Just Another Chat With a Frustrated Patch Editor | Street Fight

Turf Talk

Just Another Chat With a Frustrated Patch Editor

11 Comments 26 February 2013 by

PatchI spent a couple years a while back as lead editor of a (hyper)local news and information site owned by America Online. Since I spent all my waking hours trying to make the startup go, I had only few occasions to interact in depth with the poor souls at “corporate” — the folks in an office park building dealing with all the difficulties of organizing site launches: technology issues, PR blunders, misguided editors, complaints from those in the city site offices about lack of guidance or guidance that revealed a poor understanding of what it’s like “on the ground.” Being at corporate largely sucked (I found out when I eventually ended up there).

We hear this everywhere: the generals in theater can’t understand why Washington is so ignorant; sales folks lament that the home office just doesn’t get it. And we heard it last week in The Awl from an editor who’d been at Patch and left (in body if not in mind).

So with all that for context, I was not surprised but maybe a little dismayed to hear the following from another (current) Patch editor — a very experienced editor who came to the role after years at a major newspaper. He’s legit.

We were just chatting about how things were going for him, and what new challenges he faced, and he kept returning to the old theme of “us versus them” — corporate and the Patch sites. He talked about how in the beginning the company went on a hiring rampage, giving the reins to a ton of fresh-out-of-school kids, perhaps assuming they loved and cared about their communities and would never graduate to other jobs. That turned out to be a bit wrong-headed: does a freshly printed journalism degree really give one the ability to cover a town’s news in a way that readers can’t live without and advertisers find fruitful? But I digress… On to that editor:

“We have had two conference calls in a row the last two weeks with the people at HQ excitedly talking about big ideas that are going to get us to profitability, but the ideas sound like bad ones, not to mention ones that they have already tried,” said this editor, a mix of frustration and exasperation in his voice. “They are getting farther away from the hyperlocal vision and really pushing generic SEO content to try and get unique visitors. But I can’t see why people are going to click on their local Patch to get info about the Oscars or parenting advice. You can get that anywhere.”

We are a hyperlocal platform with hyperlocal content as our foundation – Rachel Feddersen

This concept is a bit like where Examiner.com has been heading, and, if true, serves as something of a warning for the national advertisers expecting to reach local markets through these sites. The more generalized the content gets, the less valuable an individual Patch is as a vehicle for reaching consumers who actually live in the area. It may produce more traffic, but the price is likely its identity.

This editor reiterated the obvious about many Patches — they carry a lot of national advertising having little to do with the market geographically. That still amounts to revenue, of course, but it’s often not the high-value, locally targeted kind, and it certainly isn’t coming from local merchants. And the sales rep who was paired with this editor? Recently quit.

He goes on — and again, it’s just one opinion: “They also don’t seem to have a firm plan about staffing. People are leaving all the time, and, rather than adjust the size of our footprint, local editors who could barely run one site are now running two, sometimes three sites, which means some of these sites look exactly the same and are not offering any real news because people are stretched so thin.”

I shared these comments with Rachel Feddersen, Patch’s Chief Content Officer (via email) and she sent back thoughts of her own, asserting that the service is actually doubling down on hyperlocal:

Patch’s mission is to improve people’s local lives.  We are a hyperlocal platform with hyperlocal content as our foundation.  Far from straying from hyperlocal content, we’re redoubling our commitment to it on it, both through the evolution of our product and our programming.

Patch hired over 300 people in 2012 alone.  With a network of over 900 sites, we are always testing new models combining original reporting, community contribution and aggregation to best serve the unique needs of our existing communities, as well as to launch new ones.  And to do so while achieving our stated goal of run-rate profitability by the end of 2013, which we are on track to achieve.

So we’ll see. Profitability and “hyperlocalism” at the cost of some strained nerves and some collateral damage?  Perhaps. It does seem these frustrations are side effects of explosive growth (both in staff and sites). But it also sounds to me like this sort of definitive leadership needs to be staged at all levels, face to face down to the local editors, and not only from the top.

Rick Robinson’s Turf Talk column appears every second week on Street Fight. Follow him at @wideopensea.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eric.r.cohen.35 Eric R Cohen

    This is a prime example of the Hyperlocal Paradox. You can’t automate hyperlocal content or ad sales, but local staffing is too expensive. Entrepreneurial sites whether indies or part of platforms like http://www.macaronikid.com seem to be countering this paradox.

  • Pamela

    interesting. I love the annandale patch editor and patch site. what struck me the most was the quote by patch’s CCO and the excessive use of the word “hyperlocal” – just because you say it, doesn’t mean you mean it. And the editor you talked to is right – if I want parenting advice or a recap of the oscar’s, i am not going to go to patch.

  • MamaKath

    As an “examiner” I’m really just about over that publication. When I bust my butt to get real local entertainment content and then can’t get it promoted but someone else fronts as the Local Pop Culture person only to copy and paste national celeb gossip is right up there on their “top contributors” recommendations…really? And it ain’t like we’re making big bucks doing this stuff either. Examiner really has become a place of glorified bloggers and the advertising has gotten obnoxious.

  • Julie Brooks

    Strained nerves and overworked employees don’t matter.

    Generalized content doesn’t matter.
    Excellent hyperlocal content doesn’t matter.
    Popularity doesn’t matter.

    All that matters is that revenue exceeds costs to create profit.
    And really, it’s about revenue. You either have to charge for content and/ or sell more advertising.

    Unless Patch can do this in short order, or convince the shareholders to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic yet one more time, they’re sunk.

  • http://www.juliebrookssmallfortune.com/ Julie Brooks

    Strained nerves and overworked employees don’t matter.

    Generalized content doesn’t matter.
    Excellent hyperlocal content doesn’t matter.
    Popularity doesn’t matter.

    All that matters is that revenue exceeds costs to create profit.
    And really, it’s about revenue. You either have to charge for content and/ or sell more advertising.

    Unless Patch can do this in short order, or convince the shareholders to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic yet one more time, they’re sunk.

  • http://twitter.com/MichelleRafter MichelleRafter

    I’ve never thought about it before reading this, but AOL should have bought up existing small news organizations to serve as its core Patch base instead of bringing entry-level journos into areas they knew nothing about. It might have cost more initially, but would have saved them in the long run.

    Michelle R.

    • laurarich

      Hi Michelle!

      That is so smart. And if not Patch, the idea of a roll-up is definitely intriguing. It would definitely be worth looking at the economics of it to know for sure (or to some degree of sure) whether it would cost more versus ground-up, and to compare the bottom-line ROI on each. Plus, if there was a way to truly measure the effectiveness of established small news orgs to those Patch hired who would be more organic to the process.

      An interesting debate.

      Laura

    • http://www.juliebrookssmallfortune.com/ Julie Brooks

      Yes I agree but that still doesn’t address the issue of whether Patch, or anyone large or small, can sell enough revenue.

  • http://blog.swipely.com/ Amanda

    That editor is right – everyone is already going general, people need more local. And there are PLENTY of local keywords to start with. And if there aren’t, then you shouldn’t be paying an editor in that city, right?

  • Former Editor who saw bad prat

    Problem with AOL Patch Hale Global is that it lost Millions and it decided to get in bed with dirty politicians who paid into advertising for patch to produce smear stories as political vengeance against those they wanted to hurt. PATCH is evil and it went right along with this. Producing misleading, inaccurate stories that are still online today and page ranking at the top of google. Many of these stories have hurt innocent people who can’t get a job or opportunity today because AOL PATCH decided to go evil, Greedy and dirty and allow these misleading, inaccurate stories to destroy people. The worse part is that the dirty politicians with the help of AOL PATCH AND GOOGLE, THEY HAVE RIGGED IT SO THE EVIL STORIES PAGE RANK at the top of GOOGLE.

    This makes it difficult for the person to move forward and get a job, all out of greed and evil. This is why PATCH, AOL AND HALE GLOBAL WILL NOT SUCCEED. THIS IS DIRTY.

  • Former Editor who saw bad prat

    anything used to hurt others, will NEVER succeed

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