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Ecosystem impact: hyperlocal publishers share early impressions on the Patch migration

This past year I was at the University of Missouri, where as an RJI fellow I had the privilege to work with a mix of recent J-school graduates, undergrads and masters students.

Inspired by the Block by Block event held last year in Chicago in September, there was a lot of discussion about Patch’s entry into the community site news business. Looking at different areas of innovation emerging in the news market, we found a lot had been written about Patch, but not much had been offered as a synthesis of Patch’s strategy to take their enterprise franchise to the local level. Much of what we found was opinion, editorial or early impressions. There really wasn’t a comprehensive look, or lay of the land, from the perspective of both Patch and local site operators with a Patch operating in the same media market.

Tram Whitehurst on the Patch migration.

Tram Whitehurst, Missouri School of Journalism master’s program graduate, felt this was an important story to cover. The potential impact on nascent nonprofit local news startups emerging as an integral part of the community fabric was hard to assess without a better understanding of what was unfolding. Two pieces were produced: the first a lay of the land based on research and synthesis of available information.

The second piece was intended to present both sides of the story. We’d hoped to conduct interviews with Patch editors and the local established community site publishers in the same community. We also had mapped out a geographic sample, targeting different sections of the country. The informal sample was pulled from east and west coast publishers, and a small slice from the middle.

The local site publishers, about a dozen total, generously provided time for an interview. When approaching Patch editors in the same community, we were informed by the New York Patch office: those editors would not be able to talk with us. There was an offer from Patch’s New York office that we could talk to a regional editor from outside of the sample area of interest, but this did not fit the editorial frame of the project.

We moved forward with the plan, conducting interviews with the local site publishers who were able and willing to speak with us. As we did so, patterns of common experience with different points of view emerged across the editors interviewed. We’ve summarized these themes, and think they may be relevant as publishers plan for the future.

As part of this package, I interviewed Tram, to provide more context around why he felt this was an important story to tell, what he found inside of the story and how local publishers might best play to their strengths in what is likely to become an even more competitive news marketplace. Especially as large content aggregators, or publishers with means, look for new ways to monetize and capitalize on the market disruption in news and reporting.

We’ll offer the content in a couple posts here on the Journalism Accelerator. This content was originally posted in February on the Reynolds Journalism Institute site and can also be found in its entirety there.


The Patch Effect

Will AOL’s hyperlocal experiment across the new media news ecosystem yield peril or profit?
February, 2011
By Tram Whitehurst

Although hyperlocals have been ‘the next big thing’ in journalism for a number of years, practitioners are still searching for a business model that works. So far, they’ve had limited success selling ads. It’s a challenge to try to reach small local businesses that may know nothing about online advertising. There’s also the fact that by their very nature, hyperlocals attract a relatively small audience. But the hyperlocal market also happens to be a potentially lucrative source of untapped advertising revenue. Some estimates put the figure at close to $100 billion, based on the fact that many local businesses have yet to take their ad dollars online. The challenge remains finding a sustainable business model to capitalize on such an opportunity. AOL thinks Patch is the answer.

About the Author

Tram Whitehurst covers local government, health care and energy for the Jackson Hole News&Guide in Jackson, Wyo. He received his Master’s degree in May 2010 from the Missouri School of Journalism, where he studied news reporting and writing. In between the two, he worked as an assistant on Lisa Skube’s Journalism Accelerator project at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

AOL CEO Tim Armstrong helped found Patch in 2007 while he was still working at Google. AOL acquired Patch in 2009 for about $7 million. Armstrong said that he got the idea for Patch when he went looking for event listings in his own Connecticut community and couldn’t find what he needed. Armstrong’s stated goal for Patch directly addresses that problem: “To become nothing short of the most useful source of news and information for small communities online.” Patch is looking to create a new, sustainable model for hyperlocal online community news.

AOL announced last March that it would be investing $50 million in Patch in 2010 and adding hundreds of sites. Since that time Patch has expanded rapidly, increasing the number of sites from about 30 to more than 700 in 19 states, and hiring hundreds of journalists to fill the newly-created positions. The company boasts it is the largest hirer of full-time journalists in the U.S.

What the hyperlocals are saying
Patch is an explicit disruption to the world of journalism. With its deep pockets and aggressive plan for expansion, it has shaken up the status quo and forced others to take notice.

Although it is a story national in scope, it is in large part playing out on the local level. And some of the people with the best view of what’s going on — and the most at stake — are the editors of grassroots hyperlocal news sites. This section therefore focuses on what they have to say. Some editors interviewed here live in and cover small towns and others large counties. Some have no journalism experience and others are professional reporters with decades on the job. They rely on advertisers, donations and their own bank accounts. What unites them all is that they have a passion for what they do and they have plenty to say about the state of hyperlocal news in their communities.

Note: Two editors were granted anonymity. One operates his site anonymously and the other requested not to be named for competitive reasons.

Unique voices
Hyperlocal sites are often a reflection of their founder’s personality and passion. Many editors consider their unique voice and approach as central to their work, and are proud of what they’ve done to attract and engage members of the community.

“Traditional local news typically attracts those already involved and aware of community affairs, and when you get to the hyperlocal level of zoning decisions and town councils, it’s even a smaller universe. I made the decision to use humor to engage new people in what’s going on…We’ve been described as the ‘Daily Show’ of hyperlocal news…Our readers include the perennially engaged, but based on our user comments we also attract a younger crowd that’s not necessarily plugged in to more traditional news…People come to the site to have fun and learn about the issues.” – Editor, Virginia

“We have three principal contributors who work on the site for free. There are also 8-12 retired professionals or freelancers who contribute, and two retired Free Press copy editors who read everything…We have a lot of people with journalism experience, so the quality is very high.” – Ben Burns, Grosse Pointe Today

“The mission of our site is to make people more aware of the issues and entice them into conversation…I’ll sprinkle in some fun on the site with things like community event photos and faux news…We get several hundred comments per month – pretty good for a town of 15,000…There are high expectations of civility on the blog. There’s a no sarcasm rule for commenters, and they must use people’s first name and address them directly in their comments…We champion the local civic blogosphere…We have more blogs per capita than any place in the Western hemisphere.” – Griff Wigley, Locally Grown Northfield

“Newspapers and others have tried to do what we do to build community online and until recently have not been successful…Our goal is to offer everything you could want to know about the community…We have links, a community calendar, a space for blogs, and we do news coverage… SkokieNet is a great resource and it builds community.” – Frances Roehm, SkokieNet

“The community is relatively polarized over development issues. The perception is that we’re more sympathetic to environmental issues, and the weekly is more sympathetic to development…But we try to do hard news reporting down the middle.” – Editor, California

Original content by Tram Whitehurst and reposted with permission from the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Check back next week for the next section on the Patch Effect:

  • No news is bad news
  • Soft-hitting news
  • Welcome to the blogosphere
  • Friends or enemies
  • Competitive advantages
  • Game plan
  • Show me the money
  • Where from here?

Further Reading:

AOL bets on hyperlocal news, finding progress where many have failed
Verne G. Copytoff
January 16, 2011
New York Times

You’ve got news. Can Tim Armstrong save AOL?
Ken Auletta
January 24, 2011
The New Yorker

Patch’s editor-in-chief answers all questions, evil or otherwise
Robert Hernandez
November 14, 2010
The Online Journalism Review

Patch founder fields tough questions
Lauren Slavin
October 30, 2010
Online News Association

So what do you do, Brian Farnham, editor-in-chief, Patch
Ryan Derousseau
November 10, 2010

AOL’s Patch aims to quintuple in size by year-end
Joseph Tartakoff
August 17, 2010
The Guardian

Will AOL’s Patch kill your local newspaper?
Erik Hayden
August 18, 2010
The Atlantic Wire

On the media: clicks with veteran California journalists
James Rainey
December 18, 2010
Los Angeles Times

How to beat AOL’s Patch
Howard Owens
October 1, 2010
Howard Owen’s Blog

Patch not-so-secret plan
Mel Taylor
October 25, 2010
Mel Taylor Media