NEW YORK, NEW YORK —In February 2009, South Orange, Maplewood, and Milburn-Short Hills, three small but relatively affluent New Jersey communities, became the first towns to host a local Patch site, launching a network that has since grown to include more than 860 sites in twenty-two states and Washington, D.C. Because of its rapid expansion and the accompanying media scrutiny, Patch has played a central role in the conversation about the potential and the pitfalls of “hyperlocal” journalism.
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Former Google executive Tim Armstrong co-founded and financed the company in 2007 with Jon Brod, who had experience in investment firms and search-engine companies. Then, shortly after Armstrong became CEO of AOL in 2009, AOL acquired Patch, bringing Brod with it. Since the purchase, AOL has invested significantly in expanding the network’s reach and impact. In 2010, Patch president Warren Webster caught the news industry’s attention when he announced that the company would be investing $50 million to quickly multiply the number of Patch sites across the country, from about 100 to more than 500. The following year, analysts estimated that AOL was spending as much as $160 million annually to run the network.
Janine Iamunno, Patch’s vice president of communications, says the company now employs over a thousand editors, and several hundred sales staffers. Positions are located both in the “field” where local sites operate and at the company’s headquarters in New York City. Iamunno declined to say exactly how many paid and unpaid journalists the company currently oversees, but a recent press release stated that the network has “over 13,000 bloggers contributing content.”
Patch’s regional editors oversee groups of sites divided by geographic area, and one full-time editor runs each local site. Each town’s Patch page has the same colorful, friendly-looking format. It’s big on pictures, and has a relatively large typeface. Postings from event calendars can get equal billing with news updates and contributors’ opinion columns. Editors are encouraged by Patch HQ to post a certain number of stories per day and week, a certain number of photo slideshows and videos, and so on (the exact numbers have changed over time, along with the company’s strategy). As such, news posts tend to be brief but frequent. Freelancers, volunteer bloggers, and college students participating in the “PatchU” training program help to fill in the gaps. Stories will often end with questions that will encourage readers to comment on the story or send ideas for future pieces.
Katie Ryan O’Connor, a senior regional editor who oversees six regions of sites in New York’s Hudson Valley and Connecticut, explains that Patch sites don’t necessarily follow a traditional newsroom’s method of reporting and posting. More important than getting the story first, she says, is finding the most engaging way of presenting the story. “There’s always going to be someone bigger or faster who may get there before you, but that doesn’t mean that you’ve lost the story,” says O’Connor. The key is to take one scoop and facilitate the community’s conversation online–in reader comments, on contributors’ blog posts, and in follow-up articles.
O’Connor’s favorite example is a small story from last spring that sparked a big reaction. A short item first appeared in the Hartford Courant, about a high school student who was suspended and forbidden to attend his prom because he asked his date to the dance by writing a message with masking tape on the side of their school. Leah Salomoni (editor of the Shelton, Connecticut Patch) wasn’t first with the story, but she framed it in a way that invited reader debate, and then followed up with a surprising number of videos and story updates. A search for the student’s name on the Shelton Patch yields twenty-eight separate posts, some with hundreds of comments. The same search on the Hartford Courant‘s website comes up empty. Perhaps this is because the Courant‘s editors didn’t think it was big news, and perhaps they are right. But to Patch readers, the story was a hit. O’Connor says the story “drew an enormous amount of traffic to Patch.” Of the Courant‘s initial scoop, she says, “They totally had it first, but we had the conversation.”
Having the conversation, of course, means getting the clicks. In towns that haven’t had dedicated local news organizations for a long time, Patch sites are working hard to inform their audiences and shape the towns’ online identities; but even where traditional news outlets still exist, Patch editors find a way to supplement those outlets’ news coverage in ways that attract and engage readers. Traffic to individual Patch sites varies, but according to comScore, the Patch network overall tripled its UV traffic in 2011, and has surpassed 10 million unique views per month. Patch does not publicly disclose traffic numbers for individual sites, but as a CNN piece pointed out in February, 10 million unique monthly views divided into the large number of Patch sites equals an average of less than 12,000 unique monthly views per site.
From what former Patch editor Sean Roach related of his experiences in CJR’s March/April issue, there seems to be a perpetual work-in-progress, “see what sticks” attitude among the higher-ups at Patch. One particular focal point for experimentation–and tension–is the question of how much responsibility each local editor has to run his or her site the way he or she likes, versus what types of content-related mandates should be placed on each site from above (mandates that can range from quantitative quotas to requirements for business-minded advertorials). Regardless of top-down restrictions (or the loosening thereof) from one point to the next, the quality and relevance of each local site to its audience rests on its individual editor.
Local editors work with specific traffic goals in mind, but are given the leeway to allocate their own freelance budgets, and the freedom to write and assign the types of stories their readers will respond to best. As the network has grown in the past three years, daily and weekly story quotas have shifted, and various gimmicks (Wednesdays are “MomsDays,” etcetera) have been tested.
“The last thing we want at Patch is to have a cookie-cutter approach,” says Katie Ryan O’Connor. “All of our editors are always trying to understand the rhythm of life in their town or their village or their city, because it’s just going to be so different.” A site for a city with a quarter of a million people in it is going to have a different audience and different types of news than a quieter, smaller suburb; even if the two are geographically close to each other. It’s up to the editor to figure out whether kid-friendly arts events or local government policy discussions are going to be a bigger hit with his or her particular audience.
It remains to be seen how the top-down mandates Roach describes will increase or decrease in the near future, and whether they will be more or less onerous for local editors; Patch has just hired The Parenting Group’s Rachel Fishman Fedderson for the new position of chief content officer, which may signal bold network-wide changes to come. A Romenesko post sourced to an unnamed Patch insider put Fedderson’s hire in context with a new strategy that slashes freelance budgets and emphasizes “easy, quick-hitting, cookie-cutter copy.”
The bigger Patch’s footprint becomes, the bigger a target it seems to present to the rest of the industry. News coverage and analysis of the company has been quick to focus on the large amount of money that AOL has invested and continues to invest in Patch, despite meager immediate returns. One widely circulated letter to AOL from one of its shareholders criticized the company for spending too much money on Patch and other web content without generating enough ad revenue to justify the investment. That same shareholder, AOL’s fifth largest, later raised its stake in the company in an apparent attempt to gain control over the company’s board. Another Business Insider piece speculated that Patch lost $100 million in 2011. Patch shot it down; while the company did not release revenue numbers, Iamunno called the analysis “completely off-base,” adding, “once again, the speculation machine has malfunctioned.”
In addition to those who say Patch is bad business for AOL, there is another group of critics who claim that Patch is bad business for local journalism. Last spring, a group of forty-five independently-owned hyperlocal news sites joined a branding campaign called “Authentically Local.” The group presented a not-so-veiled defensive stance against Patch and other fast-growing, well-funded companies that its members said were trying to make a quick buck with local news without understanding the needs of the communities they inhabited.
Debbie Galant, founder of the local New Jersey news site Baristanet, was quoted in a press release as saying, “The Authentically Local campaign seeks to illuminate the difference between authentic local businesses and those that are just cashing in–before every town in America becomes one giant strip mall.” Timothy Rutt, editor and publisher of California’s Altadenablog, added, “Because we’re local, we spend our advertisers’ dollars in the community. We don’t ship it out of town to a big corporation.” One particularly critical post of Rutt’s lists “Four Questions to Ask When Patch Moves Into Your Town.” In her blog post entitled “Schadenfreude Time: Watching AOL Circling the Drain,” Galant responded to reports of AOL’s possible financial difficulties by saying she was ready to “dance on Patch’s grave.” However, in a follow-up post, she apologized, and explained that her “rant” was meant for “AOL’s corporate overlords” rather than Patch’s hard-working local editors. As for Katie Ryan O’Connor’s attitude towards the other sites in Patch towns that may be competing for readers, she maintains that “a rising tide raises all boats,” and says her sites’ only real competition is their own ambitious goals.
At latest count, there were 864 Patch sites, a surprising–some say “Gremlin-like”— multiplication from just a handful of sites in 2009. AOL’s acquisition of The Huffington Post in early 2011 promised a synergy between Patch’s local reporting and HuffPo’s quick content turnover and heavy traffic on the national level, which could be especially beneficial for political reporting during the 2012 election cycle. When asked about his plans for covering the races in 2012 last summer, Patch’s editor-in-chief Brian Farnham told CJR that he wanted to “find the angles that are really local” rather than “chase the buses around with all the hordes of other media.”
Like The Huffington Post, Patch is also starting to expand into non-English language editions. In December 2011, the first three “Patch Latino” bilingual sites launched in three neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The sites feature content-sharing partnerships with AOL Latino news and blogs and HP LatinoVoices, according to a press release. As the network expands into new markets, it will also inevitably contract as some of those markets prove unprofitable. The same month that the three Latino sites launched, three pairs of sites in New Jersey and California merged, as AdAge reported at the time. Iamunno told AdAge that “This was an editorially driven decision,” in reaction to what the local and regional editors felt was too much content overlap between the pairs of sites.
Before Patch, bloggers and journalists had long covered their respective towns’ news on independent websites; some tried to make money doing it, some did it as a hobby. With the introduction of Patch, a new model has emerged–one that Patch argues is scalable and profitable on the national level. It is a model that seems to combine the best parts of an independent local blog (one hard-working local editor who can tailor content to the audience’s preferences) with the best parts of a national media corporation (big editorial and publicity budgets, and the potential for national ad buys). On the flipside, critics would say that Patch also combines the worst parts of both (the energy and stamina it takes for one person run a site alone, plus the quotas and constraints of a big company).
As the Patch network has continued to expand, contract, and change, it has perhaps attracted more scrutiny and debate than any other media organization founded during the past several years. The debate tends to hinge on two central questions, which are only occasionally related: “Is it good journalism?” and “Is it good business?” Each local site is a labor of love, but the network is part of a publicly traded corporation; Patch must therefore appeal to both the court of public opinion and to its stockholders, both industry boardrooms and the local PTA. Regardless of its future, Patch will be known as one of the first and most ambitious attempts to understand the interplay of local journalism and big business in the Internet era. That, and not the perpetual firestorm of gossip and speculation that surrounds it, is why Patch is an experiment to watch.
Patch has launched more than 860 sites in twenty-two states plus the District of Columbia. For more information on the network’s activities on a state by state basis, click one of the following links:
California, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington State, Wisconsin.
City: National HQ in New York, N.Y.