Just Another Chat With a Frustrated Patch Editor

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PatchI spent a couple years a while back as lead editor of a (hyper)local news and information site owned by America Online. Since I spent all my waking hours trying to make the startup go, I had only few occasions to interact in depth with the poor souls at “corporate” — the folks in an office park building dealing with all the difficulties of organizing site launches: technology issues, PR blunders, misguided editors, complaints from those in the city site offices about lack of guidance or guidance that revealed a poor understanding of what it’s like “on the ground.” Being at corporate largely sucked (I found out when I eventually ended up there).

We hear this everywhere: the generals in theater can’t understand why Washington is so ignorant; sales folks lament that the home office just doesn’t get it. And we heard it last week in The Awl from an editor who’d been at Patch and left (in body if not in mind).

So with all that for context, I was not surprised but maybe a little dismayed to hear the following from another (current) Patch editor — a very experienced editor who came to the role after years at a major newspaper. He’s legit.

We were just chatting about how things were going for him, and what new challenges he faced, and he kept returning to the old theme of “us versus them” — corporate and the Patch sites. He talked about how in the beginning the company went on a hiring rampage, giving the reins to a ton of fresh-out-of-school kids, perhaps assuming they loved and cared about their communities and would never graduate to other jobs. That turned out to be a bit wrong-headed: does a freshly printed journalism degree really give one the ability to cover a town’s news in a way that readers can’t live without and advertisers find fruitful? But I digress… On to that editor:

“We have had two conference calls in a row the last two weeks with the people at HQ excitedly talking about big ideas that are going to get us to profitability, but the ideas sound like bad ones, not to mention ones that they have already tried,” said this editor, a mix of frustration and exasperation in his voice. “They are getting farther away from the hyperlocal vision and really pushing generic SEO content to try and get unique visitors. But I can’t see why people are going to click on their local Patch to get info about the Oscars or parenting advice. You can get that anywhere.”

We are a hyperlocal platform with hyperlocal content as our foundation – Rachel Feddersen

This concept is a bit like where Examiner.com has been heading, and, if true, serves as something of a warning for the national advertisers expecting to reach local markets through these sites. The more generalized the content gets, the less valuable an individual Patch is as a vehicle for reaching consumers who actually live in the area. It may produce more traffic, but the price is likely its identity.

This editor reiterated the obvious about many Patches — they carry a lot of national advertising having little to do with the market geographically. That still amounts to revenue, of course, but it’s often not the high-value, locally targeted kind, and it certainly isn’t coming from local merchants. And the sales rep who was paired with this editor? Recently quit.

He goes on — and again, it’s just one opinion: “They also don’t seem to have a firm plan about staffing. People are leaving all the time, and, rather than adjust the size of our footprint, local editors who could barely run one site are now running two, sometimes three sites, which means some of these sites look exactly the same and are not offering any real news because people are stretched so thin.”

I shared these comments with Rachel Feddersen, Patch’s Chief Content Officer (via email) and she sent back thoughts of her own, asserting that the service is actually doubling down on hyperlocal:

Patch’s mission is to improve people’s local lives.  We are a hyperlocal platform with hyperlocal content as our foundation.  Far from straying from hyperlocal content, we’re redoubling our commitment to it on it, both through the evolution of our product and our programming.

Patch hired over 300 people in 2012 alone.  With a network of over 900 sites, we are always testing new models combining original reporting, community contribution and aggregation to best serve the unique needs of our existing communities, as well as to launch new ones.  And to do so while achieving our stated goal of run-rate profitability by the end of 2013, which we are on track to achieve.

So we’ll see. Profitability and “hyperlocalism” at the cost of some strained nerves and some collateral damage?  Perhaps. It does seem these frustrations are side effects of explosive growth (both in staff and sites). But it also sounds to me like this sort of definitive leadership needs to be staged at all levels, face to face down to the local editors, and not only from the top.

Rick Robinson’s Turf Talk column appears every second week on Street Fight. Follow him at @wideopensea.