My local Patch — so far, I’m impressed

AOL’s now has ten Minnesota sites up and running: Eagan, Edina, Golden Valley, Mendota Heights, Minnetonka, Northfield, Richfield, Southwest Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Woodbury.

Because these things are hyper-local by design, the one I can judge best is in my own neck of the woods: Southwest Minneapolis. While I want those of you in other communities to post your reviews in the comments, after the first few weeks, I’m impressed with what I’m getting locally.

As a former neighborhood board president and current volunteer farmers market organizer in two of the nine neighborhoods Southwest Minneapolis Patch covers, I’m the type of busybody who should read Patch. I also used to edit the very good incumbent paper Patch competes against, the Southwest Journal.

(Conflict-of-interest note: the Journal runs our farmers market column in each bi-weekly issue during the season. It’s a tremendous help to our marketing efforts.)

Here’s what I like best about my local Patch:

Omnipresence. There are a number of issues coursing through the neighborhood at the moment — for example, a potential dog park, an expanded liquor license at a once-troublesome spot — and a Patch reporter has covered the meetings. They’ve tracked crime spurts and updated with arrests.  They’re chatting up local business owners at a remarkable rate. They pay attention to local sports, not always a top priority in Minneapolis. And they’ve stretched to do a series on bullying (or lack thereof) at local schools.

Speed. A true busybody too busy to attend the meeting wants a report right away. A lot of Patch news is same-day or next day and for the most part is concise but not superficial.

Staff. I was skeptical that a single reporter could possibly compete with established institutions. But Patch’s local editors (who are also primary reporters) get a freelance budget. Southwest Minneapolis’s Jon Collins has spent the money wisely on experienced local journalists such as Sheila Regan and James Sanna.

Technology. Unlike many community papers — who want to conquer the web but don’t make enough money to justify much investment there — Patch is web-native. The best thing I can say about their website is it’s straightforward and handles multi-media (especially documents) well. But their mobile version was a revelation: fast, easy to use and very readable.  

All in all, it adds up to a very credible, surprisingly comprehensive community portrait. So what are the downsides?

Depth. A next-day story satisfies the hunger, but isn’t always as comprehensive as ones that weekly reporters have days to pursue. There’s nothing stopping Patch from doing such reporting, too (they can break it up into serialized posts over several days). However, I know how the Net’s “feed-me” culture conspires against think time. The bullying series was well-intentioned, but didn’t really have a lot of revelations, in this ex-editor’s opinion.

Boosterism. Regular, positive business coverage is fine for the most part, and I can’t say I’ve read any Patch profiles where I’ve thought, “they’ve put lipstick on a pig.” Boosterism certainly isn’t limited to web-only publications, but I’ll be interested to see when (or if) Patch gores a potential advertiser.

Community involvement. It’s so early, but until recently, Patch’s comment board was mostly employees back-patting each other. That can stop now. Because incumbent sites don’t host discussions well, there’s a real opportunity for Patch; the dog park story is probably the first to generate any kind of discussion. Thankfully, it’s more civil than the ones on daily newspaper sites, but not insipid. But it doesn’t appear to be a community hub … yet.

Money. Is anyone going to advertise? (Again, it’s early.)

And your local Patch? As they say, your mileage may vary, especially according to the local editor’s talent and experience level. MPR’s Bob Collins recently tweeted that the Woodbury Patch seemed a week or two behind the Woodbury Bulletin (like the Journal, a formidable local competitor).

Again, if you live in one of Patch’s 10 Minnesota towns, how are they doing by you?

I expect to be a repository for all of Patch’s missteps — the only one that’s gotten back to me so far is from a beleaguered city official who said Patchsters had overwhelming city workers with requests for data, photos and any free content that could populate the site. The official said providing info was his job, but Patch was acting less inquisitive than leech-like.

If that’s the worst problem out there, it’s not a bad one. In other markets, there have been isolated plagiarism incidents and playing hardball to pressure the competition out of business. Obviously, let me know if that’s happening here.

The over-arching concerns about Patch remain the same. Do the out-of-towners have staying power? I wonder if my local site’s output is a bit like a Qwest “special offer” — a good deal for six months, and then things get worse should the local paper get wounded.

I have no doubt the Patchsters I follow are working hard. Can they keep it up? And can Patch find the revenues to support such news-gathering? Can a national corporation demonstrate the sort of granular local commitment the Journal has?

Right now, this local reader feels like he has an embarrassment of riches — but the question is whether the riches are there for Patch … and for the incumbents with much deeper ties to their communities.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 12/03/2010 - 03:34 pm.

    A quick look at the Northfield site shows me repeats of stories from the local paper and “features” on advertisers.

    It’s early and Northfield could use another news/commentary source. This could become one, but there’s a long way to go.

  2. Submitted by Hiriam Jones on 12/03/2010 - 05:37 pm.

    There is a huge blowup in the south metro about the Rosemount Patch. It doesn’t look like it’s even up yet, but there are “astro-turfing” claims.

  3. Submitted by Jon Collins on 12/03/2010 - 06:36 pm.

    It’s not for me to represent Patch. But I just wanted to say that I’m working on building up user engagement. So far, I’m so proud that we’ve got some of what I think are the best, most articulate dialogues I’ve read on the internet— and we launched 13 days ago!

    I welcome anyone to offer critiques, comments or tips about our coverage. I am very, very happy to be able to do what I think is journalism’s mission: serving the public interest.

    Thanks (and please register and participate),

  4. Submitted by Andy Kruse on 12/03/2010 - 11:22 pm.

    The editors seem pretty comfortable with contextual linking in stories — referencing the websites of local schools and organizations.

    But. Every link in every story carries a nofollow attribute for search engines. Not very neighborly.

  5. Submitted by Brenda Bredahl on 12/04/2010 - 10:53 am.

    While the Hudson, Wis., Patch is not live yet, editor Mike Foley posted the selection of the city’s new interim mayor as it happened this past week on the Hudson Patch Facebook and Twitter accounts. That’s pretty cool for local news junkies … definitely will be interesting to watch.

    (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been doing some copywriting for the Hudson, Wis., Patch community listings and may do an occasional freelance article.

  6. Submitted by Michael Norman on 12/04/2010 - 11:50 am.

    Building on what Brenda said, a solid, Internet-based, news-gathering operation here in far western Wisconsin would be most welcome for this reader and retired UW-River Falls journalism prof. The Pioneer Press has one reporter assigned to these western Wisconsin counties (Pierce, St. Croix, Polk, primarily) and assigns more for the occasional big story, but otherwise readers here are dependent on local weeklies. The Star Tribune seems to cross the St. Croix River only when a big story warrants. No major Wisconsin daily circulates in this area. And while we can read online the Leader Telegram from Eau Claire, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the State Journal out of Madison, those newspapers rarely send reporters to cover this region, one of the fastest growing in the state. While the AOL Patch in Hudson (and why not add River Falls to its title?) may or may not be the answer to the dearth of serious, up-to-date news coverage over here, I am hopeful its introduction is a step in the right direction.
    Michael Norman
    River Falls, Wis.

  7. Submitted by Tony Jones on 12/05/2010 - 08:13 am.

    I’ve been following the Edina Patch pretty closely — tweets, daily emails, going to the site. While the live tweets from Park & Rec meetings and girls hockey games are interesting, I doubt that kind of reportage is sustainable. I sent a news tip (that Edina state senator Geoff Michel had just been elected to a position of Republican leadership) and didn’t even get an email back, much less any notice of the story on Patch.

    But my biggest disappointment with Edina Patch thus far is that nine in ten stories seem to be about local businesses. If that’s what Patch is going to be about, then I won’t follow for very long…

  8. Submitted by sheldon mains on 12/05/2010 - 10:28 am.

    First, a bias notice, I’m chair of the board for the Twin Cities Daily Planet. I see AOL’s patch of just skimming the “high-rent” areas of the metro–places they think they can get advertising from. I see no plans for them to cover Near North Minneapolis, Powderhorn Park (Mpls), Frogtown (St. Paul), Phillips in Mpls. TC Daily Planet isn’t covering these neighborhoods well either, but at least we’re trying.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/05/2010 - 12:05 pm.

    No St. Louis Park patch actually. Page not found.

  10. Submitted by Kevin Judd on 12/11/2010 - 01:49 pm.

    Paul, Perhaps a bad link was repaired, or perhaps the site was down, but the St. Louis Patch is up and running now.

    David, thanks for mentioning Patch. It looks interesting. As with all things local, it will live or die based on local engagement.

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