#SFSNYC: Patch has Grown Up ‘Enormously,’ Says Webster

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SW_20130115_NY_5553In a fireside chat with Forbes‘ Jeff Bercovici at the Street Fight Summit on Tuesday, Patch’s co-founder and president, Warren Webster, defended his closely watched hyperlocal network, denying reports that the AOL property was struggling to sustain its rapid growth.

“We merged 25 sites where communities were so intertwined” that it didn’t make sense to have more than one representing a location, said Webster, in response to rumors that the company was consolidating markets. “We’ve hired over 300 people in 2012; that is not a company that is downsizing.” It’s evidence, Webster said, that the company is maturing. “We’ve grown up as a company enormously,” he explained.

For one thing, he said, there’s far less top-down decision-making from Patch headquarters in New York City. “Those decisions are made by people who live in those places, more empowered management teams in each regions,” who have the agency to make hiring and content decisions. according to Webster. Some of those decisions do involve cuts — but to improve service to the market, he said, not to reduce it.


And even when taking into consideration the 25 Patch sites now stitched onto others, there were 863 sites in all by the end of 2012, and the total number now stands at 903. Patch had 13.1 million unique visitors last year, according to comScore; this represented a more than 30% increase from 2011. Revenue is good; it’s been doubled since 2011. Bloggers (there are some 50,000 of them) he said, are happy. Editors have full-time jobs and benefits. Recent C-suite hires are pleasing staff and parent company AOL.

On the monetization front, Webster continued to stress that scaling local takes time. “We corral hundreds of salespeople in communities,” said Webster. “It takes time to win the hearts and minds — not only of the users, the residents of these communities, but small business owners” as well.

Turning that corner can’t come soon enough for Patch as it looks to fulfill its promise to see run-rate profitability by the end of 2013. Webster said that 100 of the sites are profitable to date, and expressed confident hope that the rest of them would be profitable by the end of 2013. “Putting up [Patch] against any of the [media companies of scale], like CNN or USA Today, I would put that ramp and that time period against any of those companies.”

Besides more growth, completing the profitability portfolio, and with any luck employing still more of the journalists shed by old media, what defines a successful future for Patch? “Now that we have a network of sites that are humming, how are we going to go everywhere?” Webster asked.

Much of that future is locked up in a redesigned site, which the company launched in five test markets in September. Webster said that the redesign remains on track to expand to most towns in 2013 but has seen some delays due to superstorm Sandy.

“We want to have a four-way conversation: not just journalist to user, but journalist to user, user to user, user to business, and business to business,” said Webster, speaking to the redesign site’s added emphasis on social features. “It’s not to say we’re not going to do journalism, but it’s more of a community hub where people can communicate with each other.”

 Photo credit: Shana Wittenwyler