Tag Archives: Baristanet

Salvaging something from the rubble of Patch

If you haven’t heard AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong’s nauseating conference call with Patch employees — complete with the mid-call firing of Patch creative director Abel Lenz, who had the audacity to take the great man’s photo — then by all means avail yourself of the opportunity. (Via Jim Romenesko, who has been diligently tracking the story of Patch’s woes.)

The end seems to be near for Patch, AOL’s network of hyperlocal websites, which never had a business model that made sense. Given that Patch is failing in precisely the way it was predicted to fail (see, for instance, this archive of Patch articles at Business Insider), Friday’s conference call was a time for Armstrong to show some decency and humility — not to strut around like a ’roided-up rooster.

The cuts Armstrong announced were devastating — over the next week, hundreds of employees will be laid off and around 400 Patch sites will be closed or somehow partnered with other sites, according to Darrell Etherington of TechCrunch. That’s nearly half of Patch’s 900 or so sites.

At this point, the most merciful thing Armstrong could do is shut down the whole thing and help the hard-working local editors become owner-operators. I suspect many of these sites could be viable if the corporate bureaucracy AOL has laid on top of them were removed.

Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, an independent online news site in western New York, makes a compelling case at NetNewsCheck that the economies of scale AOL promised not only haven’t materialized, but that putting together a vast network of hyperlocal site actually costs more than launching independents. The problems, he writes, include enormous tech investments and highly paid supervisors at corporate headquarters:

Armstrong chased scale: IT infrastructure scales, server farms scale, message systems scale, cloud computing scales. But local news does not scale.

Widget makers understand scale. The most expensive widget is the first one. Each new widget is comparatively pennies on the dollar.

In the news business, the first story costs just as much as the third or the 30th or the last. Online, it’s possible to get more production out of a single reporter, but time is not elastic. At the end of the day comes the end of the day.

What Armstrong should have done, Owens adds, is fund independent start-ups — an idea that AOL could still pursue, writes City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis at his blog, Buzz Machine. Jarvis  offers this advice to Armstrong:

Set up independent entrepreneurs — your employees, my entrepreneurial graduates, unemployed newspaper folks — to take over the sites. Offer them the benefit of continued network ad sales — that’s enlightened self-interest for Patch and Aol. Offer them training. Offer them technology. And even offer them some startup capital.

You could end up better off than you ever were by being a member of an ecosystem instead of trying to own it.

Whether AOL steps or not, at least one other funding source for converting Patches into independent news sites has emerged. Over the weekend Debbie Galant, co-founder of the pioneering hyperlocal site Baristanet and now the director of the New Jersey News Commons at Montclair State University, announced on Twitter that her program was ready to offer grants and training to New Jersey Patch employees who lose their jobs. (There are 89 Patch sites in New Jersey, according to Patch’s online listings.)

As I found in “The Wired City,” hyperlocal online news is alive and well, with a variety of nonprofit and for-profit sites thriving. But as Owens says, local doesn’t scale. Independence and grassroots control are keys. Chain ownership was deadly to the newspaper business, and it was never a good idea for online news, either.

If the demise of Patch can lead to something better, then let’s get started.

In Chicago, too much hyperlocal competition?

A couple of friends today sent me a link to Mike Fourcher’s ruminations on what he learned running the Center Square Journal, a hyperlocal news site in Chicago that he started three years ago. He offers 21 lessons, and they’re not without value. But what stands out from my reading of them is that he simply faced too much competition for advertisers and readers. And that, in turn, was a consequence of his making an unfortunate choice of location.

Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 4.07.11 PMThe sites I profile in “The Wired City” — mainly the New Haven Independent, but also The Batavian, CT News Junkie, the Connecticut Mirror, Voice of San Diego and Baristanet — have very different business models, but they all have one thing in common: a niche that was being woefully underserved before they came along to serve it.

New Haven illustrates my point. Paul Bass launched the Independent in 2005 to provide city and neighborhood news that was largely being ignored by everyone else — including the region’s daily paper, the New Haven Register, which tended to focus on the suburbs around New Haven. Eight years later, the Independent and the Register still serve different audiences. They compete for certain types of city news, but mainly they stay out of each other’s way. And because the Independent is a nonprofit, they’re not competing for scarce advertising dollars.

The Batavian is very different from the Independent, but it has similar advantages. The for-profit site was launched in Batavia, N.Y., by the GateHouse chain in 2008 as a pilot project. In 2009 it was acquired by Howard Owens after he was let go as GateHouse’s director of digital media.

The Batavian was up against two established news organizations: The Daily News and WBTA Radio. Owens formed a partnership with the radio station and competed fiercely with The Daily, as the locals call it. Unlike Fourcher’s experience in Chicago, though, there really wasn’t anyone else.

Like Paul Bass in New Haven, Owens carved out a niche by going more local than his competition — one county for The Batavian versus three for The Daily. It turned out that the business community was vibrant enough to support a daily newspaper, a radio station and a community website. But if there were, say, a half-dozen websites all trying to turn a profit, it’s not likely any of them would be able to make money.

Fourcher, a refugee from the robo-news operation Journatic, is now trying something interesting. He’s called a community meeting for Jan. 31 to see if his readers like the Center Square Journal enough to help him continue it in some form, or possibly to take it over in its entirety.

What’s evident from his 21 lessons, though, is that he fell short of making the Journal a vital part of his readers’ lives — possibly because there were already too many other voices competing for people’s time, attention and dollars.

Media Nation’s top 10 posts of 2011

Clif Garboden

I’ve seen several bloggers list their most-viewed posts of 2011, which made me curious as to which Media Nation posts were accessed most frequently.

I’m not sure exactly what it says — most Media Nation readers simply look at the home page or read it via RSS or email. By contrast, those who click on a specific entry are led there via another blog or social media, which means they comprise a different sort of audience. For instance, according to Google Analytics, the Media Nation home page received 199,143 page views between Jan. 1 and yesterday, whereas the number-one individual item (on radio talk-show host Jay Severin’s return) was accessed just 6,257 times.

In any event, here is my top 10 for 2011.

1. Jay Severin returns to Boston’s airwaves (Aug. 16). This is one of three Severin-related posts in my top 10, which I find puzzling. I didn’t give him a lot of space, and certainly no support. Yet not only did this item rise to the top, but it attracted 28 comments, many from Severin fans who don’t normally post their thoughts here.

2. A rant for the ages against corporate media (Nov. 18). James Craven of GateHouse Media’s Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin wrote a blog post ripping management for deciding “to cannibalize the paper” after he got word that he’d been laid off. The blog post was removed almost immediately — but not before I posted it.

3. Globe outsources online comment screening (April 12). An item on the Boston Globe’s decision to hire a Winnipeg-based company, ICUC, to screen and remove offensive online comments. The post includes several internal documents, including the paper’s complete online-comments policy.

4. Way out of bounds in New Haven (Jan. 26). The New Haven Register’s website posted an online poll asking readers “Who’s the hottest local female television personality?”, complete with photos available for purchase. The Register, under the direction of a progressive new editor since August, is now trying to reinvent its online presence.

5. Jay Severin is suspended — again (March 31). Like I said.

6. GateHouse Media parts company with Greg Reibman (Nov. 9). The debt-burdened chain’s most recent round of layoffs claimed Greg Reibman, publisher of the company’s Greater Boston papers and a respected, forward-looking executive. Check out his new blog, Village 14, about all things Newton.

7. Indies fight back against Patch (May 13). A number of independent local-news-site operators launched a campaign called Authentically Local. The project included a few of my favorites: the New Haven Independent, the Batavian and Baristanet, whose co-founder and editor, Debbie Galant, was the leader of the effort.

8. Clif Garboden, 1948-2011 (Feb. 12). A tribute to the late, great managing editor, photographer and conscience of the Boston Phoenix. Clif was simultaneously a caustic, profane social critic and an unabashed idealist — two qualities that I think are often found together.

9. WTKK fires Severin (April 6). Go figure. Yes, I understand that Severin has a lot of fans and detractors who are interested in reading about him. I’m just surprised at how many of them flocked to Media Nation.

10. Dialing up outrage in New Haven (Feb. 7). The nonprofit New Haven Independent found itself in the midst of a controversy after a custodian it quoted on turmoil within the police department was fired. The Independent crusaded on her behalf, and she was rehired. Commenters, though, were divided on how the Independent handled the issue.

Indies fight back against Patch

Thirty independent community news sites have banded together to tell the world, in effect, “We are not Patch.” The project, called Authentically Local, includes such well-known sites as Baristanet, based in Montclair, N.J., The Batavian, of Batavia, N.Y., and the New Haven Independent.

In a statement posted online, Baristanet founder and editor Debbie Galant says:

The Authentically Local campaign seeks to illuminate the difference between authentic local businesses and those that are just cashing in — before every town in America becomes one giant strip mall. This is not just about us, the owned-and-operated sites that write about place. It’s about place.

The alliance includes both for-profit and non-profit sites. Its motto, “local doesn’t scale,” appears to be aimed squarely at AOL’s Patch.com sites, a network of hyperlocal sites that are a key part of AOL’s efforts to reinvent itself.

Recently Galant compared Patch to Wal-Mart, saying, “The profits are going to a corporation. And so it’s difficult. It makes us understand what the local merchants are dealing with on a regular basis, for different local hardware stores to be competing against Home Depot. It’s basically the same thing.”

Patch has emerged as a real hiring engine for journalists at a time when the news business continues to shrink. So I’d like to see both Patch and the independents thrive. To the extent that Patch poses a threat to the indies, I hope Authentically Local helps them compete on a level field.

A bit more on why I keep visiting New Haven

I’m heading to New Haven in a little while for another round of interviews. I’ll be back Friday night. I’m also taking advantage of a hiatus at “Beat the Press” to visit an old friend at the Providence Journal on Friday afternoon. So it should be a good trip. It’s not likely I’ll be blogging, but since I can approve comments via BlackBerry, go ahead and have at it.

It’s also time to dip my toe in the water regarding the book that I’m working on. It’s hardly top-secret, but at the same time I want to be discreet. Anyway: A couple of months ago I signed a contract with UMass Press to write a book about the New Haven Independent and the rise of non-profit community news sites. (Working title: “The Wired City.”) The idea is that low-cost, online projects can at least partly offset the decline of for-profit newspapers — a decline that is far more advanced in Connecticut than it is here in Greater Boston.

The Independent is one of a handful of non-profits that are doing real community journalism. Though not as well known as Voice of San Diego, MinnPost or the Texas Tribune, it is nevertheless a viable, growing news organization that employs four full-time journalists plus another two at a satellite site in the suburbs. The Independent not only covers the big stories in New Haven, but also regularly publishes articles about the minutia in New Haven’s neighborhoods that the dominant daily, the New Haven Register, can’t touch.

I figure my book will be about 60 percent to 80 percent about the Independent, with the rest focusing on changing business models for journalism as well as on some other sites worthy of note — including a couple of for-profits I’ve visited, the Batavian, in western New York, and Baristanet, in Montclair, N.J.

I’d like to do a little bit of crowdsourcing; at the same time, I want to avoid writing my book in public. I’d welcome any ideas for people I should interview (in New Haven and elsewhere) and books and articles I should read.

I’ll have more to say as my project progresses.

Keeping the local conversation alive

The next stop on my online-journalism video tour is Montclair, N.J., where I recently interviewed Debbie Galant, co-founder of Baristanet, and Mark Porter, editor of the weekly Montclair Times.

Baristanet, founded five years ago, was among the first local blogs — and certainly one of the very first to be started by professional journalists with the goal of turning a profit.

Galant and I met at a local Panera; I interviewed Porter at his office.

Earlier: