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Local Patch freelance budgets bounce up

Two months ago, I noted that Patch.com — the patchwork of hyperlocal sites that debuted in Minnesota in November — had cut local freelance budgets in the first quarter of 2011.

Two months ago, I noted that Patch.com — the patchwork of hyperlocal sites that debuted in Minnesota in November — had cut local freelance budgets in the first quarter of 2011. I made a note to see if there was an April snapback in the operation that now employs more than 20 Minnesota journalists and dozens of freelancers.

Turns out the answer is yes; an estimate I heard from one local was a 75 percent snapback, though that varies among sites. In the second quarter, Patch.com increased budgets in 87 of roughly 90 regions, and it looks like Minnesota was one of them.

(During that period, Arianna Huffington of Huffington Post fame took over the AOL-owned operation.)

Patch.com does not break out growth stats by state, but according to ComScore, the network went from 4.4 million monthly visits in February to 6.5 million in March, a 48 percent jump.

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Patch did debut nine sites nationwide in March, but they only account for 1 percent of the growth, Patch officials say. The Minnesota count has risen from 18 in February to 21 currently, with Lake Minnetonka being the most recent addition. Stillwater is next up.

I don’t know that any local site is getting huge traffic — I wish AOL was a little more open about which sites are doing best. Based on a quick look through the Minnesota sites, I don’t see a ton of ads; in fact, a big AOL house ad on some indicates the selling proposition is probably a work in progress.

As I’ve noted in the past, Patch content ranges from solid to somewhat amateurish, and while the local editors make good enough money to jump from longer-established local newspapers, freelance pay can be pitiful. Still, I’ve found my local Patch a nice addition to the info mix — at its best, Patches are faster on their feet than local incumbents and where there’s a skilled editor or freelancer, they add new information to the media already out there.

That said, I did notice a news-story decline when the budget slipped, and going backwards is something a fledgling site really can’t take. Patch’s business model has been consistently questioned, and we’re all waiting to see if Arianna adds freebie piffle to plump out the mix. Here’s hoping AOL can find a way to keep funding real newspeople doing real news.

[Conflict of interest note: I volunteer for the Kingfield and Fulton farmers markets in Minneapolis and write a bi-weekly column about it in the Southwest Journal, for which I am unpaid. The Journal is a Patch competitor.]