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.
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?”
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.
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.
That would be Danvers, world headquarters of Media Nation and now the home of four — count ’em — news organizations battling it out for local eyeballs. The newest is our very own Patch, joining the Salem News, the Danvers Herald and the Boston Globe’s Your Town/Danvers site. Who says the news business is dead?
According to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, only 20 percent of American adults reported using digital tools to communicate with their neighbors or stay informed about community issues at least once in the past year. Only one in 10 reported reading a community blog at least once in the past year.
Palser’s pessimism intersects nicely with an observation I (and others) have been making for some time: that disengagement from civic life is among the most persistent problems plaguing the news business. It doesn’t matter how good a job your local weekly newspaper or website does of covering your community if you fundamentally don’t care about what’s going on in your community. Thus, in order to succeed, a news organization must foster civic engagement in a way that actually builds an audience for its coverage of governmental meetings, neighborhood events and routine police-blotter news.
Palser is right that community journalism is not a big-money business. It never has been. Two or three generations ago, local newspapers were marginal businesses owned and operated by people who were rooted in the community. We see the same phenomenon today with grassroots news sites, whether they are for-profit, like Baristanet and the Batavian, or non-profit, like the New Haven Independent.
In Eastern Massachusetts, we have an interesting battle under way involving hyperlocal sites operated by the the New York Times Co. ( the Boston Globe’s Your Town), GateHouse Media (Wicked Local) and AOL’s Patch.com. The competition is good for readers and good for job-seeking journalists. Yet I suspect that the ones who are in it for the long haul are those who are passionate about their communities, and are trying to figure out how to transform that passion into a business. A good example of this is the network of sites operated at CentralMassNews.com, which aren’t beautiful, but which are chock full of news and advertising.
Palser’s argument, essentially, is that hyperlocal is not a promising strategy for large media corporations to return to the glory days of yesteryear. I agree. But that’s not what hyperlocal is or should be about. It should be about finding news ways of doing community journalism and making a living.
And though local ownership is not necessarily the key ingredient, I think it’s much more likely that grassroots sites will foster the civic engagement they need to build readership than those operated by large, out-of-state media companies.
I’ll be on “This Week in Business” on NECN this Sunday at 12:30 p.m. to talk about some recent trends in media and advertising. Among the topics: Patch.com, the AOL-owned network of hyperlocal sites that has attracted quite a bit of buzz lately. (The latest to weigh in is Chris Faraone of the Boston Phoenix.)
The other guest (no doubt he thinks of me as the other guest) is Steve Safran, editor of the blog Lost Remote, which covers trends in local news. The hosts are NECN anchor Mike Nikitas and Paul Guzzi, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
My Thursday posting of an e-mail from a Patch.com local editor who considers herself overworked and underappreciated brought an unusually strong reaction from Media Nation readers — many of them, no doubt, people who work for Patch or who are thinking about it. I received nearly 4,400 page views on Thursday, well over double the usual amount of traffic.
I received several e-mails from current and former Patch folks, also insisting on anonymity, and wary about whether they wanted their words posted at all. I am not normally in the habit of publishing anonymous e-mails, and I’d just as soon Media Nation not turn into a forum for anonymous pro- and anti-Patch missives. But I can say that a few folks agreed with the anonymous e-mail and a few disputed it. One even asked that I pressure my source into giving up her identity so that other local editors will not be suspected. (Uh, no.)
What’s beyond dispute is that community journalism is hard work, and has never been particularly lucrative. In Greater Boston, what’s shaping up is a three-way battle involving Patch, GateHouse Media’s Wicked Local sites and the Boston Globe’s Your Town sites. Here’s what I’m hearing from folks who’ve been in touch with me:
Though no one is getting rich working for Patch, it offers better pay and benefits than its competitors. But that comes with an unusually heavy load of responsibilities, as outlined by my anonymous e-mailer. Local editors must manage every aspect of the site.
Many GateHouse journalists earn less than Patch editors. But though they also put in dauntingly long hours, editors and reporters don’t have as many non-journalistic responsibilities.
Correspondents for the Globe’s Your Town sites are freelancers, and receive no benefits at all.
I should note that nearly all Wicked Local content is repurposed from GateHouse’s newspapers, most of them weeklies. The Your Town sites combine online-only stories, an occasional Globe story and aggregation from other news sources (but not from Wicked Local). Patch is online-only.
I should also note that the Your Town/Wicked Local/Patch combination is far from the only game in community journalism. Medium-size dailies such as the Eagle-Tribune papers north of Boston, GateHouse’s own dailies west and south of Boston, and Rupert Murdoch’s (yes, believe it or not) Standard-Times of New Bedford and Cape Cod Times are among our most important sources of local news. Journalists at those papers tend to be more experienced and better paid, too.
There are two pieces of good news in all of this: there’s a lot of competition for local news in Greater Boston, and competition is good for readers; and, a year after the news business seemed to be collapsing, news outlets are hiring young reporters at a healthy clip in order to staff new hyperlocal sites.