Patch CCO Talks Election Coverage: Virtual News Teams, Trending Hashtag

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No sooner had Sandy begun to recede when the editors at Patch’s more than 850 sites had to resume election coverage, and ramp it up in the final days before voting. They churned out more than 12,000 stories on Tuesday, November 6.

But it’s no secret that local elections are important local stories, nor that hyperlocal targeting was paramount for the national campaigns this year as well. But what hyperlocal sites like Patches are showing is that they aren’t just the best at delivering locally relevant content — they are the new model for news, a two-way communication tool, where readers used the hashtag #PatchElections to communicate to their local Patch, as well as to one another, rounding out and deepening the story. And at Patch, in particular, strengths are gained from its network approach (local, regional, and national teams). Rachel Feddersen, Patch’s chief content officer, walked us through the network’s approach to election coverage and the implications it has for the rest of the news cycle.

Back in September you told us you had “huge plans for the election.” Walk us through Patch’s election coverage strategy and how you executed on it.
First of all I want to say up top that elections are a huge huge big deal for Patch because we are able to cover this huge breadth of local — like hyperlocal town councilor, local sheriff to  congressional district, to statewide stuff to national. So we can cover all these different layers of election and end up with this incredibly comprehensive coverage of what’s happening in towns all across the country, all at the same time.

We’ve been gearing up for it for months. We’ve been doing every race in every town. That has been our mantra. It’s every candidate, every ballot initiative, everything that touches the town we are covering, and the team has done an amazing job with it. And then out of nowhere comes superstorm Sandy in the intense leadup to the election and I’ve just been amazed by the way the team was able to not only do incredible storm coverage, which is a whole other story, but also crush it on elections. We put out over 12,000 election-day articles about local elections.

We noticed the hashtag #PatchElections was trending in some communities…
I love that.

…What was the strategy in terms of using the hashtag and how did it help your team cover the election?
Well, when we bring in social media it allows us to connect with our readers who may know us but not be on our platform at that moment. Twitter is incredibly addictive during an election and using that hashtag allowed us to be part of the conversation. And of course it helped us reach new viewers because trending is great and we were able to let others know about Patch. It provided editors information on how their readers were thinking. It allowed us to pull together trends across the country. It helped us at headquarters, where we were doing a lot of managing and directing this huge flow of information and helping people communicate with each other across the country. And it also helped down to the editor sitting behind their screen being able to follow what was happening in the Patch universe.

It’s no secret that the Patch sites aren’t newsrooms of hundreds of people…
But when you put us together we are.

… But how can a single editor provide enough valuable content for their community during a news event as big as election night?
Our communities are actually set up in clusters. So we actually do have teams: we have local team, we have regional teams. We have teams that support each other every not just on major events like elections, but all the time. Though they are not all sitting next to each other, they are extremely connected. We have very united and very supportive regional teams. So for county races you could have one person stationed at wherever the results were coming in and be able to call them out to whoever was affected by them. We had state election leads who worked with our news director to help put together a cohesive nationwide strategy and carry that out on the state level but also unite the local editors and give them a central point of contact so that they could keep in touch with each other very effectively. It’s kind of a misconception that we don’t have news teams, because we do; we really do. They work together today all the time and certainly around elections.

What lessons do you think were learned during the election coverage that are applicable to other large national events and maybe even large local events?
Coverage of the elections has really been part of a continuum for us. We have been working diligently to have our news coverage be more and more coherent and organized nationally when big events happen. We actually had a tragic few weekends in the summer with a couple of major events right after each other. And it was weekend after weekend after weekend and by the third major national event we had a system down, which is: we have a national coordinator as our news director, we have state leads, and it differs depending on what the news is depending on the expertise, but it’s always a senior editorial member of the state team. And then each state has its own strategy for who takes what and how they schedule around it but we have a central story budget, guidance on SEO for everybody across the country — we have guidance for what’s trending, we have guidance for what has been performing, what kinds of things are driving conversations what kinds of things we’ve tried that aren’t working. Our system is getting very streamlined and effective, and elections just worked right into that for us.

It was also a great lesson for us in local events and how that can help us connect with the community. How it can give the community something it really needs and how it can drive audience and loyal users for us.

With the coverage of Sandy and then the election your sites have created some momentum. But the election is done and hopefully we won’t have any more storms hitting the eastern seaboard. How do you keep the momentum and what can we expect from the sites in the future?
These big events are great for our traffic and they are great for our readers. But we have been showing a steady increase in audience. A steady, organic, inexorable increase in traffic as we get better and better at understanding what our readers want and giving it to them. And then reaching out to them and reminding them that we’re there connecting to them through other platforms other social media platforms; doing better and better newsletter outreach so we can reach them in their inbox.

We have great material. We have talented editors who love learning new digital skills and applying them and growing audience. So the great big events are exciting but we’re not going to live or die by them. Our mission is to connect with our audience every day in a useful way and I’m seeing the team do that better and better and it’s really gratifying and it’s very comforting because if we had to hang our hat on these big events then we’d be in trouble because you can’t guarantee there is going to be a giant storm and the election only happens once every two years. So they are nice, but they are not essential.

Matt Sokoloff is a 2012-2013 Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellow working on a project to help local independent websites and bloggers gain additional revenue opportunities. Matt’s background is in building digital products for media organizations. Read more about Matt’s current work here and respond in the comments or at [email protected] and @MattSokoloff on Twitter.