Patch's Peril and Promise

by Dr. Les Sillars
January 5, 2011

A 2009 graduate of our Patrick Henry College journalism program walked into my office for a visit recently, and if I were a newspaper publisher the sight would have been terrifying. Nathan Curby himself is not particularly scary. He's a polite young man and very bright, but he is on the front lines of a massive effort to shift how local news operates, a change that threatens journalism's current business models while offering readers the chance to help shape their own local news.

Nathan is the editor of the Dale City Patch, a brand new local news website in a community along I-95 just south of Washington, D.C., and one of a network of such sites AOL is spending $50 million to launch this year. There are now in the Patch network over 400 sites in 19 states, most in the suburbs of major cities like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles (80 in California alone, from Agoura Hills to West Hollywood).

If you haven't seen a Patch website yet, you probably will soon; Patch's goal over the next few years is to blanket the nation with thousands of such sites. The rest of the journalism industry has been cutting reporters and editors, but Patch's website lists 362 immediate openings for regional and local editors in selected states, notably New York, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The sites offer pretty standard local news -- mainly sports, community events, crime, real estate, municipal government -- while the sites themselves focus on getting readers involved.

“Think of our site as the community water cooler -- a place where you can stop by and talk about everything going on in town,” wrote the editor of the Milpitas (Calif.) Patch, who then detailed how that can go way beyond commenting on stories. Readers can ask and respond to questions, post wedding/birth announcements and events to a calendar, upload photos and video, review restaurants, and list their business/church/charity in the directory.

There's even a “shout” feature that is essentially a glorified comment box, but the comments appear on the front page in big letters so readers know their words will get attention. And, of course, readers can stay in touch via Facebook and Twitter feeds.

This is by far the most ambitious effort yet to cash in on the theory that the way to make big money in local news is not by delivering information but by building an online community.

Others have tried for years to make similar “hyper-local news” models work. Organizations from one-man blogs to the New York Times and MSNBC have tried to find a viable business model. Industry analysts estimate that local businesses spend $100 billion annually on advertising, so there's clearly money on the table.

But very few hyper-local news operations make money; fewer still have shown the potential to go national. Patch hopes to be the breakthrough. It's keeping expenses for each website low (4.3 percent of the cost of a comparable community newspaper, it claims) by limiting news gathering staff to one full-time editor (at around $40,000/year, plus a budget for freelancers) while using regional advertising salespeople. Technical support comes from headquarters in New York. The sites are bright, well-designed, and easy to use.

Is Patch really a potential threat to your local metro daily? What about national publications like the Washington Post and USA Today?

The news industry has been struggling for years, and Patch could well take a big bite from the existing revenue pie. With a national network Patch could offer advertisers as much or as little exposure as they want. Mom's Diner could buy an ad on a local website, or an Atlanta car dealership might want one on all the Patches in its metro area, while McDonald's might post a Big Mac coupon on the entire Patch network.

If the Patch model does, one day, dominate community news, there will be upsides and downsides (as with anything). Community journalists constantly complain that they're too busy covering rubber duck races to have time to hold powerful people and institutions accountable, and that problem will be even worse for lone editors like Nathan. Local news could end up becoming even more trivial than it already is.

On the other hand, such websites offer a huge opportunity for concerned citizens to make a difference in the quality and direction of their local news. The Internet promised to make the news interactive, yet American journalism culture, deep down, detests much audience involvement,  outside an occasional news tip and letters to the editor. Now Patch is begging readers to get involved. Here's a chance to publish a column, post a comment, or pitch a deserving story straight to the editor.

“Newspapers aren't going away any time soon,” Nathan said. “But this is a great alternative for both readers and advertisers that want to reach their community. Journalism isn't dead, and at least in this outlet, it's thriving.”

Dr. Les Sillars directs the Journalism Program at Patrick Henry College. Besides his duties at PHC, Dr. Sillars is Mailbag Editor at WORLD magazine and a Contributing Editor at Salvo magazine.