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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.

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.)

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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.

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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.