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Nov. 4, 2015, 11:36 a.m.
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Grown from Patch: A crop of new hyperlocal news sites has sprung up from AOL’s failed platform

When their jobs at Patch ended, some journalists didn’t give hyperlocal news up.

The general conception of Patch, AOL’s failed local news platform, is that it was, well, just that: a failure. Patch ultimately laid off hundreds of employees in 2013 and, after a change in ownership, lives on only in a much smaller form.

But there’s a brighter side to Patch’s failure, and that comes from the fact that, as Ken Doctor pointed out in 2013, “AOL probably hired more journalists than any other American news organization in the 2011-2012 period.” After those journalists were laid off, many of them still saw enough promise in local news to launch their own sites.

That isn’t surprising, said Dylan Smith, editor and publisher of TucsonSentinel.com and chairman of Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION). “The longterm impact of AOL’s shortsighted network news play has mainly been to serve as a negative object lesson,” he said. “‘Local doesn’t scale’ has been a catchphrase among LION members since the earliest days of our discussions, and Patch only served to reinforce that.”

But, he said, “local news does indeed work, when it’s done well by local reporters working for local news organizations.” A dozen or so former Patch editors who are now LION members have struck out on their own, and there are more projects in the works.

“There’s much that is heartening about the experience of former Patchers who’ve launched their own news operations,” said Smith. “They’re doing amazing journalism, sharing creative revenue and editorial concepts with other LION members, and showing what’s possible with some sweat and grit and ability.”

I talked to several former Patch editors about what they learned there and how they’ve used it to run the sites they went on to launch independently. One of the things that they had in common: They’d enjoyed the feeling of working with relative independence at Patch, and now they wanted to truly work for themselves.

“I got used to the way I had worked at Patch,” said Sharon Swanepoel, founder and publisher of Monroe Local News and Loganville Local News in Georgia. “I knew I was never going to go back to an 8 to 5.”

“I really couldn’t picture going back to work for a company, to a job-y job,” said Michael Dinan, the owner and editor of New Canaanite in Connecticut.

“I knew there wasn’t anything else I would rather do,” said Josh Popichak, founder and editor of Saucon Source in Pennsylvania.

If you’re going to go local, go really local

“There’s a lot that Patch did right, but the conventional wisdom is that they tried to nationalize, and you really can’t nationalize local news,” said Swanepoel. “For it to work, it has to be local. I ignore national news completely and stay local. Local events, local crime, local government.”

“You have to have a very high bar for which content you’re going to put on the site,” said Dinan. “My two criteria for whether I’m going to do a story or not are, number one, this has to be something that, if you’re not very closely tied to New Canaan, you have no interest in reading this story. Number two, [any story we do] should look out of place on a news site covering any other town. I don’t localize national stories. I don’t do regional stories, like a delay on the train system in New York. I stay away from those things entirely.”

“Patch was not a job — Patch was a lifestyle for me,” said Joni Hubred-Golden, founder of the Farmington Voice in Michigan. “One of the things things I heard over and over again after the layoffs was, ‘What happened to Patch? I really miss that news that you brought to us, and we’re not getting that anymore.’ It was part of what drove me to consider doing something on my own. People missed that daily, truly hyperlocal news.”

You’re not alone

Many of these former Patch editors turned to LION, the nonprofit organization for hyperlocal publishers that launched in 2011. Through LION, they’ve found some of the sense of community and learning that they’d previously found by working at Patch. When Swanepoel attended LION’s first conference and joined the private Facebook group for members, “it gave me the ability to see some of the things that Patch had done wrong,” she said, “and also see some of the things that other people had done that were working for them.”

“LION is the bees’ knees,” said Heather Asiyanbi, cofounder of the Racine County Eye in Wisconsin. “You can feel so isolated, and one of the biggest things that they helped us with was to get out of that kind of thinking.” From LION’s Facebook group, for instance, Asiyanbi and cofounder Denise Lockwood got the ideas to crowdfund stories on Beacon, and to have local businesses sponsor an Adopt-a-Pet section.

For Hubred-Golden, seeing LION’s resources and tools made her think that the launch of her own site was “something that could actually happen.”

Ads are not easy

One of Patch’s original conceits was that a separate sales force would sell both local and national ads. That concept proved not to work very well, and local advertising wasn’t a priority. The editorial side was kept largely separate from the business side, and former Patch editors who launched their own sites found that advertising was something that they needed to learn.

“I wasn’t well versed in advertising or in sales,” Hubred-Golden said. “Patch was all about content, news, and information, and advertising was a completely separate part of the business. In January of this year, a friend of my husband’s and mine, a local businessman in Farmington, took me out to lunch and asked me about my business model. After listening to me, he said, ‘I just don’t think this is a sustainable business model.’ I wasn’t getting a lot of advertising, and with the website design I was using, pricing the ads was difficult.”

That friend acquired Farmington Voice and is now its publisher. “We’ve done a complete redesign of the website to build up our ad inventory, and we’re working on multiple revenue streams, trying to come up with creative ways to make money and keep it sustainable,” Hubred-Golden said. “But it really took partnering with someone who had a business and sales background to keep this moving forward.”

Dinan, meanwhile, sells all his own ads, and 100 percent of New Canaanite’s revenue comes from advertising. Being in charge of both editorial and advertising is actually a benefit, he said: “New Canaan is a town of 20,000 people, so the same people who are working for local government are also business owners, youth sports coaches, the people who go to the concert at the park and the sidewalk sale and the holiday stroll. People wear different hats in the town. In the course of talking to those people, whether the conversation starts because I run into them or because I have a sales meeting with them, I’m writing down a list of things that I need to ask them about, or I’m getting information, news tips, things to look into. That’s a huge advantage to this one-person model.”

But Swanepoel acknowledged that she sometimes worries about conflict. One of the ways she’s addressed that is by launching a separate, twice-yearly print magazine that is “just the good stuff about the community,” while the day-to-day site includes “the not-so-good stuff.”

It wasn’t as if she was totally isolated from the business side at Patch, she said. “They had us doing a little bit of both so it eased me into that crossover. [Patch ad reps] were out in the community selling, you were out in the community mixing. Still, there are times when I think: I’ve got this ad on the site and I sold it to [a business] and now I’m going to have to throw [the business] under the bus. But it is what it is. As the publisher and ad rep and editor, you have no choice but to handle it all yourself.”

Onward

Patch was like an incubator for the next generation of hyperlocal sites — even if, as Smith pointed out, “the fumbles of Patch were a peg for an unfortunate negative narrative about local news.”

“I certainly developed a greater interest in technology from working there, a great knowledge base, and that was the biggest thing I took away from it in launching my own site,” said Popichak. “I’m not a technical wizard by any means, but as far as problem solving, it gave me a good basis.”

“We got a lot of training at Patch,” Hubred-Golden said. “I learned how to distribute information: how to use social media, best practices with Facebook, with Twitter, with Instagram, SEO. How to look at analytics, how to look at the numbers and traffic and gauge what people are interested in. I learned video editing, too — how to put together really good 30-second or one-minute video that tells a story.”

“I was working two jobs for the first three to five months after launching New Canaanite, but I really did focus on New Canaanite,” said Dinan. “To get it to a point where it was profitable as quickly as possible, I had a six-month plan. My starting salary at Patch was $70,000, and I got regular and generous raises each of the years that I was there. This calendar year, in revenue, I’m on track to out-earn what I made as a finishing salary at Patch.”

A previous version of this story stated that LION formed in 2013. It formed in 2011.

Photo of budding flower by Jenny Downing used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 4, 2015, 11:36 a.m.
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