With the journalism industry in a freefall and hundreds of local newspapers facing possible extinction, it’s uplifting to occasionally read about the success stories in local news, the startups and legacy publishers that have bucked the trend and managed to find sustainable business models.
While the vast majority of news outlets have struggled amidst falling ad sales and lackluster subscription growth, it’s helpful to study those organizations that established new revenue streams and continue to deliver high quality journalism to their communities.
The Texas Tribune, for instance, has shown how a nonprofit can leverage community support and sustain itself on a healthy mixture of donations, sponsored content, and live events. Institutions like Chalkbeat and Technically Media proved that niche news products could thrive at the local level. Even legacy companies like Hearst are displaying signs of resilience in an environment that seemed hostile to traditional newspaper chains.
But should the hyperlocal news network Patch be listed among these other luminaries? After all, the company has been reportedly profitable for a few years now, and its executives were even quoted recently as saying they plan to expand their editorial headcount despite the significant headwinds faced by the industry at large.
While reaching profitability is impressive, I think it’s also important to ask whether a media organization is actually conducting valuable journalism. Put another way, is Patch actually replacing the high quality reporting that was once a staple of thriving local newspapers? That’s a question I recently sought out to answer.
First, I want to acknowledge that Patch has come a long way since it was a bottomless money pit on AOL’s books, and its current leadership deserves praise for that. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong purchased the company in 2009 with the hope that its hundreds of individual sites would, in aggregate, deliver a level of scale never seen before in local news, allowing AOL to attract a healthy mix of local, regional, and national advertisers and make it a chief rival to growing tech behemoths like Google and Facebook.
But that revenue never materialized, and within a few years Patch had become an albatross that threatened to tank Armstrong’s legacy. At its height, it employed over 500 people who were creating content across 900 news sites. With that kind of headcount, it was burning through up to $160 million a year. Armstrong responded with round after round of layoffs and closed down the most unprofitable sites. In a particularly low point, he publicly fired Patch’s creative director while on a company-wide phone call announcing layoffs. In 2014, Armstrong finally threw in the towel and announced AOL was selling off Patch to the investment firm Hale Global.
From there, most of us would have forgotten Patch even existed, except in February 2016 The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Patch Rebounds After Split From AOL.” After two years of cost cutting and realignment, the site was now profitable and attracting 10 million more monthly unique visitors than it had under the patronage of AOL. And this success wasn’t a fluke either. Article after article published over the next two years continued to tout Patch’s continued profitability.
How did it pull off this feat? Patch expanded its network of sites from 600 to 1,200. It syndicated content from other news sources and allowed for more user generated content. It simplified its ad sales process and created a self-serve ad platform that made it much easier for local companies to upload their own ads to a Patch site. It began distributing its content on platforms like Apple News. It pushed visitors to sign up for zipcode-specific newsletters and to download its mobile app. After the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, it increased its monthly pageviews from 85 million to 148 million, and it says it plans to hire more journalists.
But as I read article after article about the company’s health, one number kept jumping out at me: its editorial headcount. Back during its AOL days, it employed around 500 journalists, with roughly one editor assigned to each hyperlocal site. Now, it has an editorial staff of 120, even though it’s more than doubled the number of local verticals. That means it employs one journalist for every 10 locations.
So what type of coverage does Patch actually offer? Out of all the journalists who wrote about its profitability, only Recode’s Peter Kafka touched upon the issue. “If your idea of a local news operation involves a team of reporters and editors that can exhaustively cover your hometown, you will be disappointed with Patch, which usually assigns a single journalist to cover multiple towns,” he wrote in 2019. “Those reporters then generate five to 10 stories a day, which means those stories are almost always generated quickly.” Patch president Warren St. John admitted to Kafka that “we’re not as deep as we aspire to be. We’re acutely aware of what we’re capable of and what we’re not capable of.”
I decided to take a more granular look at the content produced for these verticals and compare it to what you’d expect to see from a local newspaper. As someone who got his start reporting for local newspapers, I have a pretty strong understanding of what this kind of journalism entails. I attended town council meetings, school board meetings, and board of supervisor meetings. I had regular phone calls with town managers, interviewed local business leaders, and visited schools. If Patch was producing anything close to robust local journalism, I would recognize it.
I started by visiting the Patch homepage and plugging in my Washington, DC zipcode. This brought up a few DC-specific stories and several more from surrounding Virginia and Maryland counties. I opened 10 of these stories at random and began going through them one by one, looking for signs of original reporting.
Out of the 10 I opened, only one included any information that couldn’t be found from any other public source. For an article about DC extending its state-of-emergency declaration to mid-June, the Patch reporter appears to have picked up a phone and spoken to a DC council member, and quotes him extensively in the piece. The other nine articles pull from already-existing available information, either reporting from other news organizations or publicly released documents. The two crime stories I opened, for instance, pulled all their information from police press releases published to a government website. An article about a school system’s response to the coronavirus seemed to be entirely based on a letter that was sent out to students and staff.
Next, I went back to Patch’s homepage and then navigated to a cluster of sites around Tampa, Florida. Again, I opened 10 articles at random and then went through them one by one. Out of those 10 articles, only one article seemed to contain some original reporting, though it was sometimes hard to tell. An article about how Tampa doctors were utilizing telemedicine had several quotes from doctors in it, but when I Googled the quotes, I found that some came from press releases, while others may have come from an actual interview.
In fact, I noticed suspect sourcing on a few articles. Here’s a quote from my notes I made while reading an article about a local politician distributing unemployment applications: “At first I thought this maybe had some original quotes in it, but after Googling some of them I found them on other websites, which seems fishy. The reporter certainly isn’t going out of their way to say where the quotes are coming from.”
Here’s a note I jotted down while reading a crime story: “What’s notable is that there’s absolutely no sourcing here. Was this a press release sent to the reporter by the police? Kinda shady!”
Either way, it was pretty clear from my reading that Patch offered nowhere near the kind of comprehensive coverage that’s found within a lot of local newspapers. This shouldn’t be too surprising; back during my newspaper reporting days, I wrote between seven and 10 stories per week. Back-of-the-envelope math reveals that the average Patch staffer is writing 10+ posts per day!
Let me be clear: this isn’t a criticism of Patch, insomuch that I think a website that aggregates local information can provide some real value. Far be it from me to bash a company that is paying the salaries of 120 journalists, some of whom may be at the beginning of their careers.
But as we discuss the future of journalism and look for models to emulate, I think the learnings that can be gleaned from Patch are limited. Pulling information from police reports has value, but police forces have their own messaging priorities, and simply regurgitating their words can result in slanted journalism. Watching a video of a government meeting can produce some good stories, but they’re always made better when you pick up the phone and dig deeper.
Quotes derived from interviews can provide the kind of flavor that’s almost never found in press releases. At the end of the day, all the smart curation in the world will never replace good, old-fashioned reporting.
Simon Owens is a journalist living in Washington, DC. His weekly newsletter provides deep analysis on the media industry. You can find it over here.