What Patch Did: Filling the Void Won’t be Easy
Published on February 10, 2014 · Filed Under Uncategorized
by Jaci Clement
(Long Island, NY) Long Island community news has taken a serious blow from the drastic layoffs that hit Patch.com. Yet, even on life support – with four editors left on Long Island – breaking news is still being delivered to our inboxes via Patch.
Patch was an interesting push for innovation, and it was fitting that AOL – the stodgy tech company – should conduct the experiment. After all, it married up the old-school idea that communities should know what’s happening at school board meetings and inside town halls, with the new-school’s technological strength of multimedia glitz and immediacy.
Founded in 2007, it built a brand around the concept of ‘patching’ communities together. It hired up fast, paid pretty well and quickly got under the skin of large newsrooms everywhere for its failure to move at glacial speed. Patch people got to play with new gadgets, like audio and video, at a time when staid dailies were desperately still trying to get their photographers to answer their pagers.
Soon, little Patch sites proved they could break news on everything from local crime sprees to identifying which potholes were the worst in your neighborhood. While Patch became needful to each small community it served – some more than others, of course – it also managed to capture the charm and personality of area main streets and town halls’ dysfunctions, as well as give ink to small-town celebrities, village gadflies and the curmudgeons in attendance at every public hearing. In short, it did what the best weekly newspapers did, but in real time. And it proved, time and again, that gumption and the willingness to burn shoe leather mattered more than amassing a large newsroom.
On Long Island, Huntington Patch turned into the gold standard for other Patch sites: It broke news regularly, and managed to turn a profit. Maybe it gave Patch hope that others would follow suit, instead of setting off an alarm of just how out of touch Patch’s business model was with its mission. In fact, no greater case can be made for the importance of knowing a community’s advertising needs better than a hyperlocal initiative that chronicled those needs on a daily basis. If ever there was a perfect scenario for using big data to shape a business model, this was it. And that’s where AOL CEO Tim Armstrong’s plan went so terribly wrong. Ironically, technology’s ever changing face collapsed Patch.
Hat’s off to former Huntington Patch Editor Pam Robinson, now working for Suffolk County, and Patch’s regional boss, David Reich-Hale, who’s landed at Newsday.
On the Island, we’re left with yet another problem: The loss of a voice for residents to turn to in times of emergencies.
We learned this from Superstorm Sandy, when 90 percent of our populace struggled without power. But if their mobiles were working and connected, they found Patch sites carrying developing news and needful information. Mother Nature’s disaster was a boon for Patch, which saw its mobile traffic numbers surge. And yet, AOL couldn’t figure out how to capitalize on the work of its Long Island staff which, in its heyday, numbered just under 30 people. With last year’s mass layoff, FMC made its case to Armstrong and his senior management team on how Long Island was the perfect match for Patch. Perhaps that’s why Long Island’s Patch sites, unlike those in Brooklyn, still exist.
There’s a lot to be learned from the Patch experiment. Too many editors lacked experience, and on-the-job training landed some in hot water on more occasions than they’ll care to remember. This aspect of Patch showed why journalism training and mentoring is needed in the industry, perhaps more than ever before. It’s true that publishing in real time exposes mistakes to the world and original reports are often referred to as ‘drafts,’ not final stories. That’s a serious issue in publishing today and it’s undermining the entire industry.
And, maybe the rush-to-market on a national scale had more to do with the arrogance of being flush with cash, but a more disciplined approach of beta testing the brand in a few desirable locales and tweaking, tweaking, tweaking may have helped ensure Patch’s longevity. Perhaps, too, the idea of local sales staffs was found lacking in imagination, but localism plays a strong role in how products and services are advertised. Always has, always will.
Despite its weaknesses, Patch pushed media to take a good, hard look at itself. If media has since discovered that the reason its mainstream circulation and ratings have declined has more to do with being out of touch than the victim of fragmentation, then the Patch experiment succeeded in ways that will never be measured on a balance sheet. For that, Armstrong and his team should be proud.