Will Patch save our souls, or send us to hell? (also, what the heck is Patch?)
So yesterday I’m browsing my Twitter feed and I come across the headline “Will Patch Destroy Local Papers?“
Naturally, my first instinct is to panic.
My second is to figure out what the hell this Patch thing is.
So here’s the rundown.
Patch is an AOL-owned American network of websites with the goal of bringing “hyperlocal” news to communities of between 20,000 and 50,000 people. Here’s the site for Mercer Island, in Northern Washington. Each site boasts a full-time editor and some freelancers. The idea, essentially, is to make money by selling local ads online and drawing viewers with a mix of PSA what’s-going-on notices and mildly interesting police and fire scanner stuff.
This is hardly a new idea, of course, even in B.C. Check out Abbotsford Today. Think a smaller, more cautious version of the once-wonderful, now essentially defunct Kelowna.com. Also, think the Nelson Post/News in the Koots or Castanet.
The Editors Weblog has been all over the subject:
Currently, more than 400 sites are live, and the company aims to have 500 by the end of the year, which currently means hiring 30 people a week. Having started in New Jersey in February 2009, the sites have now spread all over the US. Each covers a community of between 20,000 and 50,000 people, and each has a dedicated full time editor.
The interesting and controversial thing about Patch, however, is the millions of dollars (more than $50 million) that AOL is pouring into the venture, and the very real journalists that they’re hiring. That’s spurred a lot of animosity who fear that AOL entering the local web journalism market is like WalMart setting up shop on the outskirts of your little town.
Editors Weblog asks: “Will local competitors be able to withstand this huge corporation’s invasion or will they fold? Or, is it possible for Patch and local papers to coexist and complement each other?”
Several opine that there are signs that Patch will provide much needed competition on the web and should make for a better experience for audiences and advertisers.
There are, as of yet, no signs that Patch would expand north of the border. I’m not sure if there are any rules that would stop it from doing so. But the prospect of a competitor like Patch—even a smaller Canadian version—is the very reason that community newspaper chains have been emphasizing the whole “Digital First” thing.
Of the aforementioned competitors, Nelson Post/News in the Koots comes closest to matching what Patch is promising. You’ve got very low overhead and a lot of room to grow. The main thing is building a very local audience. Kelowna.com started too big and the steep overhead costs meant it didn’t have enough time to build a readership, despite its quality. Castanet started, and remains, smaller and that’s why it’s still alive. (OK, that and the mighty Kelowna fire of 2005). Also to note: Kelowna is bigger than the communities that Patch is targeting.
To make something like Patch work, you’ve got to fill a need. Black Press and company would like to think that they have left no gap in the market. Black would like there to be nothing that, say, Patch Vernon could provide that the Vernon Morning Star—with its established brand and large newsroom—could not.
And they’re probably right; there is no reason to believe that the Patch model will work. I strongly suspect that small towns simply aren’t digitally connected as strongly as some might suspect. Maybe it will be strong in 30 years, when seniors will have grown up with the internet. But today, not enough people can find such sites on their own. And there’s simply not enough going on in a small town to be able to post 10 or 11 items a day.
I also doubt that there is an audience for live blogs of city hall meetings, even if the idea is marvelous and inspiring (by all means, live blog if you’re going to take notes on your computer anyways, but it’s not going to add much traffic.)
But having just spent three paragraphs saying Patch is not a threat, I’ll add a caveat: I could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time, and if I’m wrong, community newspapers are pretty much defenseless against the coming web onslaught.
Every community newspaper relies on the same formula: write stories; publish in paper; post links on web; allow comments, maybe. Patch and the best websites have a different flow: write short story about something that happened, or will happen, today; publish now on web; solicit/beg for comments; update story; publish on web; solicit comments.
The former is a “good enough” approach to the web. The latter is an “as good as possible” approach.
Until Black Press and company decentralize their websites and give online training and capabilities to editorial staff, there will be a gigantic gap in the defenses of every community newspaper; and a good reason for journalists to consider jumping to online startups before it’s too late.
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