Patch, under its new owner Hale Global, is experimenting with new approaches for structuring and operating hyperlocal news sites, which, in general, have a reputation for losing money. One experiment is creating entrepreneurial editor-publishers for sites in the strongest markets.
When you were terminated by Aol as part of the transition to new ownership, the community appealed to Hale Global to bring you back. CEO Charles Hale got personally involved to make it happen. Did it take much persuading?
Charlie Hale called me the Friday after I was laid off to apologize that I was let go and to ask me to come back to Framingham Patch. I didn’t need much persuading, but we had to work out a way for me to return that fit Hale Global, the community of Framingham and myself. I launched my own company, Petroni Media Company, and Hale Global has hired my company to provide content and manage the Framingham Patch news site and its social media. Officially, I am a consultant and vendor to Patch.
What’s the difference between the old Framingham Patch and the new one?
In regards to reporting the news to the community in Framingham, essentially no difference. I still attend events and meetings. I photograph and take videos. I investigate and write and then publish reports on Patch. But there is far less micromanagement from middle managers and Patch HQ. For example, during my 3 1/2 years at Patch before the sale, I had posting requirements that ranged from 5 stories a day to 10 posts per day. Now, there are none. Also I make the decision which articles and reports to highlight in the daily newsletter to subscribers. I decide which reports to promote on Facebook and Twitter. I am also the only person who interacts with Framingham readers, besides the site’s terrific ad manager.
You’re part of an experiment by Hale Global to give the strongest editors at sites in major markets an entrepreneurial role. What does that mean as it’s been described to you?
It means I have more control over the Framingham Patch site than I did as just its editor. It also means the Framingham Patch site will always be unique and have a heavy Framingham focus. I consider my new role as a combination of editor/publisher. I am a reporter and editor, but I am also a social media manager, a marketing manager, a public relations manager and an ombudsman. And while I don’t sell ads, I do sell the brand and the product of Framingham Patch. When a business wants to advertise I have many of the initial conversations before turning the deal process over to the advertising manager. I also work with the ad manager, if needed, to help seal a deal.
Some examples of how you’re functioning in your dual role?
I have been given leeway in making marketing deals. Under the Aol Patch, there was a lot of red tape when it came to marketing and promotions. Hale has given me a green light to make deals that benefit Framingham Patch. Recently, I made a deal with the MetroWest Chamber of Commerce to promote its biggest event of the year. Framingham Patch readers could enter to win a pair of tickets to the Taste of MetroWest for 7 days. The promotion, in both my opinion, and the Chamber’s opinion, was a huge success. The event had its largest crowd at more than 1,200 people.
The new Patch has a wider lens for news. Sites now runs stories from neighboring communities and even ones farther away. What’s Framingham Patch’s mix in news from 1) Framingham, 2) nearby communities and 3) as far away as Boston or Worcester?
Framingham Patch looks different than any other Patch site. National and Massachusetts reports are posted on Framingham Patch, but in the top slots is always Framingham news. More than 80% of the news is locally reported and generated. I know the trend is to aggregate news, but there still needs to be the journalists asking the questions, investigating, reporting, digging and writing reports for others to aggregate. I am that type of reporter.
Every day, Framingham Patch readers will find reports on our site not found anywhere else. One example, there was a major crash in town earlier this month. Framingham Patch sent out a breaking news alert the night it happened. I knew our readers would want to know why the road was closed. The next day, working on a follow up report to the crash. I learned one occupant was in critical condition and the driver, who happened to be a town employee, would be charged. Again, Patch published a breaking news report that day. It was not until the following day, that the local daily newspaper and all the Boston TV crews began covering the incident and the arrest. In another example, Framingham Patch was the first media to publish a report on a state-mandated testing error at a local elementary school. The principal was later placed on administrative leave and eventually he resigned. Parents could only get the information on Patch, which they told us over.
My goal is to have one Framingham story each day that everyone in town is talking about.
How big is the paid staff of Framingham Patch, and what’s your budget for freelance articles and photos?
The paid staff is just me. When I was first hired by Aol back in fall 2010, I had a freelance budget of $2,500 per month. That was gone by the time Framingham Patch celebrated its first anniversary in Dec. 2011. I encourage the community to share news tips, photos, articles and to blog. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t receive a text, email or Facebook message for a story idea or a photo of a crash or event in town.
What are some of your numbers in unique visitors, time on site, pageviews?
Throughout 2013, Framingham Patch averaged 50,000 UVs per month. In January 2014, I had 75,000 UVs for the month, as of the day of my layoff. March has been a great month for Framingham. Unique visitors were over 84,000 total for March and page views for March were over 310,000.
Do you encourage, and get, editorial contributions from the public? If so, who contributes, ranging from the mayor to John Q. Public?
I absolutely encourage news tips, photos, blogs and articles from the public. For example, a couple of weekends ago, I woke up to about a dozen texts and private Twitter messages about a double stabbing in town. A few phone calls later, and Patch had the exclusive report within an hour from my alarm going off.
Every year, I meet with many of the parent-teacher organizxations in town to discuss how they can contribute events, photos and reports. There are more than 20 public and private schools in Framingham. Some nights, there are events at three or more schools, and unfortunately I can’t attend every event. I encourage PTOs to send or upload their own news and photos.
Framingham town officials, elected leaders and town employees have all submitted tips and news to Framingham Patch before and after my return. Elected leaders also comment on articles and like and comment on posts on Facebook.
Is it getting easier or harder for Framingham Patch to attract advertising from local businesses?
Since I have returned to Framingham Patch, local advertisers have renewed contracts and new Framingham businesses have signed contracts. Framingham Patch has a strong base of local advertisers ranging from an auto dealership to preschools to a gardening center. The one issue with Framingham Patch is some months the slots for advertisers are sold out, between the national, regional and Framingham advertisers. There needs to be a way to have more opportunities for Framingham businesses to advertise on the main site and in the newsletters. That is something Hale is working on.
Framingham Patch competes against Gatehouse Media’s print and digital MetroWest Daily News. They have lots of resources.
Yes, one of my prime competitors is the MetroWest Daily News and its weekly Framingham Tab. They are a newsroom full of reporters, editors and photographers; and I am a staff of one. Some days my competitors do post a report before me, but many times it is not that I don’t know about the news, I just haven’t made it back to my computer to write or I am still busy covering another event in town and plan to write all my reports later that evening.
My family has lived in town since 2000. We actively participate in the community. There are many times a 5-minute trip to the library turns into 30+ minutes, but I leave with a couple of stories and a few more tips. I learned early on from some former great newspaper bosses, that the best reporters are well sourced and never sit in the newsroom. I make it a goal to never go over 50 hours, even in a hectic breaking news week. One could say I multi-task a lot.
In your new role, what do you want to bring to Framingham Patch a bit longer term, like, by the end of 2014, both in editorial and revenue?
With Framingham Patch’s strong traffic numbers and solid advertising base, I am hoping that this experiment with Hale Global can evolve and expand and continue for a long time. I think it offers the eventual possibility of Patch franchises. But Framingham is unique. If this experiment is a success, it does not mean that it is the perfect model for every other Patch site. Each Patch site has to be looked at differently, in my opinion, based on the community support, the strength of the editor, the news generated in the community and if there is a local advertising base.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched last week.