Was I too harsh on Patch?

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Was I too harsh on Patch?

Earlier this week, I published a column that examined the editorial output from local news network Patch. The company is often cited as one of the few local news publishers that’s consistently profitable, and I wanted to see if it produced the level of original reporting that could be found in your typical weekly or daily newspaper.

So I visited Patch sites for two areas -- Washington, DC and Tampa, Florida -- and opened 20 articles at random. I then went through each article, one by one, to see how much original reporting had been done. I didn’t find evidence that the journalists were doing much more than aggregating and summarizing other sources. Only two out of the 20 articles seemed to contain information gleaned from interviews.

The column certainly touched a nerve. I received emails from editors of competing local news sites, as well as both current and former Patch staffers. One person who reached out to me was Warren St. John, the president of Patch who, according to his LinkedIn account, joined the company as editor-in-chief in 2014, the same year AOL sold it to Hale Global.

St. John took issue with my approach and argued that it lacked crucial context. For instance, he argued that my decision to feature the Tampa area in my analysis was ill-advised because Patch doesn’t have much of a presence in the area.

We are deeper in some places and thinner in some places. There's one reporter in Tampa, for example; we are currently hiring for that area so would expect the volume and quality of local reporting to improve there, as it has in other areas where we have added resources. We've made a business decision not to completely abandon markets like Tampa but rather to do the best we can there with limited resources (largely by notifications-based strategy that focuses on getting valuable local information out quickly to readers who value getting an early heads up to important local happenings) and to add resources over time, as we've done elsewhere. (That's because we've found it's much easier to grow audience in a place where we've maintained a presence than it is when rebooting from zero.) When we do add resources, the product improves, churn decreases, email lists and traffic grow. Rinse and repeat. It's how we've grown our audience from 8MM to 48MM UVs (March) in the last 4 years, with next to no marketing budget. Is it slow? Of course. But it's also repeatable and sustainable. Given the current climate, I'm sure you'd see the value of that.

St. John also pointed to the partnerships Patch has formed with 100 other local news publishers that allow Patch to republish their public-interest reporting to a wider audience. Those partners include ProPublica, The Marshall Project, CalMatters, and Chalkbeat.

This is a big initiative for us (we launched it quietly last year and have been onboarding partners ever since) that adds a growing layer of deeper reporting across the platform. It also supplements content from wire services and larger local publishers (AP, Bay City News and City News Service in CA, CBS Local, etc etc.) that we curate to make sure our users know all the important happenings in their communities … This week, we're publishing a 12-part series on how climate change is affecting communities in the mid-west -- the work of a consortium of half a dozen non-profits we've partnered with.

He also took issue with my methodology, arguing “that perhaps the best way to understand what's happening at Patch may not be via the snapshot of a few Patches over a day or two -- though that has its value -- but rather by pulling the lens back and looking at the progress we've made over the last couple of years.” That progress includes:

We've grown our newsroom and added resources (copy-editors, e.g.) that have improved the quality of our work; we've added those partners I mentioned; we've implemented AI for things like weather forecasts and real estate to free up reporters to do more meaningful work; we've added a curated layer of announcements from town governments that again frees up reporter bandwidth while making sure local users are in-the-know about basic happenings in their communities. Along the way we've grown our audience massively, reduced churn and built a sustainable business around local news … We're getting better literally by the week with new hires from some of the great newsrooms around the country. 

I won’t quibble with anything he said, just reiterate what I said in the piece: that I’m glad Patch is employing over 100 journalists and I think it does provide value. I still think it’s a ways off from living up to the grand ambitions first articulated by Tim Armstrong when he acquired the company for AOL, but it is making progress, and I’m certainly rooting for it to succeed.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Public domain image via Pixnio