Patch news exec: ‘We’re trying to be local in 849 different ways’

Patch.com editor in chief Brian Farnham was among five guests on a panel about hyperlocal news in the Washington, DC area. The panelists were invited to speak about their news sites during “Hyperlocal Coverage: Neighborhood Blogs, Community Websites, and the Future of the News,” hosted by the National Press Club on July 14. The Press Club recorded the panel discussion and released the full video this week, see below.

Panelists included DCist editor in chief Aaron Morrissey;  Matt Rhoades, co-founder and editor of Borderstan.com, a community news site serving the DuPont, Logan and U Street neighborhood; David Garber, publisher of neighborhood blog And Now, Anacostia; and Liz Bernard, who runs neighborhood blog Frozen Tropics.

I attended this meeting and during the question-and-answer portion of the talk, I asked Farnham to respond to the Authentically Local campaign slogan that “local doesn’t scale.” Here is his reply. You can also view and hear my question and his answer at the 1:00:41 mark.

Also, during introductions at the beginning of the session (at the 4:42 mark), Farnham said Patch aims “to be the hyperlocal platform for content, commerce and community. …It does not mean we are there to replace anything that already is there it means we are there to be part of that ecosystem. It’s really about filling needs we think are there and linking to the other solutions that are there.”

Farnham:

“I think it’s true. What they are saying [that local doesn’t scale]. … We’re trying to be as local as they are, that’s why we hire someone who lives and works locally. I think a lot of the criticism that has been leveled at us along those lines is nervous criticism in their minds —  a big company coming in to squash the local player and that’s not at all what we’re trying to do.
“We’re tryingto be local in 849 different ways. … The other thing I can say on Authentically Local, it’s really not for us to say, it’s not for them to say, it’s really for the people of that community to say. If they are getting served the information they need, whether that is from a local entity that’s supported by a major corporation or an amateur who is passionate about it, that’s all that matters and people will vote with their feet.”

The YouTube ID of RN60FmG6uqg?hd=1&t=1h41s is invalid. .

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Patch news exec: ‘We’re trying to be local in 849 different ways’

  1. Rick Ellis says:

    I suppose I should start this with my own transparency. I spent five months as local editor for Patch. I liked my fellow editors and if circumstances were different, I would work there again in a heartbeat.

    But a couple of thoughts. Farnham is right that Patch sites are filling a niche in the local news ecosystem. But they’re running into the same problems as other “hyper-local” efforts. It’s difficult for the advertising to scale in a way that makes sense longterm.

    Patch sites have very aggressive traffic goals, which is why you see so many of the sites relying on tried-and-true pageview drivers such as photo galleries and faux “local” articles (“What Did Shoreview Think Of Harry Potter?”). Driving traffic is a good thing, but this approach moves Patch more towards being a hipper, more localized version of Examiner.com. Both companies are trying to use aggregations of local traffic to sell national advertisers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s probably not what a lot of Patch editors signed on for.

    At least in my area, most of the editors I met have a pretty solid journalism background (weekly newspapers, freelancers for more traditional media). But the challenges of the job mean that it’s difficult to do the job that many editors want to do. You spend a lot of time being a stenographer. What happened at last night’s city council meeting, how did Johnny do at the state swim meet? Important info, but it’s also the same stuff you can read other places. What would be more valuable (and connect the editors more to their towns), would be to write stories that take the next step. What impact does last night’s City Council decision likely to have on taxes next year? Is Jimmy’s swim team going to be around in 2012 after the school budget is cut? It’s important work and it’s not always guaranteed to drive huge pageviews. But it matters to residents, and few other hyperlocal sites are going to bother.

    One other somewhat connected thought. Patch is increasingly moving towards an aggregation of content. A lot of groups of sites have someone write a central story (say on a state issue), then have the local editors add their localized bit. You’re also seeing a lot of features being shared by neighboring Patch sites (Hottest barbecue restaurants). Nothing wrong with that per se, but the more of that readers see, the less the site feels really “local.”

    But there are some ways that aggregation makes sense, and Patch sites (or anyone else) could benefit from them. A few weeks back I needed a proof of concept for a pitch meeting, and created this site that aggegated local daily deal offers. I bought a domain, and had something up in a couple of hours. Despite the fact I’ve updated it casually since, it’s already grabbed a decent amount of traffic and is placing higher than some of the local Patch sites in Google. Having a group of Patch sites share a similar site (coded so that deals for the specific local Patch area would always be on top) would not just add value to readers. It would drive traffic and give sales people a unique platform to sell against. Those types of ideas make more sense than trying to drive traffic with top-down top five lists mandated from headquarters.

    I wish Patch well, but I think it’s fair to say that their sites are going to look very different in six months than they do now (or at least, we can only hope they do).

    • Jessica Durkin says:

      Thank you Rick for that first-hand insight into Patch management. They seem quite “Gannettized,” where there are mandates at a central office that have to be executed at the local level and journalists end up being production assistants. I agree that a Patch presence in a news ecosystem is not a bad thing — information diversity is crucial to a functioning community. You are correct, though, that reporting can be shallow. That is one of the consistent complaints about Patch.

  2. Howard Owens’ point about local ownership and true engagement as a stakeholder in the local community is key and one that the news, and especially the newspaper, industry has left behind to their detriment. What’s happening with the independent, local news operations I see as a resetting of the industry back to a time when the media was a real part of the community and the business community as well. Local news is a mom and pop business again. I worked as a hired hand (editor) in the community I now operate a local news website in (and have lived in for 19 years). My outlook is just different now.

    • Jessica Durkin says:

      Hi Darren. Thank you for weighing in. I agree, community news is becoming more mom-and-pop operation than mega-business. I liken it to “boutiquing,” such as in the retail sector. Have you noticed WalMarts and shopping malls downsizing? I think it’s the same with local news by local producers — there is more audience intimacy and community personality.

      Your site, westofthei.com, looks good!

      Jessica

  3. Patch is “local” the way Applebee’s is a “neighborhood bar.”

    Patch is “local” the way I am a “passionate amateur.”

    AOL has two Patch sites in my “market” (a market that is far from under-served by local media, by the way, debunking the original mound of Colorado cow chips heaped on us by AOL about its “purpose” and intent in starting Patch.com.)

    As for “hiring someone local” — that hasn’t played out in my community, where AOL imported a guy from another state (Mass.) to launch their faux-local site (on L.I.). In less than a year, the “editor” (a young man of very limited experience and zero local knowledge, both of which were quite evident in the “pieces of content” he produced ) was promoted to “assistant regional editor.” He was replaced by an even younger non-local guy, a 22-year-old who graduated from college two months ago. (Putting a nice kid like him in this position is downright cruel, in my opinion, but that’s another story.)

    To maintain that AOL/Patch gives a hoot about local is, as Howard points out, complete BS. Their cookie-cutter sites and formulaic content speak for themselves. Patch.com is a national chain, just like Applebee’s or Target or Lowe’s or … you fill in the blank. There is nothing local OR authentic about it.

    Does Brian really believe “the three places your dog would most like to visit” is “information” people “need”? Is that why he’s “serving that up” — and trying to pass it off as journalism? I don’t know.

    But I do know the community I have called home for 25-plus years, where my husband and I have lived and worked and raised my children and buried our parents. It’s a unique place, in spite of the invasion of big box retailers — unique in a way that the corporate executives, developing strategy in their offices a hundred miles away in Manhattan, can ever hope to grasp — in 849 different ways or otherwise.

  4. David Boraks says:

    As an independent local publisher, I support the kind of local news on the web that Patch is talking about. We’re doing the same thing in our community. We are not facing competition from Patch – yet – so I can’t say whether they’re more professional than many of us indies. However, if Mr. Farnham is casting the competition as Patch vs. “amateurs” he needs to look again. Many of us in the Authentically Local movement have far more experience and have lived in our communities longer than our competitors. (I have 35 years in journalism, and have lived in my community for 20 years.) If Patch is hiring people like us, good for them. But don’t call us amateurs.

  5. Howard Owens says:

    A little fisking is in order here.

    “We’re trying to be as local as they are, that’s why we hire someone who lives and works locally.”

    “Hiring” somebody local is not the same as being local. Local ownership makes a world of difference. A local owner is truly invested in the community. A local owner, like the advertisers he serves, shares a stake in the community. A local owner has a freedom to support the community in a way hired staff never can. A local owner is most likely in it for the long term. Hired staff is looking for the next big thing. All of that makes a world of difference in mindset.

    “I think a lot of the criticism that has been leveled at us along those lines is nervous criticism in their mind”

    Since I’m not in a Patch market, I’m free from such ad hominem attacks of “being nervous.” The only one who seems to be nervous is the one using illogical arguments to trying to bolster a bogus claim that a giant corporation can be “authentically local.”

    “We’re trying to be local in 849 different ways.”

    On one platform, with one design, with one lock-step business and content model and regular decrees on coverage from Arianna. The facts speak for themselves to debunk this claim.

    “… The other thing I can say on Authentically Local, it’s really not for us to say, it’s not for them to say, it’s really for the people of that community to say. ”

    Double speak. Either a company is authentically local or it isn’t. It’s not something a company that is owned outside of the market can claim. That’s empirical evidence not subjective interpretation. Perhaps consumers will prefer patch over the authentically local site, but that doens’t make a Patch site any more authentically local. It just means it was willing to lose money long enough to drive the locally owned business out of business.

    “If they are getting served the information they need, whether that is from a local entity that’s supported by a major corporation or an amateur who is passionate about it, that’s all that matters and people will vote with their feet.”

    Brian Farnham must be good friends with Carll Tucker. If you’re not part of a a money-losing corporation, and rather a money-making independent, well, you’re nothing more than a “passionate amateur.” Out in the ranch country of southeastern Colorado where my dad is from, they have a phrase for that kind of nonsense. It’s “bull shit.” In more sophisticated parts of the hemisphere it’s called “condescending bull shit.”

  6. Ben Ilfeld says:

    I consider myself and our organization on good terms with Patch both locally here in Sac and nationally.

    Here is the problem:
    “If they are getting served the information they need, whether that is from a local entity that’s supported by a major corporation or an amateur who is passionate about it, that’s all that matters and people will vote with their feet.”

    1. served the information they need – NO. This is backwash from a half century of corporate media blah that we are all disrupting. In our modern age we do not want to be “served” or have a large corporate entity decide what it is we “need.” As empowered local communities we are far better serving ourselves with the tools and support we need. This is web 101 stuff.

    2. people will vote with their feet – Sometimes making something sound simple reduces it to being misleading. That is the case with the last part of this quote. First, the likely outcome of healthy local media ecosystems with or without patch is that community members will engage across a spectrum of websites, mobile apps and social platforms. This combination will both promote the importance of civic engagement and leave room for local “free spaces” likely apart from corporate owned sites where social movements can coalesce. The question is not where the traffic will be as it will cross all over – this is the “web” after-all – but where high levels of engagement will take place between community members and each other and between community members and the “media.” The other question is what free spaces will be available. Therefore, it makes sense that people criticize Patch for not thinking broadly or deeply about their affect on our local media ecosystems and the way our communities manifest discourse in the persistent etherial reality that underlies modern communication and media.

    I mean no offense to anyone over at AOL or Patch. I count anyone who is working to improve and disrupt current news media as a friend. I wish only to further the discourse and perhaps change some minds inside the organization. After all, we would be nothing today if we didn’t borrow from those who went before us.

Comments are closed.