Patch Content Chief: ‘We Don’t Go After Audience at the Expense of Excellence’

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When Rachel Fishman Feddersen joined Patch as chief content officer in February, the former editorial director of digital content, strategy and design at The Parenting Group was tasked with honing and refining the vision behind AOL’s local news play alongside EIC Brian Farnham. While Farnham stepped away in April, Feddersen continues to plug away at the massive challenge of making hyperlocal news work on a massive scale — and is working with Patch’s 850+ local editors to grow their audience and become more essential to their communities.

Feddersen spoke with Street Fight recently about the calculus behind Patch’s content mix, what kinds of stories go viral, and what the hyperlocal network is planning for ahead of the November elections.

How have you enjoyed the first six months on the job?
It is awesome. I love it. It’s my favorite job I’ve ever had. I’m excited to come to work each day. I’m very motivated and gratified by working in a place that has a mission that I believe in. I’m a total believer in Patch’s mission to make life better for residents in towns across America. We want to help get them more involved with the community and more involved with each other, and to be more informed about what’s happening in town government and town schools. It’s great to come to work and know that the better we are at our jobs the better people’s lives are.

Have there been any unexpected challenges?
This is definitely the biggest job that I’ve ever had. The staff is huge. We cover a lot of geography. I’m used to coming in, seeing what needs to be done, and being able to run down my list. The core of editors here is so large and so widespread that it’s difficult to get everything done at once. I can’t just work harder and make everything happen.

I love talking to people. I love phone conversations where we are speaking to each other, not where I’m speaking to 100 people listening. I like talking face to face. I like connecting with them. Physically, I don’t sit near a lot of people I work with. It’s challenging for me. I didn’t understand coming in that every mode of communication has its own requirements. You have to speak a certain way on a conference call with 10 people. You have to speak a certain way on a conference call with 100 people. You have to take Q&A in a certain way so you can take all the questions but not make people feel cut off. There are challenges of communication that are very specific that I was totally unaware of. But I really enjoy it and communication is very important to me.

Have you changed the focus of Patch’s content at all?
I don’t think I’ve changed it. The way I run the department is to focus on three things: increase audience; increase opportunities for revenue (not to go out and sell, but to make sure the relationship is good between everyone who works together); and increase excellence. All three of those are essential to any great website. I don’t know if the editorial mission had been distilled down to those three things. They have always been important to Patch, but I’m making sure everyone keeps them at the top of their mind.

We don’t go after audience at the expense of excellence. You don’t put up a 20-page piece just to get people to click through. You don’t go after revenue at the expense of audience. You need to keep all these things in mind to have a successful Patch site. But people are writing about their town, their communities, and connecting people. The art and science of being a great editor has not changed since I came on, but the way we are focusing our efforts is a little bit different.

Is there any sort of calculus for focusing on local stories versus trying to shoot for viral content?
If you ask any editor what drives traffic, they will say “the better I cover the town, the better I do.” People don’t bank on that flash in the pan. It’s guaranteed that every day, one or two Patches will have something go viral, but it’s never guaranteed that it’s going to be your Patch.

Really varying stuff goes viral, everything from a surprise video where a dad comes home from deployment and surprises his son at Gold’s Gym to a someone shooting from their kayak when a shark comes up next to them.

In Long Beach, New York, surfing will always do well, so [the editor] knows to do that. That’s not going to do well just five miles north. The editors really base what’s going to drive audience based on what their readers want to read. I don’t think they are particularly trolling for viral stuff, although craziness happens all the time.

How important is it for your editors to break news?
It’s nice. But for our readership, I don’t think that it’s essential. It’s a feather in the cap, but it’s not going to make or break the readership.

How important is social media for traffic?
Social media is important for every media property. We put a social media director in place, which we didn’t have before. We had every individual editor and regional editors focused on it, but we didn’t have someone overseeing it across Patch. We put someone in place who had been a local editor, who had driven the most audience through social.

What are the next three or four things on your list that you’d like to check off?
We’re doing huge stuff for the elections. We’re doing every race in every town. That’s the Patch way of elections. The presidential election is important, but the ballot issue of whether a community is going to fund a new school is enormous. Those kinds of things are generally covered very well in other places. Every race in every town is the foundation of our political coverage.

We’re also doing town events. We are scheduling them now. Local debates, local viewing parties for the presidential debates. Real town face-to-face stuff to bring people together. We’re hoping to bring people together and get neighbors talking.

Our breaking news coverage has been evolving rapidly and wonderfully. August was a huge national news month, and they all happened on weekends. We’ve gotten to the point where in under an hour we can have totally coordinated national coverage with a plan for story packages, a place where everyone can share their information, and the social media hashtags we’re using. I’m really excited to see how we do about the news that’s coming up this season.

Noah Davis is senior editor at Street Fight.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.