Patch: Here’s Ten Things We’re Doing RIGHT

PatchAnyone paying attention to this column knows I’ve dedicated plenty of thought to AOL’s efforts in local, primarily via its Patch effort. Sometimes I’ve listened as editors ranted, other times as AOL execs pushed back, or extolled their me-too schemes. And once I marveled at how sensitive-area hair removal was localized. Ouch.

Some at Patch/AOL were unhappy. Others mailed me with even more colorful complaints, or “can-you-believe-this” vignettes — much of which just sounded to me like daily life in a corporation.

So I wanted to turn the tables on myself a bit and challenge Patch to sell us on what is going right. To that end, I asked Patch co-founder Warren Webster what he and team could point to as 10 things he considered clear accomplishments of the company. Here is what he sent back:

• Connecting with communities. According to Webster, Patch was “just an upstart on the media scene” when it launched its first three towns in New Jersey in 2009. In four years (more like two, for most sites) Patch has become known in over 900 towns across 22 states, becoming “a go-to community hub of information and conversation for residents and businesses alike,” he says. Traffic continues to grow, and he asserts that “in many towns, it may be hard to remember ‘life before Patch’ where you wouldn’t stop to say ‘hi’ to your local editor at the coffee shop and fill her in on a developing story.”
• Disrupting an industry. Webster says Patch came along just as the experts [not this one] were predicting the demise of local newspapers; a situation where many had tried — and failed — to find a solution. “As perhaps the largest single investment in the local space, Patch jumped in with both feet and set a standard that inspired many media companies, large and small, to invest in neighborhoods again and forced legacy players to rethink their strategies,” he says.
• Iterating to find solutions.  “As a start-up that is disrupting an industry that has been around for hundreds of years, it’s not surprising,” notes Webster, that Patch “relentlessly tweaks its product and structure on the fly,” trying new things and looking for the formula that will work across every town in America. [Well, not quite every town — AOL has slowed its rapid expansion of Patches.] • Improving local life. “Patch exists because there is a critical need in local communities,” Webster says. “While the Internet did a good job connecting you with your friends and family wherever they may be (Facebook), globalizing commerce by letting you buy anything from anywhere (Amazon, EBay), or organizing the world’s information (Google), no one had solved the local information problem.” He went on to ask how does one “stay informed about the decisions that affect you most in your own neighborhood, where you send your kids to school, spend the majority of your income and make critical decisions everyday?” Webster notes that Patch provides a platform for news and information, commerce and conversation that fills that void and measurably improves the way you live your life in your town. Specific example? Webster points to crime fighting:  An East Haven, CT, Patch story apparently led to the apprehension of two fugitives — a man in New York and one in Massachusetts.
• Helping small businesses succeed. With an audience of 13.5M (comScore) monthly UVs, and average implied penetration of 75%, says Webster, Patch has become the “entry point for digital advertising in local communities, helping over hundreds of small businesses reach qualified consumers and inspiring them to buy.” Webster points out Patch has also held over 50 “Main Street University” events, bringing small business owners together with digital media experts to advise them on how to navigate digital advertising and commerce.  “Patch Partners,” said Webster, “helps small businesses by offering them tips from some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world, and giving them access to information that will give them an edge.”
• Inspiring positive change.  Since Patch started in 2009, there are hundreds of examples of residents rallying together on Patch to change their community for the better, according to Webster. “After reading a Ramona Patch rticle, which reported that Ramona’s Arriba Teen Center was in danger of closing, a Patch user, and local psychiatrist, called the center and pledged  support for the monthly expenses,” Webster said. “In addition, she challenged other local healthcare providers to meet or beat her pledge.”
• Connecting neighbors.  Webster asserts Patch is a “community bulletin board that brings neighbors together by providing a place to post events coming up, fundraisers, interest groups, local sports and every other aspect of community life.” He says that Patch is a place for conversation and “connecting neighbors to each other and to organizations that are an integral part of daily life.”And it doesn’t get more small-town-connecting-homey than this: Pacifica Patch’s local Editor was looking at the announcements posted on her site and read one looking for a missing cat. “She contacted the woman who posted the announcement,” said Webster, “confirmed that the cat was still missing, featured the announcement on the homepage — and within two hours, with the help of the community, the cat had been found and was returned to its home.” Call Hallmark!
• Providing a lifeline. “Patch proved invaluable during times of crisis over the past months, says Webster.  “During Hurricane Sandy we had over 300 communities affected. We posted over 14,000 critical updates on the status in each community, shelter, food and supplies.” And Twitter and Patch were a helpful duo in South Carolina, apparently when Mauldin Patch helped bring two missing teens safely home. The Local Editor received tips via the site’s Twitter account which he then forwarded to the authorities. In turn, the police recommended that locals sign up for Mauldin Patch alerts.
• Giving back. “Patch invests in communities by creating local jobs, providing a valuable platform, but also through volunteerism and giving back to the communities that we serve,” Webster says. “Patch employees have volunteered countless hours to good works in their town through the Give 5 program, working at food banks, homeless shelters, senior centers and many other charities. Giving and volunteerism are fundamental principles for the company.”
• Living local. Finally, while many companies have tried to approach digital media from a “we’ll build it and they’ll come” point of view, says Webster “Patch believes that you must ‘live local to win local.’ Patch has hired over 1,000 local journalists during a time when tens of thousands of journalism jobs have been lost, and hundreds of local sales professionals, because they know that the local presence is key to serving a community.” And, well, trading that former newspaper salary for Patch’s might be worth it if you can live that local life.

This will be my last Turf Talk column for Street Fight for the time being. Though, as has been the case before, I may return in time to focus on things through a different lens. Stand by.

rickr Rick Robinson is an advisor to Street Fight. Follow him at @wideopensea.

  1. Pat
    March 21, 2013

    Darn, what a missed opportunity. You should have interviewed a regional editor or, better yet, a local editor to see what Patch is doing right. Yet another gushing perspective from Warren Webster isn’t going to win over any skeptics. Not while Business Insider is publishing anonymous emails from burnt-out local Patch editors excoriating these same c-suite strategies.

    1. Patch Journalist
      March 21, 2013

      Yes, that’s good journalism. Anonymous emails from people claiming to be Patch employees. How do you decide to trust them? Do you know if they were fired for not being good at their jobs? Or if they are competitors taking shots at Patch? Journalism 101 folks. Call up a Patch editor and ask them what they think if you really want to know. And speaking of anonymous comments, what is your personal motive against Patch, to want someone to publicly deride their employer and the work that they do? What could possibly be your motivation?

      1. March 21, 2013

        So only Patch positive anonymous people like you are OK then? How do we know you’re not from Patch’s PR machine? Or even Warren Webster?

  2. Katie
    March 21, 2013

    Patch no longer has a budget to pay journalists. When they did pay it was only $25-$50 an article.They permit community members to write whatever they want. They also ask for press releases to be uploaded. They are also known to take stories from other local sites and use content to make it their own. Most Patch articles have typos. Many are sensationalized to get people to read. Headlines are often misleading. The intention of Patch when it started with three sites was not what it has evolved to today….which is just a complete mess.

    1. Patch Journalist
      March 21, 2013

      Nonsense. Patch employs something like 1000 full-time, experienced journalists. And I can promise you that “most Patch articles” don’t have typos or misleading headlines — and in no cases do we “take stories from other local sites and use content to make it our own.” We have a section of our site that links to other local news sites in addition to our own coverage. It’s clearly stated and the other sites like it because we give them traffic. I found this article on Google. Does that mean Google stole this story and tried to make it their own?

      1. Katie
        March 21, 2013

        They pay editors and community editors. They do not pay freelancers. Some Patch sites do take information that is not theirs and reformat so it looks like it is original content, but they did not do the research.

      2. March 21, 2013

        It a mini Huff Post. Patch editors don’t even attend town meetings, they take others coverage and aggregate, and include so much clicking through is pointless. It press release central, and now advertising gets you biased coverage for businesses.

        1. March 24, 2013

          That’s pretty funny. I’m a Patch local editor and I’m at meetings at least three nights a week. I guess I didn’t get the memo.

          1. March 25, 2013

            If you’re covering that many meetings a week, bless you. It’s nice to see that there are still Patch editors who believe in covering the news. Sadly I now of too many areas where a regional editor told the LE’s not to go to meetings anymore. And some LE’s have decided on their own not to cover meetings.

          2. Patcher
            March 26, 2013

            It’s a matter of staying sane. Every Patch Editor on my team has taught themselves to pick and choose. What to do when all three towns you cover have a meeting on the same night? Pick the most important one. What to do when you’ve been running around all day covering breaking news? Give yourself a break at night. It’s a work-life balance every journalist struggles with. And when you’re the only editor/writer on the site, you can’t expect to cover everything. That’s how you burn out.

          3. March 26, 2013

            Oh, I agree with that, especially since Patch cut the freelance budget severely and many LE’s lost control over their own budgets. I actually got out before my region starting making the LE’s cover more than one Patch site.

            But I also know that back in 2010 when I started that some RE’s and LE’s were just picking school districts or townships to cover per Patch with no real forethought into how that was going to workout.

  3. March 21, 2013

    Pat and Katie make some good points. There are many Patch sites that don’t do original reporting anymore. They do copy and paste from the competition and they send the readers off to their competitors.

    And Patch does cross-post popular stories across different sites just to get high UVs. And many of those stories are not hyper-local at all.

    I should know because I’m a former Patch editor and I’ve seen what has been happening. I’ve had people from the town I used to cover (even an elected official) complain to me that my former Patch doesn’t cover the news like it used to. And I’ve heard the same complaints from readers from around the country when I go online.

    That being said, there are still Patch sites that do real reporting and beat the competition. And they are great sites. But sadly many Patches aren’t what they used to be and readers and business owners have taken notice.

    So I think it would be good to have Street Fight interview regional and local editors and promise them that their names won’t appear in print and it doesn’t get back to Patch headquarters. You may get a different side of things.

  4. Joe
    March 21, 2013

    Patch has become a mess as of late. The sites have gone from quality news content to just aggregation or short write-ups of police reports, not even affidavits. They don’t go to community events either. What a waste of bandwidth!

  5. Patcher
    March 22, 2013

    Imagine being a journalist, covering every beat in two and sometimes three towns. Imagine the amount of stories that can come from those towns. Now imagine running an entire website on top of writing, editing and researching. A lot is asked of Local Editors are asked, and as with many journalists, the hours keep piling up. It’s like running an entire newsroom by yourself. Aggregation has been an unbelievable source for those exhausted editors. Patch doesn’t claim to write these stories, in fact hyperlinks back to the original source are used more on Patch than most newspaper sites who do the same. While the vision of Patch has changed as employees take on more responsibility, the goal is the same: Be the place your community can come to find out anything they need, whether it’s written by a Patch Editor or a competitor, or even a PR person.

    And you can’t tell me Patch doesn’t have original reporting. Look at its Hurricane Sandy coverage. Patch Editors were working out of their cars, using dashboard power sources, in order to keep the communities they love and work in safe and informed. That work has continued with the passion of Patch employees.

    1. March 25, 2013

      “Be the place your community can come to find out anything they need, whether it’s written by a Patch Editor or a competitor, or even a PR person.”

      With all due respect no journalist with his or her salt would say sending your readers to the competitor or allowing your readers to read a one-sided, biased press release is a good thing.

      Yes there are a lot of Patches that still do great original stories, but I can tell you now that my town that I used to cover (and just reading about other Patch towns) the readers truly want original stories. They don’t want a community bulletin board, they don’t want to read a biased press release or being sent to the competitor.

      The reality is that once Patch was severely slashing the freelance budgets, someone at Patch HQ had to come up with a way to get more “content” onto the sites and that’s why too many Patches have re-writes of competitors’ stories and running press releases.

      1. Bacon and eggs
        March 25, 2013

        Bacon, Your thinking is out-dated. I’m not surprised you’re not around at Patch anymore. The readers you’re talking about are less than 5 percent of internet information seekers, especially local. People want information. They don’t care where it comes from. The faster you learn this, the more likely you’ll be able to compete in today’s industry.

        1. March 25, 2013

          I actually left Patch this past summer for a very good job that is still in the journalism industry. Now you are right there are some who don’t care if their news is not originally written, but there is a good number of readers who do want it that way. Most of these people are from all ages and background so that should tell you something about the value of original local news stories. From what my former Patch coworkers and others Patchs numbers

          1. March 25, 2013

            Continue: As I was saying from what my former Patch coworkers and others have said the readership has gone down because of the lack of original reporting and the
            constant cross posting of clickable posts that are in no way hyper local at all to those Patches.

            Keep in my that Patch in general became popular when it acted like a real local news website and not a community bulletin message board.

          2. CowDung
            July 18, 2013

            ‘Bacon’ is correct in his statements about what people want or don’t want. I don’t want Patch to be a ‘community bulletin board’. I want Patch to be a local news source. I want to read about stuff that is going on in my area and be able to discuss it online with other Patch users. This latest Patch redesign has gone in the totally opposite direction.

    2. April 1, 2013

      The Patch where I am simply copied other sites. it was comical, it was like a 10 minute lag on Facebook seeing the original post then the Patch version. When they aggregate, they rewrite the article with so much there is no point in clicking through to the source material. Its the Huffpost model. that has pissed everyone else off for years. Patch editors not basically do whatever can be done from home.

  6. Ex-Patcher
    March 24, 2013

    As a former employee, I support Patch and hope it can survive, but many of the positives Mr. Webster cites were built up by the investment in local reporting done before the company decided to pursue a policy of cutting through attrition. In the area where I live, just in the past couple as more turnover occurs the remaining local editors have been asked to cover multiple Patches, making it harder and harder to do original hyperlocal reporting. Sadly, this reduction mimics the cutbacks by the metro dailies of the past decade. The company is banking that the communities themselves will fill the gap with user-generated content. But I don’t think the interface is strong enough yet to have that effectively happen without a journalist at the wheel.

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