Patch’s St. John: People Crave an Understanding of What’s Happening Right Around Them

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Founded in 2007 by Tim Armstrong, Warren Webster, and Jon Brod to address a perceived lack of local news coverage online, Patch, the nationwide network of hyperlocal news sites, was acquired by AOL in 2009 after Tim Armstrong became that company’s CEO. Unfortunately, even with $100 million invested, Patch languished under its corporate parent after the expected synergies between hyperlocal news and targeted advertising failed to materialize.

In January 2014, AOL sold off a majority stake in Patch to Hale Global, an investment firm with a strong track record as a turnaround specialist — although one with more experience with technology than media companies. Nearly two years later, after an initial spate of staff and site contractions, Patch is growing cautiously.

I recently sat down with editor-in-chief Warren St. John to talk about the future of local news and why working at Patch is the most fun he’s ever had in journalism. (Disclosure: St. John and I were college classmates.)

Patch has seen some ups and downs in recent years — what is the state of things?
We have about just under 70 full-time salaried editors. Compared to the old Patch, which had a newsroom the size of the New York Times, that may sound small, but when I talk to other digital publishers and I tell them we’ve got 70 full-time salaried reporters in the field, that sounds like a lot to them.

Our goal is to add more as we grow. We’re bootstrapped. We don’t do things we can’t pay for. As we get revenue, we put it immediately into expanding because we need to be national to really fully realize Patch’s potential.

What are the criteria you look at for opening a new Patch?
AOL had a very complicated and sophisticated algorithm for selecting their communities. I wish we could say we have something equally sophisticated, but we do it through reporting. For example, we wanted to be in Texas, and we wanted to start in Austin, so it was really a matter interviewing lot of people to find out “Where would you expect Patches to be?”

That’s one of the funny things about hyperlocality. You can do lat-longs, zip codes, town names, and everything else, but until you actually talk to people about how they view their community, what the boundaries are between different sections of the community, you can’t really get it right.

Patch editor-in-chief Warren St. John
Patch editor-in-chief Warren St. John

What are the main day-to-day challenges you face and how are you addressing them?
Being editor of Patch is really mostly logistics. It’s like an editorial operations role because it’s 900 sites, 900 Twitter accounts, 900 Facebook pages, 900 RSS feeds, and 900 separate newsletter lists. Managing and figuring out how to build the processes and systems that allow all of this to function reliably, smoothly, and efficiently — that’s the consuming daily problem with Patch.

We have a national editor who sits in New York and seven regional managers, each of whom manages different-sized teams. We’re trying to constantly turn the knobs and pull the levers to deploy people as efficiently as we can. We set goals for the company, then back-engineer those down to the monthly level, to the daily level, and to the Patch level.

We have a saying at Patch that just because you’re a good reporter or a good journalist doesn’t mean you’re going to be good at Patch. Patch editors, especially now that they have to cover multiple towns, have to be incredibly organized and efficient.

What are some of the industry-level trends you’re dealing with at Patch?
There’s a separation underway among media properties where at one end you have the extremely high-value, expertise-driven publications like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the FT — publishers that are adding incredible value by virtue of both their resources and their talent pool. At the other end — and there are not a lot of these left — are the hyperlocal publishers. Then you have this big chunk in the middle. That feels like a very precarious place to be because a lot of these sites are doing the same thing.

What I see when I’m looking at my screen all day is an incredible homogenization going on across media properties. Along with homogenization, there’s a risk of commoditization with a certain type of content — content that’s very low lift, easily aggregated, everybody can have it up in 30 minutes, and quickly the audience is getting sliced and diced and spread thin.

There’s a greater appreciation now of the vacuum in hyperlocal news coverage. There are great hyperlocal news sites in many communities, but there are many, many more communities that don’t have any hyperlocal news and which used to be served by a regional publisher. In my hometown, Birmingham, A.L., has pulled back to a three-day-a-week print schedule. My mother’s friends all joke that if you die on the wrong day, your friends might not know about it for two days. We talk to people who really feel that absence. When Patch got a lot smaller at the beginning, there was a lot of frustration and anger. What happened to my local editor? People wanted that person around.

When I was working on a big feature at the New York Times, I would tell my editor I was really worried someone was going to steal the story, and he would say, “No, you can’t steal an elephant.” Hyperlocal is the elephant you can’t steal.

Thinking about some of the big technology issues of the day — programmatic and ad blocking — is programmatic helping you target better and more efficiently? And to what extent do you feel ad blocking is going to negatively affect your prospects?
Programmatic is a big part of our revenue, and our team has done an incredible job of radically improving our programmatic CPMs. Our CTRs on average are three to four times what a lot of other publishers experience, and a lot of that’s for ads that offer a geotargeting element. These are frequently much more relevant ads.

But like everyone, we struggle with balancing ad revenue and user experience. For example, we had a very successful, high-impact, left rail unit that we removed from the site even though it generated a lot of revenue because it just frustrated people. There are tradeoffs you make every day with programmatic.

As far as ad blocking, we are operating under the assumption that all the most dire predictions will come to pass, not overnight clearly, and this will be offset by some increase in CPMs as impressions become scarcer. We’re thinking about ways we can get ahead of that trend.

We’ve just introduced a new product called Patch Direct, which is a premier local listing. It’s on the homepage of every Patch, in every daily newsletter, and it’s a 100 percent share of voice. So if you buy the local real estate agent slot there for a year, we don’t sell that to anyone else. You’re the sole real estate agent who brings the community to Patch.

We haven’t really begun marketing it fully, but we’re already getting orders from people who want to buy that slot across multiple towns. One of our challenges is to find sponsors that through native content or Patch Direct want to be the organization bringing Patch to the community because that’s thought of as the thing to do, and they get positive feedback from the community because they’re helping keep alive something that’s valued by the community.

You come from a national news background: You started your career writing for the New Yorker; you wrote for the New York Times for a long time. What was the biggest challenge for you personally in shifting your focus to the local level?
Someone might say that being a reporter is a skill set way over here, and then figuring out how to make a news organization run successfully is a skill set way over here, but having published a couple of books, there’s a lot of overlap. You’re trying to find an audience and build a sense of loyalty among a readership that may not know who you are. You’re trying to figure out what their needs are and how you can create something valuable to them that’s worth not just their money, but their time and attention, and ideally, their enthusiasm.

The logistics of how you do this is definitely the biggest challenge. I’ve had to change my focus and just think about the local user. We’re constantly trying to figure out “Is this the kind of thing you can’t get anywhere else?,” “What can we get no one else can get?”

We have some tools that the AOL-era Patch didn’t have — tools that allow us to listen to social media, to stay on top of things, to be more than one place at a given time. We’ve invested heavily in that infrastructure so we can get better at delivering hyperlocal news.

Our traffic has been steadily going up. Between August 2014 and August 2015, we went from 10 million to 20 million unique visitors, and that’s because we’re doing hyperlocal. It’s like selling cupcakes: People like cupcakes, so how do we produce more cupcakes more efficiently because people crave them? Ultimately, people crave that local awareness of their community.

Noah Elkin is Street Fight’s managing editor.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Related Street Fight Content:

3/6/2014: New Patch Owner Hale Running Company in ‘Lean, Entrepreneurial Mode’

2/6/2014: AOL’s Armstrong: ‘We’re Not Giving Up on Patch’