Ducks And Coverage

Patch.com is growing fast. The hyperlocal news sites, owned by AOL, now number 23 in Minnesota – all of them in the Twin Cities and suburbs, except for an outpost in Northfield. That’s more than double the number that were operating just six months ago.

Don’t know what Patch is? It’s basically a small-town newspaper online. Patch sites focus on a town or even a single neighborhood, aiming at the kind of news that big-city media don’t cover. (For more background, see posts by MinnPost’s David Brauer here and here.)

Patch is heavy on events, local businesses, photos, calendar listings and short news items. Here’s a recent item from Northfield Patch: two ducks sighted downtown.

Patch sites are generally staffed by a full-time reporter/editor who covers news and oversees free-lancers and community members who also produce content. But apparently they’re not producing enough.

Last week, a memo from Patch.com’s top editor bounced around the blogosphere. In the memo, Editor-in-Chief Brian Farnham urged Patch staffers to crank out more stories. He wondered whether staff members are so busy producing content that they don’t have time to produce even more content.

“Are they spending too much time reporting and writing long articles?” Farnham wrote. “Are they too caught up in editing freelancers?”

Patch sites have a built-in limit to their appeal. The kind of extremely local news that might interest a neighborhood resident – what the ambulance was doing at Mrs. Johnson’s house yesterday, for example – isn’t of much value to someone living even a mile or two away. So Patch can’t sell advertising on any of its sites with the promise of reaching large numbers of eyeballs.

What it hopes to do, instead, is reach a core group of committed readers who come back often. That kind of audience has real value of its own, as I mentioned last week in a post about the future of digital news. And that’s why Patch wants its staff to be more prolific. The more often fresh content appears on the site – yes, even duck photos — the more likely people are to visit regularly.

Opinions on Patch vary widely. Some see it as the savior of the news business; others are skeptical that it can ever generate enough revenue to succeed. Similar hyperlocal news sites, like the Washington Post-sponsored LoudounExtra, have failed. But none has had the national scale of Patch.

I think there’s definitely a place in the news ecosystem for Patch. It produces a special kind of local reporting that people will welcome and find valuable, once they discover it. But Patch will never replace the kind of journalism that many of the larger traditional media still produce regularly. It won’t have the depth you find on a site like MinnPost, or the resources and expertise that the Star Tribune can bring to bear on an important public issue.

At least, not as long as its top editor is sending out memos urging his staffers to lay off those long articles.

This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for MinnPost.com.


Other posts by