The almost-post mortem for Patch

Screenshot 2013-12-16 at 9.25.59 AMDavid Carr all but writes the obit for Patch today. One could quibble and say it’s not quite dead, that Aol plans partnerships for the ill-fated ganglion of local sites. Fine, but it’s still not wrong to look back and ask what went wrong.

Before he started Patch — and before he went to Aol and brought it along — Tim Armstrong called me into his office asking me to advise Patch. I was listed as an official adviser but never was; I just offered what advice I had for free, over coffee, as I did for many others working in hyperlocal. Patch didn’t take it anyway.

I still believe in Armstrong’s vision that local communities need local information. But now I fear that its slow, tortured fall could — in the words of a friend — bring nuclear winter to hyperlocal. Radioactive hyperlocal cooties. It shouldn’t be. The problem with Patch wasn’t Armstrong’s vision about the value of local information. It was execution.

1. Patch did not get its business model in shape before multiplying its mistakes times 900. The essential business assumption — that having one reporter and one sales person in a town is inexpensive — is right, as many mom-and-pop hyperlocal blogs have demonstrated and as we modeled at CUNY. Patch wanted to scale that. But it went about that the wrong way.

2. Patch could have been a network of independent local sites. That’s what I advised, using the model of Glam, which Samir Arora built into a top-7 internet property not by creating and buying and owning content but instead by building an ad sales network and technology platform that now serves 4,000 independent and sustainable sites (triumphing over iVillage). Patch could have been the local version of that, but in the model of old media, it wanted to own everything. I heard executives there vow to kill the queen of hyperlocal, Baristanet. Now the queen has the last laugh.

3. Patch never played well with others. It was secretive and aggressive. In the NJ News Commons — an open network that I helped start (with aforementioned former queen Debbie Galant and others) — a few dozen sites across the state are now sharing content and audience (and soon, I hope, advertising) using Repost.US and BroadStreetAds. Repost enables sites to make their articles embeddable on other sites. It also enables sites to blacklist other sites that can’t take their content. Most sites I know wanted to blacklist Patch because it had been so nasty to them. In an ecosystem, what goes around comes around to bite you in the ass.

4. Patch sold advertising on its sites in the old-media model. The local advertisers I talked with said it was too expensive and, given the audience, didn’t perform. What Patch could have done was sell not only a network of local sites with more audience, but also a menu of digital services to local advertisers. Our research at CUNY shows that local merchants need more than ads; they need help with their digital presences in Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and so on. That’s what I’d like to see local sites working on now.

5. Patch was patchy in its editorial quality. This one amazes me. Patch had staffs of editors. It could have trained its local reporters in a system like About.com’s. It could have templated basic coverage — e.g., here are the 10 things you must do when a big storm hits. Some Patches did good work. Some were dreadful. In my first meeting with Patch, I also advised them to get some life, some humanity in what they did. But they thought they were a technology company, that the secret to their success would be their proprietary content management system. No, the secret to success in hyperlocal is passion: caring about your town. That’s always what Patch lacked.

After the fall of Patch, some will say again that hyperlocal has failed but they’d be wrong. Hyperlocal works in town after town. What doesn’t work is trying to instantly scale it by trying to own every town in sight. That was Patch’s fatal error: acting like an old-media company.

Hyperlocal works on a hyperlocal level. It’s damned hard work, as any hyperlocal proprietor will tell you. Last week, I went to the first Christmas party for the NJ News Commons and like a proud Frankenstein, I scanned a room filled with people who work hard to cover the towns and topics they care about. This term, I had two hyperlocal sites from New Jersey in my entrepreneurial journalism class at CUNY and they both need help to get their marketing and revenue strategies working. Next term, we have a handful of would-be hyperlocal entrepreneurs and we’ll work hard to get their model right. Hyperlocal is a matter of fighting for the next hill.

Hyperlocal will scale — as it is only beginning to in New Jersey — by helping these independent sites in a larger news ecosystem bring together their content, audience, advertising sales for mutual benefit. Patch could have been that network. Instead, it thought it could own — it could be — the ecosystem. Nobody can do that.

  • Facebook User

    We concur. And we can also safely say – having once worked at Patch – that they approached the model in all the wrong ways. Do people want hyperlocal? You bet they do. Just ask our readers!

  • Steve M

    Your number 5 item is the number 1 reason Patch doesnt work. Quality content gets readers, and then ads. the quality of Patch was rarely good, and if it was, it was inconsistent. They called it local, but would link to other towns and states. Their statistics on site visits and impressions were contrived nonsense. A local advertiser doesnt care. One quality, local article per day would have been more profitable that the 15 posts they do with largely useless information.

  • http://howardowens.com Howard Owens

    Why does local need to scale? Why do truly hyperlocal sites need content sharing and ad networks?

    • Broadstreet

      At least in NJ, Cliffview Pilot has had a *ton* of traffic flow in from stories that NJ.com has reposted. It’s worked out to be mutually beneficial, despite early suspicions that I heard among the indies here (even I had some).

      The ad network, for us, isn’t even about scaling right now — just hitting sustainability. It’s about helping ad dollars flow into the indies too, because they have great content and communities, but are still under-monetized in many cases.

    • West Seattle Blog

      You know and I know that it *doesn’t* and we *don’t*. P.S. to pundits – There was also a MASSIVE templatized-“hyperlocal” failure out here that managed to escape without coverage … DataSphere and its fake neighborhood sites in partnership with broadcast companies. Shut down ever so quietly and tail-slinkingly, after big boasts (and out-of-area boiler rooms harassing local businesses for ad buys).

      • tedmann

        Really?! Datasphere isn’t operating its hyperlocal sites any more? Nobody covered that? Do you have any links to site closures ?

    • http://www.connectme360.com/ Brian Hayashi @connectme

      Local needs to scale because its lifeblood relies on digital, and the key to ongoing success in digital is the ability to leverage technology to capture increasing efficiencies.

      But as far as “content sharing” and “ad networks” — while I certainly think the definition of ad networks has and will continue to change, I think time will demonstrate that content sharing is a key performance indicator of editorial quality, just as previous generations used paper-based distribution lists and mimeographs when key stakeholders found content that they thought was worth discussing.

      • http://howardowens.com Howard Owens

        Managing local news across 100s of sites exponentially drives up cost. There’s no cost saving to technological scale in local news. It’s a fallacy. All you’re doing is creating unnecessary overhead.

        Content sharing is useless. A reader in Topeka isn’t interested in an electrical fire or Eagle Scout award in Peoria.

        The only performance indicator of editorial quality that matters is local audience size. Whether some editor in Dayton likes what’s being written in Lafayette doesn’t really matter.

  • Broadstreet

    Thanks for the mention Jeff! For indies interested in what we’re doing in NJ, find me at kenny@broadstreetads.com

    There’s also this: http://streetfightmag.com/2013/12/13/how-can-low-revenue-indie-news-sites-boost-their-game/

    – Kenny

  • Redem

    Respectfully submitting that the scavenged and cobbled “list” story (re: #5) is what’s absolutely wrong with too many attempts to generate local content. Why do we avoid about.com? The same reason.

    • 2muchcoffeeman

      I think what Jeff was proposing was not “10 Things to Do When a Storm Hits,” but a template of 10 things Patch editors must do to cover the storm effectively. An internal list, for editors, not an external list, for readers.

      • dvdj

        It was perfectly clear he was referring to training reporters in the 10 things. Redem didn’t read it too well.

        • Redem

          Bruce is right. I didn’t. Years of lists have taught me to scan even more quickly. :)

        • Redem

          And, truthfully, any time I even see the words about.com, I lose objectivity. Such is the loathing. It isn’t rational, I know. But it’s part of why news and search is broken.

        • BruceTheBlog

          And you are more gracious than I, who can learn from class acts like you. Happy holidays.

  • Hank Kalet

    I spent 18 months as a regional editor with Patch as it scaled up. The issue was never the journalists — for the most part, we had quality people on the ground — it wS interference from corporate. Had the people in New York left the people who knew their communities best to cover those communities the way those communities needed to be covered, Patch would have stood a fighting chance. But the grassroots were constantly being bombarded by inane and unnecessary dictates (best pizza shops? Really?) that sucked up needed reporting and editing time. Hyper local is important and necessary — I’ve been doing it for 24 years, first in print and then online — but it has to be local to succeed.

    • Karen Goff

      This

    • davidpowell

      Hank’s got it. There were good people in corporate, but the corporate office was most useful when acting as a support resource for the field (which it often did, and, in my experience, did well). On the other hand, whenever it tried to assert itself as the head of the editorial field troops (in response, I’m sure, to pressures from above to make good things happen faster), the resulting product was, at best, time-consuming and banal. At worst, it was embarrassing. Stuff on which we were sometimes ashamed to put our bylines.

      I think Patch would have worked, if AOL’s investor community had the patience to give it the long runway it needed. Not all the sites would have worked–some locales were poorly chosen, seemingly with a map and a demographics spreadsheet in a distant conference room–but many of them would have stuck, and were headed in the right direction when AOL started slashing spending.

      We’ll never know what might have happened, had the company and its beancounters displayed the necessary patience and vision to let the 747 have more than 747 feet of runway … but the parade of pundits trumpeting how Patch was a terrible idea from the start and never could have worked are displaying a stunning failure of imagination. Someone will eventually figure out how to make money from local. It won’t be any of them.

  • dankennedy

    Your No. 2 is intriguing, Jeff, but it still strikes me as a poor second to not having any network at all. Maybe something worthwhile could have come out of it, but a trade group like LION can probably do just as much.

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  • bgporter

    We’ll miss it here in Scotch Plains/Fanwood. Our first two editors were top notch and always visible around town. A vibrant community of mostly sane and reasonable commenters arose naturally — I’ve become accustomed to strangers approaching me in town to discuss comments that I’ve left (and sometimes accuse me of also having a second, much more prominent pseudonymous account). It went downhill fast when the cost-cutting started — more crossposts from distant towns, more national news. Even though we went from a good solid post every day or so to one every few weeks, those good posts are valuable and pretty widely read in town.

    Someone is going to crack this — I thought that Nextdoor might be it, but we weren’t able to get enough signups for them to unlock our neigghborhood.

  • Phil Stilton

    patch recently joined the new jersey news commons. I see their useless stories in our feeds now. – The Ocean Signal.

    • Phil Stilton

      Either that or they just joined Repost.Us. not quite sure.

  • dvdj

    You can add an over-arching reason to this list, Jeff: Hubris. That arguably engendered the five you do list. Call it No. 0.

    • Jennifer Dawn

      quite right – that’s what killed Time Warner/AOL back in the day…

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  • John T. Ward

    Never mind execution: Patch was doomed by simple economics. Hyperlocal is a cottage industry. AOL dropped a 40-story building of costs onto the cottage. It was never going to work.

  • Mark Swanson

    Giving away content for free online does not work and is doomed to fail.
    -30-

    • dvdj

      You mean Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter don’t give away content online?

      • Mark Swanson

        Giving away expensive local content to a relatively low number of viewers/readers is destined to fail. It’s killing daily papers who do it in a never-ending race to the bottom. Why give away content that so many pay for — and is so expensive to produce?
        By the way, Facebook and Twitter don’t produce content. Users produce content. Yahoo and Google produce some content but for the most part, they simply relink and rebadge others’ content.

        • dvdj

          Mark, re FB and Twitter, doesn’t matter who produces it or where it’s sourced. Content is content. UGC is fast putting out to pasture the journalistic likes of critics, for the most part, in favor of peer reviews. (A critic goes to the movies to do his job; everyone else goes to the movies to get away from their jobs. Critics are there to find fault; we’re there to find escape.) I was just pointing out that it’s not true free-content models are always doomed to fail. There’s also plenty of aggregator sites without a paywall that do just fine with an ad-only revenue stream. You are denoting a very specific form of online content: vertical news sites. In our cyberculture, the very notion of a “daily” news product is all but an anachronism. Today’s daily, relatively, is akin to a weekly. The dailies are dead; long live right now.

        • Eric Hydrick

          A smaller subset of readers means a smaller demographic base which would probably make it easier to target ads. Because the ads can be precisely targeted, they would be worth more, theoretically enough to make up for the lack of audience size.

        • http://howardowens.com Howard Owens

          Local content is not expensive to produce. It’s actually very cheap to produce and done right produces astoundingly high audience numbers.

        • Mark Swanson

          If you want to produce it all yourself, yes. See how long you can keep that up.

        • http://howardowens.com Howard Owens

          Not true. And if you’re not willing to work hard, you’re pretty much a waste of space on the planet anyway.

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  • tedmann

    Good post, Jeff. Well put. It makes me a little sick to my stomach that Carr would write the obit before Patch has made any kind of announcements about throwing in the towel. Shudder to think that anyone at the NYTimes would make such a pronouncement about my startup. Still, good lessons learned.

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  • Tom Troncone

    Jeff, as the guy who was running Patch in New Jersey, first in the north and later the whole state, I take exception to “Most sites I know wanted to blacklist Patch because it had been so nasty
    to them. In an ecosystem, what goes around comes around to bite you in
    the ass.”

    I’d really like some clarification on this point. I can’t recall a single thing that my staff or the advertising staff did that could be construed as nasty or mean-spirited toward the indies.

    You may recall me pleading with the indies to not just hate us because of who owned us, we were able to drive incredible traffic to them if they just let us. We had more than 3 million monthly users in NJ, 1/3 of the state and more than 100 percent market penetration in more towns than I can recall.

    I just never understood the hatred of Patch. We were like 70 people, all from NJ, many like me and my managers with decades in NJ news. All we wanted to do was give people free news and information about their towns. I wasn’t selling pink machine guns to babies, you know?

    • http://buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Tom,
      I heard Patch executives vow to kill — their verb — independent sites in this state. They never played well.
      But now you’re free of them. New day, new opportunities.
      I was the one who encouraged a meeting of former Patch people in New Jersey this week. I would like *every* one of them continue to cover their towns and to do so as independent entrepreneurs. I’ll do anything to help you and them do that.
      Water. Bridge.
      Best of luck.
      jeff