Can Bloodied Patch Pull Off a Digital ‘Rocky’?

Patch has taken a triple hammering in recent weeks. It was like three Dempseys ganging up against one Jess Willard. The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek and Patch owner AOL’s biggest minority shareholder, Starboard Value, whomped the pure-play network with a combination of jabs, crosses, hooks and uppercuts aimed at what they all see as a glass jaw — a super-costly business model that depends on impossible revenue.

But wait, might this seemingly grim narrative be turning into a digital Rocky?

AOL’s network of hyperlocal sites is retaliating with some scorecard-worthy counter-punches, producing strong numbers recently:

• Users grew to a record 11.7 million in May, an 11% increase over the previous record of August 2011.
• Visits per unique visitor — a measure of engagement — increased 12% from April to May.
• Revenue for May hit a new record that was 14% higher than the previous record of November 2011, and 17% over April’s mark.

“We are extremely gratified to see these measures of the traction we have gained in our communities and in our business since our launch just over 3 years ago,” said Jon Brod, CEO and co-founder of Patch, in a news release. “We are laser-focused on continuing to serve our users and advertisers with high-quality content and impactful products, and building upon our success to date in innovative and engaging ways.”

Does this mean that Patch’s jaw may be more granite than glass?

I don’t see how anyone can’t be impressed with Patch’s reach — 863 community sites in major markets that were put together in two-and-a-half years. If this network really begins to hum as a news machine whose gears whir down to the community level, AOL will have a formidable property with the reach and engagement that could attract plentiful advertisers.

But there are some big buts complicating this scenario, and they start with editorial.

Energetic journalists staff many of those sites. They’re plugged in to short-wave police reports and they scribble away at public hearings. But a strategy based on one reporter-editor per site means that the Patch news world usually revolves around a 20-something journalist, like the one in Northbrook, Ill., who the other day wrote about water-main repairs on “Waukeegan Road” when he means “Waukegan.”

Parachuting inexperienced journalists into a community where the buck begins and stops with them can lead to bloopers like the Hermosa Beach Patch’s top-of the page headline Tuesday morning asking: “Will Kings Win Stanley Cup Tonight?” The answer actually came the night before, when the Kings beat the New Jersey Devils in their Cup-deciding sixth game. (The site finally woke up at about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday with a post-victory story that had nothing to do with Hermosa Beach.)

Hermosa Beach Patch may have been asleep on the Kings’ Stanley Cup victory, but that win, as historic as it was, doesn’t affect the quality of life in Hermosa Beach. What does matter are issues like whether Hermosa Beach should lift its ban on oil drilling. On June 6, the Hermosa Beach Patch dutifully covered the announcement of new studies on the pros and cons of drilling, but its story was a mishmash of technical details that waited until the ninth graf to point out that the decision on drilling will go to a public vote. The competing Beach Reporter is leisurely with its news postings, but its June 6 oil-drilling story was clearer, had more background and its lead graf pointed out that the public will make the final decision.

The contrast in coverage between the two sites was not happenstance. The Patch story was written by a young editor whose education, experience, and primary interest are in photojournalism. The Beach Reporter story was written by the paper’s publisher, who has more than two decades’ experience in community journalism.

This is the quandary that Patch faces in many of its communities. Its network is a formidable construct, but the top markets AOL has chosen to enter often have competing publications — many in both print and digital form — that have been community fixtures for years. Some of those publications, like the Beach Reporter, may be a bit sleepy-headed digitally, but invariably they are on top of the biggest stories in town. They have the institutional memory that can give them the edge even over a journalistically aggressive Patch site.

Patch could compete more effectively if adopted a community-faced editorial strategy. Instead of building a Ptolemaic news gathering universe in each community centered on one young, inexperienced, overwhelmed reporter-editor, it should set about recruiting regular reporter/contributors who live in the community. But instead of doing it in the helter-skelter way that marked hyperlocal’s first phase of citizen journalism from the previous decade, Patch should draw up a list of topic areas that are most valuable to each community, then try to find residents who know and care about those topics and cultivate them energetically as potential contributors. If volunteer reporter-writers are spirited advocates, so much the better, as long as they’re so identified. Patch’s bloggers aren’t the answer editorially because they write about anything and everything under the sun (e.g., “Worn Tires and Low Pressure Contribute to Accidents,” from the Herndon, Va., Patch).

In time, Patch sites could build a stable of volunteers whose local knowledge and connections will more than outweigh their ability to construct a story in the form of an inverted pyramid. Morale will be maintained if the most productive volunteers are given honoraria for their best stories. Local recognition for helping to protect and enhance what’s valuable to the community will mean more to the volunteers than any honoraria. That can be reinforced with an annual dinner salute.

A community-faced editorial strategy would help to cut the enormous staffing overhead that makes the Patch model unsustainable. It would also help individual sites build on the engagement they need to get the attention of local advertisers. As Starboard Value pointed out, Patch has to fill its ample ad inventory with remnants that yield as little as $1 or $2 per thousand impressions, sometimes even less. These heavily discounted ads often come from other AOL properties as AOL tries to make Patch look good, according to Starboard. The investment company estimates that less than 20% of Patch’s ads are local against a goal of 80%. It’s the local ads, of course, that have higher CPMs ($10-$15 and more).

Patch built its 863-site network so fast because it hired a lot of expensive people in areas like technology. But at the community level, this elaborate infrastructure doesn’t make any sense. None of it helps Patch get ads from neighborhood restaurants, personal-care salons and lawn-care services — the kind of ads that fill the pages of independent hyperplocals like West Seattle Blog, Baristanet and WestportNow.

Starboard projects that Patch will never be profitable under its business model even if it makes its revenue goals. If that’s so, then the new numbers that Patch is proclaiming are whispers in the wind.

To test who’s right, Patch ought to set up an experimental low-cost operation outside of the network with a cluster of sites headed by entrepreneurial editor-publishers who buy Patch licenses and sink or swim on their own. Patch is not in metro Denver, so that might be a good place to experiment.

Who knows, the outcome might be a digital “Rocky 8.”

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.

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  1. Concernreader
    June 14, 2012

    Tom, those are some interesting suggestions but it won’t
    work for all of the Patches.

     

    First things first: Not all the Patches are run by
    20-something journalists. Many are run by experienced journalists who have been
    in newspapers and news networks for 10 or more years.

     

    Yeah, mistakes happen but they happened at national daily
    newspapers too.

     

    The idea of many untrained and biased citizen journalists
    running around and doing only half of the work because they are inexperienced
    on how to collect all of the information doesn’t exactly make me feel better.
    Patch thought they could do that with their moms panel a year ago and look how
    that turned out. Not a lot wanted to be a part of that and those who did
    eventually died off. Once many people realize how much time it takes to do
    something, especially being a citizen journalist and how detailed-orientated
    the job is, they stop doing it since they aren’t paid for it.

     

    What Patch should do is free up the freelance budget and
    allow the editors to hire the right, experienced people to cover the news like
    they did awhile ago. There was some real local coverage.

     

    As far as Patch’s increased UVs, those numbers aren’t
    exactly honest. As I read in Business Week and from what I’ve seen in my area’s
    Patches, they will run some small write up of a popular story and call for
    comments. But that one story is published in, let’s say, five Patches. So let’s
    say there is a person who goes to Patch A for the first time and reads the
    story and comments on it. His comment then appears in the other Patches and
    they record him as a UV even though he never went to the other Patches.

     

    And while percentages are good, I would rather see the
    actual revenue money and see how that compares to the $150 million loss that
    Patch had back in 2011.

    1. June 14, 2012

       Yes, some Patches are run editorially by experienced journalists. But even they can’t by themselves cover everything that’s significant about the community.  The Patch Moms Council is too narrow-based. A better model is the community advisory committee that the Lawrence Journal World set up for its WellCommons health site.  http://rjionline.org/in-the-news/reynolds-fellow-finds-health-draws-community-together-online  The panel has succeeded in generating a lot of useful and interesting health content from the community that otherwise would get scanted or not covered at all. WellCommons needs more articles that dig deeper into metro Lawrence health issues, but it’s on the right track.

  2. June 14, 2012

    I think you totally underestimate the difficulty of marshaling contributions from community members in a way that would be at all consistent or comprehensive to create 863 local sites worth visiting. I don’t think it would work at all.

    1. June 14, 2012

       You’re right, it would be daunting to do that for all 863 communities at once. That’s why I suggest Patch set up a skunk works in one metro area, like Denver, to try it out.

  3. Execwrite
    June 14, 2012

    Volunteer journalists? An oxymoron if I ever heard one.

    Not a viable idea. You get what you pay for in this world.

  4. June 14, 2012

    Tom, I wholeheartedly agree BUT…

    In my experience, it is the rare contributor who cares passionately about a subject matter AND can write about it doggedly and fairly for little to no compensation. They may also not be able to write about it in a way that makes the topic easy to understand for someone who is new to it. 

    I speak both from personal experience and from that of others. By the way, when I say “fairly,” I don’t mean he said/she said journalism. There is a way to take a position and also offer all relevant new information in your writing and rigorously scrutinize it. Few people are able to do this well, not even professional journalists as I’m sure you’re well aware.

    I think there is a way your approach and Patch’s approach can be merged though. There can still be one paid editor and they can still try to recruit and cultivate contributors who would do this kind of work. But again, it’s extremely time-intensive. Ask anyone who has ever had the task of recruiting guest bloggers, recurring bloggers, etc. It’s hard to do even for mundane, easy to write about topics, much more for complex issues.

  5. Insider
    June 14, 2012

    As you’ve pointed out, too many of the 20-something journos manning the Patch
    sites have no idea how to identify and aggressively cover important
    stories. (My town’s Patch is yet another example of a site that is poorly written, sloppily edited and completely out-of-touch on important local matters.) That, plus the lack of a copy desk to catch the many errors before they go live, is a major flaw of the Patch model.

    That said, I’ve never been a believer in the usefulness of citizen journalism in bolstering substantive coverage.

    Here in suburban Chicago, we’ve seen quite a lot of UGC in TribLocal (before it was handed over to Journatic). All of it was either soft features (Little League scores, school pageants, etc.) or politically motivated articles that fell far short of serving the public good.

    And as you’ve noted above, Patch’s free contributors, i.e. bloggers, rarely offer anything of substance. And because they are unpaid, they contribute on their own schedule, not the editor’s.

    I also take issue with your suggestion that  “local recognition for helping to protect and enhance what’s valuable to
    the community will mean more to the volunteers than any honoraria.” Seriously? Reporting on local issues is not just hard work, it requires a commitment to go to the 4-hour night meeting and turn around a story quickly and accurately–and not just occasionally, but every time. In my experience, these aren’t tasks for the hobbyist or dabbler.

    The bottom line for Patch or any “news” site looking for advertising success  is quality coverage. Patch would do better to thin the ranks of its NY headquarters and its regional ranks and restore a freelance budget to the sites.

    1. freelancer
      June 15, 2012

      as a former freelancer for 14 patch sites in one county, YES, the recent demise of their freelance budget is greatly effecting their coverage.

  6. Vanouuter
    June 14, 2012

    Wait. Your solution for better content is to replace trained reporters with community bloggers?
    You think that one staffer per town is unsustainable? There are community newspapers serving towns of 5,000 people who support two or three fulltime workers.
    In my opinion, the issue with Patch is that the advertising isn’t as hyperlocal as the content.  Local business owners won’t sell to people over the phone or ad reps they see once or twice a year. The ad rep needs to be as visible and plugged into the community as the editor. Put the two together, and Patch will own the 21st Century.

    1. June 14, 2012

       I’m not proposing replacing “trained” reporters with bloggers. I emphasize in my column that’s not the solution. Anyway, the newbie reporters at Patch are not trained, except on the job.

      Regarding ad salespeople cold calling local merchants on the phone, I used to think that was a no-no. But DataSphere is generating millions of dollars of sales from local merchants for 1,900 TV station community sites through phone banks in Seattle and Tempe, Ariz.

  7. Kdhmann
    June 14, 2012

    Why ask volunteer “citizen journalists” to do the job that thousands of students graduating from journalism schools across the country are trained to do? And those thousands of graduates (plus the ones from the few years past, who still haven’t found work) are trying desperately to get a job in their field, and yet we’re advocating just allowing people who know nothing about ethics and journalistic integrity to do it for free? It just seems wrong. As for errors, even the most seasoned professional still makes errors. In fact, here’s one you yourself just made: “Patch could compete more effectively if adopted a community-faced editorial strategy.” We’re missing an “it” there. The point being, this is no way to support younger generations of journalists who are trying to make it in this business. Yes, they’ll make mistakes. Hopefully they’ll never make them twice.

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