Baristanet’s Debra Galant: How Patch Is Like Wal-Mart

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Since its 2004 launch, Essex County, New Jersey-based Baristanet has often been held up as a hyperlocal news success story. Veteran journalists Liz George and Debra Galant created their local information site to be like a coffee shop where people in the three suburban towns they covered could learn about small-scale news and events around them.

Street Fight spoke recently with Galant about the site’s scope and history, whether stories about potholes can really be monetized, and what she thinks of AOL’s Patch.

Tell me a little about how the site started, as well as its current reach.
We pioneered this thing back seven years ago, in May of 2004, so this is going back a long way. This is before Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and all those things. And so it was really a content play that had to do with the local person and then sell advertising that would appeal to the audience. That’s still basically what we’re doing. And now it’s interesting that people are using technology to proactively target the same local online advertising dollars, and they can do it with no content whatsoever — through mobile and mobile search and geotagging, stuff like that.

We originally defined our “hyperlocal” as three towns — Montclair, Glen Ridge and Bloomfield — which have a combined population of close to 100,000. Then, last summer, the New York Times had gone into the same territory, Patch had gone into the same territory, in Maplewood. When we found out the Times was going to shut down that operation in Maplewood, Millburn, and South Orange, some people reached out to us about maybe picking up their coverage instead of abandoning it all together. And so we took over the Times‘ coverage of those towns in a way; they gave us their freelance list and they pointed their sites to us. And then we added West Orange because it’s right in between. So now we have seven towns covering maybe 160,000-200,000 people. So that’s not all that “hyperlocal” anymore.

In the battle over local, is it just where your GPS says you are at this moment? Or is local the relationship that has grown up over years with people in the same community?

Do you think there’s an advertising base for news that drills down to really small-scale hyperlocal events, like a pothole for instance?
Even from the beginning we were covering a bigger area than that. We were covering three towns. And so, sometimes it’s just a pothole, but there has to be a certain logic of where people might go for something in terms of the advertising. So, I don’t care too much about the potholes in the other side of town which might take me twenty minutes to drive to. But the people who live on that street do.

There’s certain commonalities both in terms of the news — weather is always very important. There are some politics that are just broader. The content… sometimes you focus in and sometimes you focus out. Sometimes we write stories about Chris Christie, the governor, and it doesn’t have to be local at all. Sometimes we even — and I know that there are people who discourage this in the hyperlocal space — but sometimes we write about things that are national if it’s what people want to talk about.

Who discourages it?
I am thinking of Mark Potts who did Backfence, who I’ve been on panels with. (Read Street Fight’s interview with Mark Potts here.) And when he was doing [Backfence] they had a hard and fast rule and he never had anything that wasn’t strictly local. I think we have a sense of local people, especially where we are, being a very sophisticated audience. This goes way back to a general dissatisfaction with local weekly papers. I live in Glen Ridge, not in Montclair, and the local weekly newspapers were very boring and meeting-oriented. There was nothing you could relate to there. They tended to be written by people who were in their early twenties, who just moved to the town and maybe had not even moved to the town yet.

What we look at is more of a blog sensibility. It’s like, we’re all out there and we’re all consuming media, and we’re all paying attention to everything from Japan to the NCAA. But, if a storm is coming our way we share a local interest in that. If there’s a politician who is lying, we share local interest in that.  And we try to balance it because we are covering a number of different towns. So, we try to have stories from one town, and another town, and many different stories, and serve things up in a way that would be of interest to people.

Do you think there’s any future or do you have any plans to kind of put together paid local content?
Not when we have the kind of competition we have. If we put up a paywall, Patch would just say: “Oh, that’s great! Come to us for free!” We still have an old-fashioned model where we need lots of subscribers to get the advertisers to care.

How do you regard Patch, generally? Do you think a company like AOL can really get into local communities?
Patch certainly rubs all of the independents the wrong way.  Patch is part of AOL, and they can do things like hire real journalists, and they can go to meetings, and do everything right. But it is still like Wal-Mart coming into main street. The profits are going to a corporation. And so it’s difficult. It makes us understand what the local merchants are dealing with on a regular basis, for different local hardware stores to be competing against Home Depot. It’s basically the same thing.

So, can they do it right? They can do some reporting. They can get content. Their directories are very good. But, can they have the moral high ground? No.

You know, in the battle over local there is sort of a question of if local is just where your GPS says you are at this moment? Or is local the relationship that has grown up over years with people in the same community? So, that’s this big sort of battle right now.

What have been some of the lessons you’ve learned from Baristanet? Has there been anything that really hasn’t worked or anything that’s worked particularly well?
I think that the more we’ve grown, the more people involved we’ve had. If you look at our “About” page you’ll see about 12 people on it. The product is more interesting and robust the more entrenched it is in the community and the more people that are involved. So, when I started it seven years ago it was basically me and then more came along. For a long time it was just three of us. So, having 10 people, or a dozen people, each writing a few times every week is… you get a much more interesting product that way.

The other night I heard Wine Library’s Gary Vaynerchuk talking about the “thank you economy,” and it was really – basically he was saying that social media is actually bringing us back to the days where relationships were important, when the butcher knew people who came into his shop. And if he did something wrong, the people came back and told their friends at the PTA. So, it was just very interesting that all those kinds of concepts that came together for me that night at Watchung Booksellers. Because Watchung Booksellers is –  talk about an economic model that’s under pressure. It’s an indie bookseller and in a day of not only chains, but e-books. But they have managed to get this incredible loyalty, because they have all kinds of events that bring authors into town, and they continue to support the community.

I think that we do that as well. If you look at my email, there’s just hundreds of requests every day from people asking, “Can you do this, can you do that? Can you feature my thing?” You know, it’s hard to juggle it all. We drop some balls occasionally. We do have some technological things that make it easier; we have a self-serve calendar and so forth. But I think that basically that is one of the things we can do by being authentically local. We can continue to go out in the community because we have these relationships and to really help people, help entrepreneurs starting up new businesses, to help people who are raising money for whatever their cause is.