Props to Patch editor-in-chief Warren St. John for a civil, substantive conversation on aggregation and over-aggregation. I’ve put together a Storify of our exchange, so please have a look.
Kaylin Bugos tells their stories in the American Journalism Review. Now if only zombie Patch sites would shut down so that the independents will have a better chance.
This is great news: Olga Enger, the former editor of Newport Patch, has launched her own site — The Newport Wave — after her recent layoff (via Philip Eil’s Twitter feed). I hope we see a lot more of this.
The Washington Post faced a lot of questions after Ezra Klein packed up and took his talents to Vox Media. Were Jeff Bezos and company making a Politico-level mistake in not finding a way to keep Klein, the founder of Wonkblog, under its own roof? Or was Klein making unreasonable demands — reportedly a $10 million investment for a much bigger staff?
My own view is that the two sides should have found a way to keep Klein loosely affiliated with the Post, although I have no way of knowing whether that was a realistic option.
In any event, I’m burying the lede. On Wednesday the Post went a long way toward answering those questions by announcing a significant investment in its news operations. Wonkblog will continue. And according to a memo to the staff from executive editor Marty Baron, a considerable amount of hiring and expansion is under way, including more blogs, a breaking-news desk and an expanded Sunday magazine.
“With these initiatives, we can all look forward to a future of great promise,” Baron wrote. (Thanks to Jim Romenesko, who also links to a Washingtonian story in which Post publisher Katharine Weymouth offers further insight into Klein’s departure.)
In an interview with Ravi Somaiya of The New York Times, Baron says of Bezos: “He hasn’t been passive. He’s heavily engaged, keenly interested in what our ideas are. He offered his own thoughts and expressed a willingness to invest.”
These are very good signs at a time when the news about the news is more favorable than anything we’ve heard in years (Patch’s latest near-death experience notwithstanding). Whether such optimism is warranted will be the media story of 2014 and beyond.
Photo is a screen grab from an appearance then-Boston Globe editor Baron made on WGBH-TV’s “Greater Boston with Emily Rooney” in 2009.
What should a 21st-century news organization look like? A single entity, run from the top, with a common set of values? Or a loose network of related projects, sharing a brand and to some extent a mission but operating semi-independently?
With the likely departure of Ezra Klein from The Washington Post, the management of one of our last great newspapers might be showing signs of preferring the former approach. Klein, who founded and runs the widely read Wonkblog at washingtonpost.com, is reportedly leaving for a new venture, as yet undefined. According to Ravi Somaiya in The New York Times, Klein sought an eight-figure Post investment in the new project. Klein already has his own Wonkblog staff, but clearly he has something much bigger in mind — perhaps an all-purpose independent news organization along the lines of Talking Points Memo. (Although it wouldn’t be called Wonkblog — the Post owns the name and will be keeping it, writes The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, who broke the news about Klein’s proposal last month.)
We can’t know everything that went into the decision. Maybe it came down to money. But Wonkblog generates a hefty amount of Web traffic — more than 4 million page views a month, according to a profile of Klein in The New Republic last February. “It’s ‘fuck you traffic,’” a Post source told TNR’s Julia Ioffe. “He’s always had enough traffic to end any argument with the senior editors.” Apparently, that’s no longer the case.
Significantly, the Times reports that new Post owner Jeff Bezos was involved in the decision to let Klein leave. Last September, shortly after announcing his intention to buy the Post for $250 million, the Amazon.com founder lauded the “daily ritual” of reading the morning paper — which led to some chiding by one of the Post’s own journalists, Timothy B. Lee. Despite Bezos’ well-earned reputation as a clear-eyed digital visionary, he appears to have some romantic notions about the business he’s bought into. And allowing entrepreneurs such as the twentysomething Klein run his own shop inside the Post might not fit with that vision.
What makes the likely Klein departure even more significant is that in 2006 the Post, under the ownership of the Graham family, allowed John Harris and Jim VandeHei to walk out the door and start Politico. Now, I have a lot of problems with Politico’s gossipy “drive the day” approach. But as Times columnist Ross Douthat has observed, much of the media conversation about Washington politics has shifted from the Post to Politico, threatening one of the Post’s franchises. It would have been enormously beneficial to the Post if Politico had been launched under its own umbrella. And Politico itself might be better.
So if the Post is reluctant to loosen the reins, are there any other news organizations that are taking a different approach? Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher walked away from their AllThingsD site at The Wall Street Journal and set up a new project called Re/code in partnership with NBC. Perhaps the most famous example is Nate Silver, who brought his FiveThirtyEight poll-analysis site to The New York Times a few years ago and then moved it lock, stock and barrel to ESPN. In that regard, I suppose you could say NBC and ESPN have embraced the network approach. To some extent you might say also that of The Huffington Post, as it combines professional journalists, unpaid bloggers (I’m one) and a dizzying array content — from Calderone’s excellent media coverage to the notorious Sideboob vertical.
Jeff Jarvis recently argued that Patch — AOL’s incredibly shrinking hyperlocal news project — might have stood a chance if AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong had taken a network approach. Rather than running cookie-cutter community sites from the top down, Jarvis asked, what if Patch had offered advertising and support services to a network of independent or semi-independent sites?
The problem with such scenarios is that media executives — and business leaders in general — are not accustomed to the idea of giving up control. Calderone reports that some Post staffers have long grumbled at what they see as “preferential treatment” for Klein, which suggests the depth of the problem. But entrepreneurial journalists like Harris and VandeHei, like Mossberg and Swisher, and like Silver and Klein have a proven track record.
Legacy news organizations need to find a way to tap into that success outside the old models of ownership and not worry about obsolete notions of employer-employee relationships. Reach and influence are what matter. And they are proving to be incompatible with the ambitions of young journalists like Ezra Klein.
More: After this piece was published at Nieman, Mathew Ingram responded at Gigaom with his own smart take.
Corporate hyperlocal is fading, with Patch being the prime example. Independent hyperlocal is working. Howard Owens, one of my main subjects in “The Wired City,” discusses the success of The Batavian this week with NPR’s “On the Media.”
Here is a blog post I wrote in July about The Batavian’s growth.
Just catching up with this. Jon Chesto of the Boston Business Journal reports that The Boston Globe’s Your Town sites are being trimmed by six correspondents — approximately half the staff. Your Town, part of the Globe’s free Boston.com website, provides hyperlocal coverage of the suburbs as well as of several Boston neighborhoods.
Globe regional editor David Dahl tells Chesto that there will be no site closures. But it seems inevitable that there will be cuts in coverage, even though Globe staff reporters and freelancers will continue to contribute. There are more than 100 Your Town sites and about 15 related Your Campus websites covering colleges and universities in Greater Boston.
Your Town got off to a shaky start in 2008, as GateHouse Media — which operates Wicked Local sites in virtually all of the same communities targeted by Your Town — sued the New York Times Co. (the Globe’s owner, at least for a few more weeks) for copyright infringement, arguing that the Your Town sites in some cases aggregated virtually all of GateHouse’s content for a given community without offering much else.
The two sides reached an out-of-court settlement in early 2009, as I reported for The Guardian. Your Town eventually grew into a valuable resource in many communities. But it looks like the sites, which carry little advertising, got to be too expensive to operate.
Chesto writes that the cuts call hyperlocal coverage into question as a business strategy, noting that AOL’s Patch sites are in the midst of deep cuts as well. But though hyperlocal may well be a loser at the corporate chain level, there are a number of successful independent sites operating across the country. You could read a book about such sites, hint, hint. The real issue is that hyperlocal is best understood as a grassroots phenomenon.
Did Globe executives reach this decision on their own? Or was incoming owner John Henry involved? And if he was, what does that say about his priorities for the Globe?
(Disclosure: Journalism students at Northeastern as well as several other Boston colleges and universities contribute to the Your Town and Your Campus sites.)
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.
This article appeared earlier at the Nieman Journalism Lab. I’ll be reading from “The Wired City” this Saturday, July 13, at 11 a.m. at Present Tense Books, located in Batavia at 101 Washington Ave.
For those of a certain age, perusing the ads posted at The Batavian, a for-profit news site in Batavia, N.Y., can seem a lot like flipping through the pages of a weekly community newspaper a generation or two ago.
Which is to say there are a lot of ads — more than 140, every one on the home page, a practice that publisher Howard Owens believes is more effective than rotating them in and out. There are ads for funeral homes and pizza shops. For accountants and tattoo parlors. For auto-repair centers and ice-cream stands. For bars and baseball (the minor-league Batavia Muckdogs).
The success of The Batavian matters to the future of local journalism. In my book “The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age,” I devote most of my attention to the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit site that subsists on grant money, donations and sponsorships. At this early stage of online news, nonprofits like the Independent are often able to raise more money more quickly than for-profits. But not every community can support a nonprofit. Thus it is vital for the future of news that entrepreneurs like Owens figure out the for-profit side — which is why I also devote a fair amount of space in “The Wired City” to what’s going on in Batavia.
Owens launched The Batavian in 2008 as a demonstration project for GateHouse Media, where he was the director of digital publishing. When his position was eliminated in early 2009, he asked GateHouse if he could take the fledgling site with him. He was granted his wish.
The Batavian is free and covers not just the city of Batavia (population 15,000) but surrounding Genesee County (60,000) as well. It receives about 80,000 unique visitors per month, according to Quantcast. That’s roughly the same as the site’s newspaper competition, The Daily News, also based in Batavia. (Web analytics are imprecise, and Owens says his internal count, provided by Google Analytics, shows about 118,000 uniques per month.) Of course, The Daily, as the locals call it, depends mainly on print distribution. On the other hand, The Batavian covers just one county to The Daily’s three, making Owens’ online reach all the more impressive.
The Batavian’s 12-month projected revenues are currently about $180,000 a year — enough to provide Owens and his wife, Billie Owens, the site’s part-time editor, with a comfortable living, and to employ a part-time sales and marketing coordinator. Unlike AOL, with its struggling network of Patch sites, The Batavian is independent, and Owens aims to keep it that way. As the Authentically Local project, of which The Batavian is a part, puts it: “Local doesn’t scale.”
If a nonprofit like the New Haven Independent can raise more money than a for-profit (indeed, Independent founder and editor Paul Bass chose the nonprofit route in 2005 because he realized he couldn’t support himself with a for-profit), there are nevertheless certain advantages to for-profit online journalism. Let me outline three of the more obvious.
• Anyone can start a for-profit news site. The nonprofit route requires approval from the IRS and support from local foundations. In many cases, neither may be forthcoming — and as I recently wrote, the IRS has all but halted approval of 501(c)(3) status for nonprofit news sites, which they depend on so that donors can make tax-free contributions. By contrast, all it takes to launch a for-profit site is talent, experience and a willingness to work hard. That’s no guarantee of success, but the opportunity is there for all.
• Local ads enhance the vibrancy of a site. Owens likes to say that advertising is content. The ads at The Batavian give you a good feel for Genesee County — and provide a context for Owens’ coverage of everything from court news to traffic accidents, from school events to development proposals. Advertising and news work together to provide a well-rounded picture of the community. Yet you won’t see ads at a nonprofit site like the Independent, save for a few image-building “sponsorships” from local institutions such as college and hospitals.
• For-profit sites enjoy the full protection of the First Amendment. Like public radio and television stations, but unlike the vast majority of newspapers, nonprofit news sites are legally prohibited from endorsing candidates for public office. “Editorial endorsements — or the denial of them — are among the most powerful tools that newspapers have for holding political figures to account,” write the media scholar Robert McChesney and the journalist John Nichols in their 2010 book “The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again.” The Batavian hasn’t actually endorsed any candidates, but at least it’s not legally prohibited from doing so — and Owens takes strong stands on other local issues without having to worry about the federal government swooping in and threatening his livelihood.
When I visited Batavia in 2009, I rode along with Owens as he made sales calls and covered stories in Genesee County. It seemed like a hard slog. At one point, as we were driving through the tiny farm town of Stafford, he gestured to a well-manicured golf course. “If you find out that I’ve joined the Stafford Country Club,” he said, “then I’ve been successful.” Two years later, I asked him about the status of his country club aspirations. He laughed. “I’d love to join the Stafford Country Club and have time to enjoy the privileges thereof,” he said, “but we’re probably years away from doing that.”
Yet The Batavian keeps growing. Last week the site announced a new real-estate ad partnership. Recently Owens told me he now spends virtually none of his time on ad sales, having offloaded that task to his part-time employee. The Owenses are able to devote the bulk of their time to journalism — something that was not the case when I was researching “The Wired City.”
Owens likes to remind people that we’re at the very beginning of online news as a business, and that what appears not to add up economically today may look quite different a few years from now. As Owens asked in a provocative blog post four years ago: “If it took newspapers more than 100 years to build the business and content models that we all now cherish, why do we expect a fully formed online model to emerge in just 10 years?”
Photos (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy.
Talk about burying the lede. The New York Times today reports on the latest regarding AOL’s long, slow slide into oblivion. Near the end is this:
Other ideas include closing Patch, AOL’s local news initiative that has reporters in 850 towns. Eliminating the money-losing service would free $160 million and lift AOL into profitability.
AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong insists he’s not going to abandon his strategy of transforming the service into a profitable content-provider. But the Huffington Post side of things brings in so many more visitors, with fewer employees, that you really have to wonder how long he and his shareholders can resist the urge to close Patch.
Not to repeat myself (OK, to repeat myself), but I don’t wish Patch ill. Given that it is hiring young and some not-so-young journalists, I’d like to see it find a profitable place in the local-news media ecosystem. But it’s never been clear how Patch can make money. Business Insider has been especially withering, but its negative outlook is hardly unique.