New York City is the news media capital of the U.S. But, “east side, west side, all around the town,” the stories of Gotham’s 8.5 million people are told in ever-fewer local publications.
DNAInfo and its sister pure-play, Gothamist, were abruptly closed by their owner, trading billionaire Joe Ricketts, last November. A month later, Bklyner, which covers 11 neighborhoods in the city’s most populous borough, barely escaped shutdown when it managed to come close to meeting its year-end deadline of signing up at least 3,000 of its users to a new voluntary subscription plan.
The nearly 100-year-old tabloid New York Daily News, which once reached more than 2 million mostly working-class print readers in the communities of the outer boroughs, was sold to Tronc (formerly Tribune Publishing) for $1 and assumption of pension and operational liabilities in September.
Gradually, the New York Times has cut back on its local news as it has repositioned itself as a national newspaper. The Wall Street Journal launched an ambitious New York section in 2010, but today it is a fraction of its original size.
But amid all the dismal news about local news in New York City, the pure-play hyperlocal network Patch has quietly set up 36 neighborhood operations extending from Midtown Manhattan to Flushing and Jamaica in the distant reaches of Queens.
Data cements the narrative of Patch’s upward trajectory. From January 2017 to January 2018, Patch’s newsletter subscriptions for NYC nearly doubled from 13,761 to 26,170. Since last summer, the NYC audience has grown 45% to 1.3 million visitors, and page views rose from 939,821 in June 2017 to 1,370,264 in January 2018.
In this Q & A, Patch CEO Warren St. John explains why he decided to bet big on hyperlocal news in New York City while other local publishers were shutting down or threatening to do so, retrenching, or selling out:
How did you build out your 36-site local news operation in New York City?
We did what we have done all along – we bootstrapped our way there and added resources when we could. Our national offices are in the Flatiron District in the lower part of Midtown, and we wanted local Patches where we were headquartered. It would have been suboptimal to run a hyperlocal news network with no editorial coverage in a place where we showed up for work every day.
There was a gap in neighborhood and community coverage waiting to be filled. We’ve zigged when everybody else zagged.
You’re talking about publishing local news to one of the most sophisticated and discriminating media audiences in the world. So, sure, that’s intimidating. We went about it quietly at first, trying to figure out a way so we could make sense of it as a business. Also, we had to find the talent to do the reporting and writing, and I think we’ve done an amazing job putting this team together under New York City Regional Manager Adam Nichols.
What kind of local coverage does Patch provide in its 36 communities?
We break a lot of news, like, how NYC slumlords terrorize tenants, how a Brooklyn father’s liver donation gave his daughter new life, how questions of sex, fraud, and faith surround an Australian mega-church staking its turf locally, how Orthodox Jewish communities are confronting the city’s opioid scourge.
We try to be ahead of things. In the morning, I get personal notifications from the Patch app about my commute from the Upper East Side to Midtown Manhattan. I get alerts about breaking news. Our goal is to help Patch users navigate their daily lives and to stay connected.
What are typical sources of Patch’s neighborhood news?
We’re at a lot of community board meetings, which produce news like this article about the controversial revamping of a historic movie house in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. We’re out interfacing with the community. People send in tips, and that’s gratifying.
People love and value their local news providers. We’re lucky to be in that space because when people know what we’re doing, they respond favorably. We have a very low churn rate with our email newsletter and a very high “open” rate for the email. Patches in New York City have open rates approaching 50%, which is well above the industry benchmark.
Do you cover all five boroughs of New York City?
We’re in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. The Bronx and Staten Island are next.
You’ve got an editorial staff of seven editors-reporters covering your 36 neighborhoods. Can your news model work with those numbers?
Most Patches get at least one, mostly two articles about their neighborhood daily. Then there’s news from nearby neighborhoods. We’re always looking for opportunities to push our content out to the widest possible cone of relevance. As we add more editors, we can produce more news.
We work really hard on the ongoing local narrative. A year ago we did a series of stories on the New Jersey Town of Moorestown considering acquiring a surplus armored personnel carrier for its police department. We did story after story because it was the big thing that everybody in town was debating and talking about.
We are lean. Even the best hyperlocal outfits will tell you that you’re never done. It’s not like you can close your laptop at the end of the day and say you covered all the hyperlocal stories of that day. There’s always more. There’s always a beautiful and dignified possibility to the mission we’ve been out to perform on a daily basis. We revel in that. We love that. Our reporters are empowered by that. I don’t look at that as a shortcoming. I look at that as the very essence of what hyperlocal is.
What are community merchants saying about Patch?
Our advertising renewal rates are probably the best they’ve ever been. We’ve added DIY products that allow local users, businesses, and organizations not only to post local announcements and events for free but also to promote them for a fee. Looking at the calendar for Prospect Heights-Crown Heights in Brooklyn, you have “Poetic Justice: Women, Power, Politics and the Black Arts Movement” tomorrow night. In Park Slope in Brooklyn, you have “Tai Chi for Balance and Strength” tonight and “Babywild: A Big Adventure for Little Explorers” on Saturday. To me, this is a sign that the local Patch has value to its readers, that they are using it to alert their neighbors to interesting things they can do locally.
Are the New York City Patches any different in structure from Patches elsewhere in the country?
New York City Patches are brand new. Our Queens’ sites are just a couple of months old. We know we have a way to go. We get new email and app subscriptions every day. Our traffic is steadily climbing. But we’re under no illusion about the amount of work we need to do and the quality of the work we need to achieve to become a staple of the local conversation.
People want to know what’s happening outside their door, and we give them that.
What kind of relationship does Patch have with Facebook?
We enjoy a very good relationship with the Facebook local news team. They’re extremely responsive and have a genuine interest in local news and appreciation of its value and the reader engagement that accompanies local news.
How important to Patch is its inbound traffic from Facebook?
It’s an important traffic source for us. We’ve basically been holding more or less steady during all the changes that Facebook has made in its News Feed. Facebook has its own business model, its own concerns, its own shareholders. The people at Facebook have to worry about Facebook and publishers have to worry about themselves.
Our strongest relationship with readers is a direct one. It’s not mediated by anyone else. So we work hard to cultivate subscriptions through our email letter and app, and we’re lucky that our email accounts for 30% of our traffic, which puts us in a very strong position.
Does Facebook owe local news publications anything?
Facebook doesn’t owe publishers anything. The publishers need to figure out how they’re businesses work and be more efficient if we’re going to be around for the long run. It’s probably wise for any publisher not to hitch its wagon to a single platform.
Who are Patch readers?
Patchers tend to be very involved in their community. Patchers are members of local nonprofits and charities. They’re local investors. They vote more often. They’re just involved.
We’re doing our best to provide a vehicle to keep them informed with other communities, to empower them and give them the tools to communicate with each other.
What’s next for Patch in New York City?
We’re going to continue to strengthen our editorial coverage, which we’ve been steadily doing for four years. Whatever anyone thought of Patch a year ago, six months ago, it was better than that. Whatever anyone thought of Patch six months ago, today it’s better than that.
We’ve been on that trajectory for a while, and, yes, we started out in a deep hole, but we made a lot of progress and it’s exciting and energizing for the company.
In 2018, we are doing a lot of work on the product side and the development side to give users more tools to communicate with each other more easily. Everything we’re doing in 2018 is about opening up Patch and taking advantage of our scale and platform-like qualities to empower local users.
You had to build a new technology structure virtually from scratch from the old Patch of AOL. Is that structure doing what you need to do to serve a 1,200-site network?
Absolutely. We’re really proud of our technology. It helped us to get where we are. I would say to anyone who is curious about Patch, they should download the Patch app and look at the way we have reimagined local news from the locations they care about rather than having that predetermined for them.
I follow Patch sites where I live, where I work, where I grew up, where I went to college. I can get all the local news I care about, and anyone else can do the same in all the localities they care about.
Local news providers are busy developing multiple sources of revenue. How is Patch doing with that?
We believe our DIY platform is a great opportunity for us, so we’re investing heavily in its development and engineering. We’ve also made strides in programmatic. We have an agency team that is doing larger-size deals than I’ve seen in our four years and with quality brands we’re proud to work with. We’ve got our inside sales team, which is working with local businesses around the country.
We’re very diversified, and we want to be more so. We’re never satisfied. I don’t want to say we’re happy where we are because we’re never happy with where we are. But I think we’ve done a decent job of building new revenue streams, and we’re going to continue doing that.
Fortunately for us, it has become increasingly clear that users value local news and conversation. If we can get better at delivering more of that, we have a great opportunity.