islanders.”

Patch is not the only hyperlocal news organization on the block. Its main competitor is  Examiner.com, which has been in play since 2008. As of October 2010, Examiner.com claimed 19 million unique visitors a month and 54 million page views a month for its local news and reviews.

One big difference is that Patch hires journalists while Examiner.com hires  “examiners.”

Examiners are local experts, usually not journalists, who are passionate about subjects such as pets.  They could post about local dog parks or write restaurant reviews. They are paid based on a complex formula that includes how many page views they get, how many views come from local readers, and how much users are engaged with their postsMost of the examiners do not make a living on their. posts, but view the work as an avocation.

It doesn’t take an MBA [I don’t have one] to figure out that in starting up Patch, somebody very smart saw an on-line niche—and presumably a profitable business model—for “hyper-local” news. It remains to be seen how smart the idea was. Patch is only about one year old.

Patch is owned by AOL [yes, that AOL, the digital dinosaur. Patch represents part of AOL’s effort to morph into a content provider. In 2010, AOL invested $50 million in the venture, and has since reportedly added another $10 milllion.] The idea behind Patch appears to go something like this: Set up a professional, national news organization that breaks down the news community by community and fund it with hyperlocal advertising targeted to a specific geographical segment of a state or city.

Patch executives say that local readers feel under-served.

“People are way more hungry for news at their local level than even we imagined,” said Brian Farnham, editor in chief of Patch. “There’s a lot of good sources for news existing at the national level and beyond, but at the local level the cohesive experience is missing.”

Patch.com is part of the Patch.org Foundation, which was formed in March, 2010, to:

“improve the quality of life in underserved communities across the globe through access to trusted local news and information. The Patch.org Foundation plans to partner with community foundations and other organizations to fund the operation of Patch news and information sites in communities that need them most: inner-city neighborhoods and underserved towns around the world.”

Patch looks for communities with populations ranging from 15,000 to 100,000 that are “underserved by the media and would benefit by having access to local news and information about government, schools and business.”

PaidContent.org reports that:

Patch selects towns to expand to based in part on a 59-variable algorithm that takes into account factors like the average household income of a town, how often citizens vote, and how the local public high school ranks; the company is then talking to local residents to ensure that targeted areas have other less quantifiable characteristics like a “vibrant business community” and “walkable Main Street.” Patch hires one professional reporter to cover each community; each “cluster” of sites also has an ad manager who is the “feet in the street” selling ads.

Patch is run by an editorial board, based in New York City, with impressive credentials in journalism and the news business. The organization hires local reporters who have journalism experience, too. Each local editor — who essentially acts as reporter, editor, aggregator and community-outreach manager — is given a website, a MacBook Pro, a digital camera with video and an iPhone or BlackBerry, and reportedly paid between $38,000 and $45,000 with health benefits. The editors then pay individual freelancers about $50-$100 per item. According to Lostremote.com, “editors are expected to publish at least 3 stories a day and 1 tweet every 4 hours. Also, editors must live in the communities they cover.”

As an outlet for writers looking for work, Patch is great news: it’s already recognized as the nation’s primary hirer of journalists.

Is it profitable? In a PaidContent interview, Patch’s CEO Warren Webster would say only that the sites are exceeding “every metric we set.”

But Patch does say that it costs 1/25th the amount to run a Patch site that it does to operate a daily newspaper in the same town, even when costs associated with publishing a newspaper, like delivery trucks and printing presses, are taken out. Patch has been criticized for overworking its reporters, but Webster says that on average 75 percent of them make more money than they did at previous journalism jobs.

By the way, not everyone loves Patch.  Some see it as the “Walmart of news,” flooding a market with its low-cost reporting, usurping the role of existing, local news media and blogs, and driving them out of business. An article in the Los Angeles Times reports that some long-established neighborhood news providers have nicknamed the company “Poach.”  Others call out Patch for the hypocrisy of running an organization that purports to be hyper-local, while having its headquarters in New York City.

Patch itself is a news story worth following. Right now, it’s expanding rapidly. If it succeeds, it could be good news for some communities. If it fails, we’ll have to read that story somewhere else.


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Gloria Shur Bilchik

About Gloria Shur Bilchik

Gloria Shur Bilchik is a freelance writer and community volunteer in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the editor of Occasional Planet. She views the preservation of progressive values as vital to making the US a humane, livable place for her children and grandchildren.