Advice for Patch’s New Content Chief

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Hi, Rachel:

We haven’t spoken since high school years, I think. Always funny to see people we knew way-back-when rising to positions of prominence. Congratulations on your new position as the Chief Content Officer at No doubt, you have your work cut out for you.

You may or may not know that I have been sometimes critical of Patch in the past. And in my own community, I have found Patch to be not terribly stimulating or useful (although my mother-in-law reads it for classifieds). I get it in my inbox. It rarely contains news I care about. The sports coverage is thin. There is almost no feature coverage of local events. Political coverage is scant to non-existent. A lot of the coverage is pointing to news stories in other outlets and reblogging. The blogs have too many realtors and are not really about local things — they are more like diaries. Well, you get my drift.

So in the old Charm City spirit, I’d like to offer up some advice on making Patch a truly vibrant hyperlocal news organization and not just a way to try to shake ads out of local merchants. Take it with a grain of salt and I do not pretend to be more qualified than you. But here goes. So you remember the Baltimore Messenger? I do. I read it religiously for the local sports coverage. Every high school game got a blurb. We read about our friends each week. Now that I am a little league and soccer dad, I trade scuttlebutt with other dads about team performance and which players are good. It’s fun. The games are an incredibly unifying event in our community, bringing together families on weekends and during practices. Picnics and parties, beach chairs and blankets and lots of smiles. There’s no place to read about that online. Why not? I don’t know. I certainly would like to. So my first piece of advice. Patch should dominate local sports. And I mean DOMINATE. Not just high school but also kids leagues and junior leagues.

The beautiful thing is, Patch can easily pay for the tools to do this. As my readers know, I am a big fan of Narrative Science, the company that has built sophisticated computer algorithms to take structure information (like, say, box scores or any manner of score keeping) and turn it into relatively digestible prose. Then you have applications like Meporter and Tackable that can allow anyone with a smartphone to morph into a beat reporter and grab stills and videos. Then there are smartphone-based stats collection tools for sports like Statzpack.

If Patch can create an easy way for communities to report on sports events — with minimal or no effort — and then serve up that content in a relatively readable format, the upside would be huge. Why not have a Patch iPhone app that allows any parent to upload a sports video or an event video to editors for consideration? The existing Patch app is really nothing but a reskinned version of the Website. There are minimal opportunities to report or interact with others. While news consumption is important, as everyone knows, consumption, creation and curation in a community or shared format are what drove Facebook to prominence. Rachel, you have a wonderful chance here to drag Patch out of the Web 1.0 Era and sports is a great place to start. What do you think?

Here’s another way I would jumpstart Patch. There is a great mobile application you have probably seen. It’s called Foodspotting. I love it. It’s almost like a Foursquare for specific dishes at restaurants. You take a picture, upload it to Foodspotting, and add a few comments. No negative reviews allowed – which is fine in sensitive local communities. Why would this be useful for Patch? Because food is life and in small towns, what people are eating is gold. Pure gold. If Patch white-labeled Foodspotting, and, say allowed people to upload images of their dinner parties. How cool would that be? Keeping up with the Jones has always been a key sport in towns. So make it super easy to do this – and you can do it with existing technology! Pull in that photostream, watch the mouths water, see traffic soar. Foodspotting has clocked insane growth. And food, frankly, at the core, is as hyperlocal as you can get.

Let’s move on to the politics phase. Politics are harder. Real reporting, real local knowledge. Without an institutional memory, you are sunk. No real human reporter worth their salt will stick around for seriously sub-par pay (let’s be honest -— I know some former Patch editors and the pay was abysmal). So here’s what I would do. Consolidate political coverage. Use video feeds as much as possible to pull in City Council action and Boards. Make the nuts and bolts coverage easier to accomplish. Then jack the pay and ask one talented political reporter to contribute mightily. Have one Patch reporter for three towns. Pay them over $100,000 a year. You would be amazed at what might happen. The most talented bloggers and writers today are turning out more than 3000 words every 24 hours. They are often breaking news. They report differently — the long form narrative survives but it lives alongside the short-form rapid fire blogging. This….is…exactly….what…Patch…needs. Blah political stories are horrible. Make them short. Great political coverage is riveting. But you have to know who’s on first – and the best guys at that will come more dear than the usual Patch salary.

Oh, one last thing I would do. Get rid of your middle management layer. All of it. I understand they are good people, probably talented editors. They’ll be okay. But hyperlocal works best in conditions of hyper-autonomy, without an overseer and a style enforcer. Patch will not be perfect and it will not be uniform but it will be real and meaningful, a reflection of the heart and soul of the people who create it rather than a reflection of a big corporation.

I could probably rattle on for quite a bit on these topics. I am a firm believer in the critical importance of hyperlocal coverage. Without sunshine, rot sets in. Every community needs a real media outlet to inform, delight, and and shine a light on the misdeeds or celebrate the victories and the heart-warming tales that pull at our tear-ducts. Good luck and break some eggs.

Alex Salkever’s Personal Fight column appears every Friday on Street Fight.