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.

The center of the news universe

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?

Talking Patch on NECN

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.

A few more thoughts on Patch.com

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.

Hard times working the Patch

Boston Globe reporter Johnny Diaz today writes about Patch.com, the AOL-owned network of hyperlocal news sites that is (excuse me) sprouting up around the country.

As I noted earlier, Diaz writes that Patch is up against considerable competition in Greater Boston, principally from GateHouse Media’s Wicked Local websites and the Boston Globe’s Your Town sites — both of which, unlike Patch, are tied to established newspapers.

There are already 13 Patch sites in Massachusetts, with more to come.

After I posted my earlier Patch item, I heard from a Patch local editor (LE, in Patch-speak) who described working conditions that sound pretty challenging. Granted, community journalists in general work very hard for not much money. But the LE who wrote to me suggested that Patch takes it to another level.

The LE who contacted me asked that her name not be used, but gave me permission to publish her e-mail. I have verified that she is who she says she is. I don’t consider this to be the last word, and I would welcome a response from Patch. The e-mail:

The working conditions for local editors at Patch sites raise the question of whether this model is sustainable or about whether this is the reality for journalists working in this new media age.

Basically, the job is 24/7 with so far little support in getting any kind of time off — nights, weekends, vacation days guaranteed under our AOL contract. (Some regional editors do try to help; others don’t.) This time-off issue has become a major concern among local editors. You might hear about the 70-hour work weeks. Yes, 70 hours and more. It’s a start-up and all that, and I knew it would be hard work going in. But what is becoming distressing is this sense that I can’t get a break. I’ve worked in journalism for more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter, online editor, magazine editor, and I’ve never worked so much in my life.

Patch has a policy that it the local editor’s responsibility to find our nights/weekend/vacation replacements. And we must pay that person out of our freelance budgets. I’m just three months into this job, and I’ve heard from LEs around the country that this task of finding your replacement can be daunting, because it is hard to find qualified journalists who have that sort of time to do a vacation fill-in — who who will do it for what Patch pays its freelancers. I’ve been hearing that LEs who have been around longer, up to a year, are starting to question whether the job is worth it.

And, it’s not just being a reporter, but it’s also being a city editor/assignment editor/managing editor/copy editor, and it’s handling freelance payments (and freelance payment troubleshooting), doing videos, monitoring calender and event listings, doing some of our own marketing, and even HR. It seems the business model of this organization is to add tasks, traditionally handled by others in other organizations, to the plate of the local editors. More recently, I’ve been wondering if it would be possible, time-wise, to do the kind of enterprise journalism I would like.

Maybe I should be grateful I have a job and stop griping.

Follow-up: “A few more thoughts on Patch.com.”

Patching in to AOL’s Patch (II)

Old friend Mark Leccese, blogging at Boston.com, offers further thoughts on the competition among Patch, GateHouse Media’s Wicked Local sites and Boston.com’s Your Town initiative.

Let me repeat: The most interesting local online journalism is taking place at the grassroots. And no one in Greater Boston does a better job of aggregating it than Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub. If you didn’t know that already, well, now you do.

(Disclosure: Media Nation is part of Gaffin’s Boston Blogs advertising network.)

Earlier item.

Patching in to AOL’s Patch

AOL’s local-news initiative, Patch, has been ramping up in Massachusetts in recent months. The effort deserves a full post, so consider this a placeholder. Universal Hub has been all over Patch, chronicling the departure of several GateHouse Media employees who’ve signed on as Patch editors.

My tendency is not to get too excited when a national corporation with no roots in journalism decides to take on hyperlocal news. There have simply been too many instances of the suits deciding that journalism isn’t as lucrative as they had hoped and then pulling the plug a year or two down the line.

Based on Arlington Patch, the sites seem attractive and easy to navigate, with a strong emphasis on community participation. But I don’t know that I see anything that would make me choose it over GateHouse’s Wicked Local Arlington site, or Boston.com’s Your Town page for Arlington.

Besides, I think online local news works best when it grows from the ground up. Local blogs vary wildly in quality. But I’d rather check in on Bob Sprague’s Your Arlington blog than to spend my time with the progeny of Steve Case.

That said, it’s early. Maybe Patch will represent some sort of breakthrough. We’ll see.