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March 12, 2014, 11:50 a.m.
Business Models

Like a phoenix from the ashes: How some local reporters are sticking it out post-Patch

From microgrants to business training to better tech platforms, the local news ecosystem Patch left behind could end up richer than the one that it debuted in.

Wealthy, suburban, outer-metro areas have always been financial strongholds for local journalism. That’s why, back in 2009 when Patch launched, they seeded the network with sites in the New York suburbs of Connecticut and New Jersey. It’s also why local news reporters in that region who found themselves unemployed after after Patch came crashing down aren’t all throwing in the towel.

Kenny Katzgrau is the cofounder of Broadstreet, a New Jersey-based company that builds ad platforms for local news organizations. Before founding Broadstreet in 2012, Katzgrau worked on a media exchange at Yahoo; his partner, John Crepezzi, was the lead engineer at Patch.

“After the first layoffs, we realized things weren’t going very well with Patch, and it would make a lot of sense to capitalize on this,” says Katzgrau. “As soon as the layoffs were announced, we basically had scraped all the Patch emails ahead of time. On the day, we sent everyone at Patch an email that basically said, ‘We’re obviously sorry for the bad news, but if you’re thinking about going independent, we can make that really easy for you.'”

The way Broadstreet plans to do that is through a new platform called Blargo. It’s a buildout of INN’s Largo, which was a buildout of NPR’s Argo. (We look forward to Oblargo, Roblargo, Droblargo, and Adroblargo in the coming years.) The mechanics are much the same as its antecedents except that Blargo comes with readymade ad placements.

“Setting up a site with ads — having the carousel and SEO optimization — is usually a hurdle that it takes a publisher two years to get over,” says Katzgrau. “We wanted to build it all into one theme so they could get started in a few days.”

Despite the massive, timely outreach, only about 15 Patch employees responded to the Broadstreet email offer right away; somewhere between five and 10, Katzgrau says, are pursuing independent sites with the company. Other journalists who are not ex-Patchers but are working with Broadstreet include Scott Brodbeck, of Reston Now, ARLnow, and Bethesda Now.

Michael Dinan was a Patch employee in New Canaan, Connecticut. Now he runs the New Canaanite with his brother Terry using Blargo. “Immediately after the layoff, we all heard from groups and companies that had ready platforms, wanted to help us navigate the next steps, and so on,” wrote Dinan in an email.

Another team that wanted to help ex-Patch staffers hit the ground running was the NJ News Commons. The commons, based at Montclair State University, used post-Hurricane Sandy money from the New Jersey Recovery Fund to support the first round of Grow & Strengthen grants last year. Last month, they announced they’d be seeding another round of independent news sites in New Jersey.

“When Patch closed down, and we knew it was coming, we thought we were in a good position to convert a lot of those people,” says NJ News Commons director Debbie Galant. “Some of those people are very beloved in their towns. They don’t know how to sell — that was never part of their job — but we’re going to help teach them what they need to know.”

What do they need to know? First and foremost, Galant says, that continuing without the corporate support of Patch may not be for everyone. “A lot of it depends on your life situation and how much risk you can take,” she says. “The sites that do well are usually a family team. With one person selling ads and one person doing the reporting, you can make close to $250,000.” (It’s not for everyone. At least one former Patch journalist I spoke with said the years they spent at the company were simply too exhausting to make a return to journalism seem appealing.)

Galant offers a wealth of resources to local news sites through the NJ News Commons.

In addition to the microgrants, members of the Grow & Strengthen program will have regular business consulting sessions with Maine media veteran Joe Michaud as well as access to NJ News Commons training sessions, peer mentoring and other programming, including an upcoming conference on municipal data.

It was at an NJ News Commons session for recently laid off Patch people that The New Canaanite’s Dinan met the Blargo team, and made the decision to stay in the journalism game. “I sort of feel like there are tools available to people like me, people who want to make a go of this — Blargo is a good example — as well as advice and tech support through groups on Facebook and elsewhere, that either didn’t exist or weren’t as robust, informative, or widely used at the time many of us started at Patch,” Dinan writes. “So I’m re-entering a different world here than the one I left when I started at Patch in July 2010.”

Not that making that leap is easy. Galant and Dinan agree it’s essential to act quickly in moving the local audience many Patch employees built in their neighborhoods to a new platform.

“Someone who had a local Patch, was doing a really great job, was embedded in their community, and it was just because of corporate politics that they lost their job? They’ve got an audience,” says Galant. “If it were me, I would at least set up a Facebook page to capture that audience.”

Dinan says he’s confident of his audience’s loyalty. “When I’m writing pretty much anything, I am writing as someone who is sort of ‘of the town,’ and it’s an unforced, relaxed thing that I think resonated with readers a year ago and resonated with them now, just on a different site,” he says.

But from a financial standpoint, it was important to his business to make the platform switch as quickly and seamlessly as possible. “I did it quickly not just because I work fast but because I had to: I needed to make sure that I didn’t end up with absolutely no savings or severance in the bank and was forced to take a job that would pull me away from reporting the news and meeting my business goals,” he writes. The New Canaanite sent out its first tweet two days after the Patch layoffs were made public:

At the end of the day, people like Dinan are still reliant on ad sales to put money in the bank. Although Broadstreet does employ one salesperson for the Blargo network, that’s not their main focus. “Broadstreet doesn’t want to do the sales — we just want to be the platform,” says Katzgrau. This puts them in a slightly different category from local ad networks that want to facilitate the sale of hyperlocal publisher inventory. Instead, Broadstreet wants publishers to do the selling largely on their own, and, in exchange for making that process smoother, earn a 20 percent commission.

So it makes sense that Galant believes what the New Jesrey news ecosystem needs is more of what Katzgrau calls “power sales people.”

“We know that we need to develop more sales people in New Jersey, generally,” she says. “We have to teach people more things very specifically, like how to make ad kits.”

The ambitious, scale-hunting Patch of a couple years back may be history, but that doesn’t mean all of the groundwork it laid has to turn to dust. “Patch was a great training ground for me, not just in terms of the tools I use to report the news and present it to an online audience, but also in terms of multitasking and innovating on-the-fly,” writes Dinan. “I don’t mean this disrespectfully to newspapers…[but] I don’t know how many print reporters, two days after a newsroom layoff, would launch their own news website confident that with planning and hard work, it would grow into their full-time job.”

Image of Jeff Jarvis addressing a recent NJ News Commons training session courtesy Debra Galant.

POSTED     March 12, 2014, 11:50 a.m.
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