Post-Patch Startups Build On Past Lessons
A boom in hyperlocal websites is underway, fueled largely by the legions of staffers let go from Patch.
Well-versed in the hyperlocal space — as well as the communities they cover — former Patch staffers are launching their own news sites around the country, saying they plan to further the Patch model by doing it better through honing content and with more aggressive money-making strategies from offering sponsorships to creating a paid subscription wire service.
The new independent sites — many started by some of the 900 or so staffers Patch laid off in January — are popping up in places as varied as media-heavy San Diego, northern Illinois and the New Jersey shore. In southern Connecticut alone, there are three new sites — covering the towns of Greenwich, New Canaan and Stamford — all started by former Patch editors.
They are low-cost ventures, with little startup or overhead costs. The sites are created using DYI platforms like WordPress or for a small fee through a company like Locable.com, which provides a platform specifically for community-based websites. In addition to help with technology, Locable.com also provides services like sales and marketing training.
Beth Lawton, the executive director LION Publishers, the 130-plus member group representing independent hyperlocal sites, says most of the new sites are one or two-person startup operations, although there are a few with staffs four or five strong.
Regardless of size, however, the fledgling sites are proving to be solid sources of community news, a testament to the skills of the seasoned reporters and editors running them, she says.
“A lot of these people who are coming from Patch are really good journalists,” Lawton says. “Patch did a good job of training journalists on the editorial side, on social media, on search engine optimization and on doing a good job of really covering their communities.”
Jennewein, for example, is a 25-year veteran of online journalism, whose experience includes running the former San Diego Union-Tribune’s website and overseeing Knight Ridder Digital in San Jose.
He says he believes the first wave of hyperlocal news sites, like Patch, had too narrow a focus to be sustainable, and he plans to beat that problem by broadening the regional breadth of news covered by his Times of San Diego. So instead of covering a specific community like, say, downtown San Diego, or nearby La Jolla or Mission Hills, like other hyperlocals do, the Times of San Diego covers all of them — albeit in a concise, online-friendly sort of way.
“People wanted to know what was happening in their communities, but they also wanted to know what is happening in the broader region. No one was doing that,” he says.
Jennewein, who is “boot strapping” his operation with help from three other former Patch employees, may be onto something. In its first month, the Times of San Diego had 23,267 unique visitors, according to Google Analytics. That metric also showed about 60% of those visitors were in the 18 to 34 age group coveted by advertisers.
The number shows that even in a place like San Diego, a market known for innovative media, there are untapped audiences, primarily consumers who don’t have allegiances to traditional media, Jennewein says. “Traditional media hasn’t moved fast enough or far enough to take advantage of the online audience,” he says. “Unaffiliated news consumers — people who don’t get the paper, don’t watch TV – don’t know where to turn to get the news. That’s the kind of need we are filling.”
Yet the emerging online publishers also need to make money to keep their sites up and running — no easy feat for a hyperlocal, as the demise of Patch shows. Add the fact that journalists, rather than people from the business side of the industry, are establishing the bulk of these sites, the challenge mounts.
“As someone who’s been in journalism for 20 years, I can’t imagine how many times I’ve cursed people in advertising,” says Steven Jack, who has run Only Oswego out of his Oswego, Ill., home since February,
People like Jack, who spent six months looking for work after being laid off in August, say their time working for Patch was well spent, learning what to do — and not do — on both sides of the business.
For instance, Doug Bergen, who launched OCNJDaily.com, covering Ocean City, N.J., within hours of losing his job in January, says that during his time as the local editor, Patch never created the local sales force necessary to build relationships with businesses “so there is money sitting on the table, in my mind, to be had.”