Patch.com is growing fast in Minnesota

Patch.com is growing fast. The hyperlocal news sites, owned by AOL, now number 23 in Minnesota — all of them in the Twin Cities and suburbs, except for an outpost in Northfield. That’s more than double the number that were operating just six months ago.

Patch.com

Don’t know what Patch is? It’s basically a small-town newspaper online. Patch sites focus on a town or even a single neighborhood, aiming at the kind of news that big-city media don’t cover. (For more background, see posts by MinnPost’s David Brauer here and here.)

Patch is heavy on events, local businesses, photos, calendar listings and short news items. Here’s a recent item from Northfield Patch: two ducks sighted downtown.

Patch sites are generally staffed by a full-time reporter/editor who covers news and oversees freelancers and community members who also produce content. But apparently they’re not producing enough.

Last week, a memo from Patch.com’s top editor bounced around the blogosphere. In the memo, Editor-in-Chief Brian Farnham urged Patch staffers to crank out more stories. He wondered whether staff members are so busy producing content that they don’t have time to produce even more content.

“Are they spending too much time reporting and writing long articles?” Farnham wrote. “Are they too caught up in editing freelancers?”

Limited appeal
Patch sites have a built-in limit to their appeal. The kind of extremely local news that might interest a neighborhood resident — what the ambulance was doing at Mrs. Johnson’s house yesterday, for example — isn’t of much value to someone living even a mile or two away. So Patch can’t sell advertising on any of its sites with the promise of reaching large numbers of eyeballs.

What it hopes to do, instead, is reach a core group of committed readers who come back often. That kind of audience has real value of its own, as I mentioned last week in a post about the future of digital news. And that’s why Patch wants its staff to be more prolific. The more often fresh content appears on the site — yes, even duck photos — the more likely people are to visit regularly.

Opinions on Patch vary widely. Some see it as the savior of the news business; others are skeptical that it can ever generate enough revenue to succeed. Similar hyperlocal news sites, like the Washington Post-sponsored LoudounExtra, have failed. But none has had the national scale of Patch.

I think there’s definitely a place in the news ecosystem for Patch. It produces a special kind of local reporting that people will welcome and find valuable, once they discover it. But Patch will never replace the kind of journalism that many of the larger traditional media still produce regularly. It won’t have the depth you find on a site like MinnPost, or the resources and expertise that the Star Tribune can bring to bear on an important public issue.

At least, not as long as its top editor is sending out memos urging his staffers to lay off those long articles.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Bill Roehl on 05/23/2011 - 09:53 am.

    When discussing whether a local Patch outlet will survive depends on a few factors:

    1. The local editor.

    If the local editor is knowledgeable about their area (and the surrounding area) then they will be able to provide decent content. Unfortunately as seen in Rosemount and Apple Valley (two I follow more closely than the others) the editors are/were not entrenched prior and thus their content is sub-par at best.

    2. The forces acted upon them by the regional editors.

    The regional editors seem to push requirements down the pipe which seem a bit ridiculous to those of us familiar with the local blogosphere/news arena. Gas prices? Top 5 restaurants for a particular genre (when it’s clear the editor knows nothing due to the poor picks/chain restaurants chosen)? And especially recent home sales. Ugh.

    3. The likelihood that they can build a community off this content.

    If the content isn’t good, isn’t worthy, and isn’t really all that interesting then why would anyone want to come back?

    Overall I have been unimpressed with the Patch outlets across Dakota County. It’s not that I think someone is doing better elsewhere, it’s just that the signal to noise ratio is so high and the cross-city content comes so often that it’s just really not worth many people’s time to get involved as the article above claims they will in order to attract those repeat visitors worthwhile to advertisers.

    We’ll see how it goes as time marches on but as of right now I’m still not convinced they’re anything worth worrying about. However I am still not willing to pass full judgement just yet.

  2. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 05/23/2011 - 12:33 pm.

    I’m a regular contributor to several Patch sites. Color me impressed with the editors and reporters I have worked with.

  3. Submitted by Mark Weber on 05/23/2011 - 01:14 pm.

    “(Patch) produces a special kind of local reporting that people will welcome and find valuable.” Most people have already found that — it’s called local community newspapers, almost all of which are also online, and using Twitter and Facebook as well. No new ground is being plowed by Patch.

  4. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 05/23/2011 - 03:21 pm.

    News is still news, regardless of the medium, Mark. That said, the struggles of the print media, including many community weekies are well known. Patch may — or may not — find a way to fill that important role. Also, my ability to directly contribute photos and news content to Patch makes it a rising star in my book.

    To be fair, MNSun website also has this feature, along with WCCO-TV “The Wire” and KSTP-TV’s “Where You Live” feature.

  5. Submitted by Gene Smith on 05/23/2011 - 03:28 pm.

    Anyone who thinks Patch isn’t breaking news is simply missing the boat. The sites have done a fantastic job on everything from gas main explosions to floods, tornados to fires.
    It’s easy for Mr. Reinan, who obviously appears to be some sort of newspaper apologist, to pick up one fuzzy feature photo and say “see, this is the work Patch is doing,” and lead everyone else to completely miss the point. You could take a feature photo from any daily newspaper and rip them for doing the same thing, or KARE 11 for their small “Before We Go” segment.
    It’s not like these people are hacks. Many have journalism degrees and most have prior experience.
    As for Mr. Weber, as your wife what she likes to see on a community website. I bet she enjoys the small features on restaurants, etc.

  6. Submitted by John Reinan on 05/23/2011 - 05:57 pm.

    Gene, I won’t dispute what you say. I *am* a newspaper apologist, but your point is very well taken. You’re right — a person could take one item from any of the major news media and hold it up as an example of fluff.

    I do object to your calling it a “rip” — my observations on Patch were largely positive, and in fact I agitated for the staff members to be allowed to do even more ambitious work.

    But I’m not trying to make this a back-and-forth. Your comment was well placed.

  7. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 05/24/2011 - 08:19 pm.

    I have found Patch editors to be responsive to news leads, and I like the connectivity Patch has to Facebook and Twitter. Their new blogging feature is a nice addition that gives this new media even more appeal and ways to attract readers.

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