In Wake of Layoffs, a 4-Step Plan for Patch Success | Street Fight

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In Wake of Layoffs, a 4-Step Plan for Patch Success

9 Comments 22 May 2012 by

The Patch layoffs today are actually a very good thing. Layoffs are always sad for the people affected. But in this case, this is an indication that the management at Patch is getting a better handle on what hyperlocal must look like in order to succeed. While I am not bullish on hyperlocal networks and national chains, I am even less bullish on hyperlocal networks with significant management layers. In fact, here’s my map for the highest chance of success national hyperlocal network — and my quick turnaround program for Patch.

1) Collapse editorial and advertising at the local level. Reporters and editors sell ads. Salespeople report. Heresy, right? Well, there is a long history of publishers and editors wearing the same set of shoes in small town publications. In small places, you simply can’t separate the two effectively. By doubling up duties, this would effectively spread coverage more widely for editorial while also enabling better advertising outreach. Granted, care must be taken regarding conflicts of interest. But frankly, in a small town, does any paper run truly objective restaurant reviews? Or slam the high school musical? The most important news is related to local politics and that can remain relatively inviolate.

2) Get rid of everyone at the regional and national editorial level. You do not need regional editors. Period. They get in the way. Let the local shops run their own business their own way. Save a skeleton team (maybe 2 or 3) to collate and curate the best of the best from all the Patch local blogs. Put that in a national edition, primarily for syndication and social media purposes. Then call it a day. Truly, at the hyperlocal level, layers are a hindrance not a help. Every meeting called by a regional editor is valuable time wasted when a gumshoe local reporter/ad rep could be pounding pavement, meeting community members. The thing Patch front-liners have least of is time — so get rid of anything that does not add value and costs time.

3) Staff up on national ad sales. This may seem counter-intuitive, but my sense is that Patch has not fully realized the network-wide potential of its traffic. When I say ad sales, take the term loosely. As much as possible, this should not be straight ad sales but more what folks are calling “social inclusion” — ways to integrate useful sponsor content or UGC related to sponsor products into the editorial product. Granted, this must be very clearly marked as such. And yes, there is the risk of turning the whole product into a parody of itself. But Patch has a direct link to Main Street of anytown USA. That is valuable, but it needs to be properly addressed, cultivated, marketed and sold.

4) Hire Jonah Peretti. Okay, it’s too late for that. But Patch has enormous viral potential. Funny things happen in small towns. Sad things happen in small towns. Just plain wierd things happen in small towns. Patch’s upper management gets it. But I have yet to see a smart hire or integrated plan to drive virality. Perhaps a partnership deal with BuzzFeed might actually be just the ticket!

Will this be enough to drive Patch to profitability? I have no idea. But I think it could help. What’s more, these steps will play up the one true value that Patch can bring to the table — differentiated, quality local content that can be both long-tail and short-tail. It’s a rare critter and one that ideally should be pampered, showcased, and nurtured.

Alex Salkever is an executive at a cloud computing company and a former technology editor of BusinessWeek.com. The views expressed in his column are his own and not those of his employer. His Personal Fight column appears every Wednesday on Street Fight.

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  • Jtambini23

    Closing it down seems to be a better option. This experiment is sinking and it will lead to the firing of Armstrong eventually.

  • http://www.allthethingsieat.com/ Ian MacAllen

    There are a few other things Patch has never really been able to understand. 

    1. Layout. 
    Their site layout isn’t a very good website, and its an absolutely horrible news website. It looks like a big mess, its hard to navigate, and isn’t even very good at displaying ads. They need to clean up their basic site layout and make it easier to use as both a local directory service and as a news source. 

    2. Demographics. 
    Patch’s sites were launched, particularly in the earliest years, with careful consideration to communities with the “right” demographics. That primarily meant money. In the early days, that was the wealthiest, older suburbs in the NY metro area, usually with a train station. But money is only half the battle. Unlike local weekly papers that have migrated to online platforms but maintain a print paper, since Patch is online only, they need readers who use the web. That means young people. A lot of the older suburbs outside of the urban core of the metropolitan regions might have money, but they aren’t particularly young. That largely means a reader base that’s not really computer literate and not desperate for online material like younger demographics. About the same time Patch was launching in the NYC burbs, the NYTimes started The Local in select communities to compete on the hyper local level. Its probably not surprising that what’s left of The Local are urban neighborhoods that have both money and Millennials, not just money and boomers. One of the first Patches was for Maplewood and South Orange, NJ, and The Local also entered that market only to shutter the site after 18 months. I suspect the reason that closed and other The Local sites continue is mainly that the readership in Maplewood and South Orange is decidedly older, less apt to take their news from the internet, and don’t even know what “hyper local news” is. 

    3. Local not Viral. 
    The focus needs to be on the unique aspects of local news that will rarely be viral. What drives readers that continually return to the site and are a loyal audience of pageviews is covering the nitty gritty details that no one cares about except for the few thousand people in a given community. Viral hits are great, but none of those people will come back, and as far as advertisers are concerned, aren’t coming to town to visit a mom and pop store advertising on the site. Its about gossip and soft news. Consider too something like Hoboken411, which competes with Hoboken.Patch; Patch has a news story about a woman fired for being ‘too hot,’ which surely has viral potential. Meanwhile, Hoboken411 has a story on a farmers market and bar trivia where people where kilts, or something like that. That’s some really soft news, but more local people probably read Hoboken411 than Hoboken.Patch. Its not about viral-ness, but about getting a high percentage of local readers coming back every day. 

    • http://twitter.com/AlexSalkever AlexSalkever

      All good points. A few quick replies. The layout is not good. I figure they will fix it or will have to. But other good hyperlocal blogs survive bad layouts if the content is relevant / copious enough. I think your points are valid about demographics but if you are skating to the space and not the puck, then within a few years we’ll see a lot more digital penetration. So keep cost structures low and the demographics will sort themselves out. Lastly, you don’t focus on viral at all. You report local. BUT you leverage local for viral or national. That’s where the national curators come in. Don’t even ask the local Patch editors to think about viral. Viral takes care of itself if enough funny/weird /interesting / sad things are reported – and if you have team like HuffPo did that can drive virality. 

  • Photodude719

    I’m not sure what Alex is drinking, but I don’t want any. 

    I don’t think he got any of his Patch ideas right. First of all, you can separate sales and editorial on the local level. Small websites/newspapers all over the US do it well. Combining them will kill content quality and accuracy. A problem Patch already has. It’s not a church state thing…it’s the fact you hire people with an expertise and then use them. Who is going to hire all the editors, for all those websites, if someone on the regional level is involved. And much of the Patch content is crap. Who’s going to hold these people to some sort of standards? I’m all for streamlining, but with all the turnover in these local websites, someone has to look at the big picture.Local readers reading a local website don’t want to see national ads. Advertising is content too. National ads can be part of the package, but to focus on this when your mission is hyperlocal is a waste of resources.I’m sure Jonah is a smart guy, but what Patch needs is better content. Why create better buzz if the content is bad? It’s starts here and is the quickest way to capture readers at the local level. The problem many Internet companies have is they focus so much on technology, they forget about what they are presenting to readers.I’m sure in corporate Patchland, NY they are quite pleased they have local news in so many communities, delivered in high tech ways. But is the news worth reading?

  • Lisa Covert

    Alex – If same person is reporting and selling advertising, how does this work?  Which one does he/she do first?  Report first and and then sell, or sell first and then report?  I’m afraid you underestimate the intelligence of small town readers.  You call your idea heresy, I say it’s much worse.

    • http://twitter.com/AlexSalkever AlexSalkever

      You can divide the two if you want like West Seattle but I’m just saying – there is no reason an ad sales person can’t shoot pictures or write short items or stories. What makes a great patch is story volume with some story quality. Right now, story volume is sorely lacking in most places. 

      • Rcarrwork

        No way. Ad people and reporters are driven by two different engines. Ad people make money by how much they sell, and reporters make very little no matter how hard they work – they’re in it for the thrill of being a journalist – which is how it should be. There’s no extra pay for doing a great job as a journalist, you can win a Pulitzer and be laid off a month later. Plus, there’s the opposite incentive for an ad person to be a good reporter, an ad person has a conflict of interest in how news is shuttled to the reader.
        Unfortunately, we’re starting to forget the above as an industry, and it’s making our content worse and worse, thus driving readers even further away. Sad.

  • Rick Thompson

    The Reston Patch has to be one of the best in the Country. Great Editor, good content and yes, funny, sad, and weird.

  • http://portlandafoot.org/ Michael Andersen

    What evidence do you have that small-town papers combine ad sales and editorial? Skill sets aside (and in a non-monopoly environment both ad sales and reporting are very skill-intensive, as opposed to talent-intensive), these are very time-consuming jobs. I’ve known maybe two dozen small-town or neighborhood papers with circulations ranging as low as 1,000 a week, and the only one I’ve seen where editor did the mechanics of ad sales was on death’s door at the time.

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