Patch Work

AOL’s hyperlocal sites are sprouting all over the Garden State. How do they fit in New Jersey’s changing media landscape?

Illustration by Mike Austin.

It couldn’t have come at a worse time for Chris Christie.

Just as the governor’s name was being bandied about as a possible Republican Party presidential savior—despite his disavowal of interest—Christie faced an embarrassment that raised questions about his integrity and supposed frugality.

On May 31, the slasher of spending and attacker of waste took heat for using a State Police helicopter to attend his son’s baseball game in Montvale.

Once the news—and images—spread online of Christie landing at a St. Joseph Regional High School field with all the gravity of a commander-in-chief, the chopper escapade sparked sharp criticism. Christie eventually reimbursed the State Police for the $2,251 cost of the trip, though he refused to apologize for it.

Which news organization recorded the embarrassing images? Not the New York Times, the Star-Ledger or even the Associated Press.

It was Patch, the network of local websites that entered the New Jersey media fray less than three years ago and proceeded to spread like crabgrass, even as traditional Garden State media outlets seemed to be drying up.

Patch freelance photographer Chris Costa recalls how he snagged his scoop. “I was called earlier in the afternoon by the regional editor for Bergen County,” Costa says. “He heard that Christie was flying in for his son’s game. The assumption was that it was going to be the state trooper helicopter.”

The assumption was correct.

The photos became Exhibit A in Christie’s biggest stumble, used by all three major television networks, cable channels, the Times, the Associated Press and others.

AOL-owned Patch thus notched some bragging rights in its effort to become the top local news source in the state. Patch’s national network comprises more than 850 sites in 23 states and the District of Columbia. At last count, 85 of those so-called hyperlocal sites are in New Jersey, which has served as a sort of petri dish for the would-be media powerhouse.

But while the so-called chopper-gate story has been a highwater mark for Patch, it’s also something of an isolated incident. On the whole, Patch’s journalistic performance is somewhat, well,  patchy. Individual sites are thinly staffed; some serve largely as bulletin boards for event information and official news releases from their respective municipalities and other local entities. 

“They certainly have made some progress,” says John J. O’Brien, a former Somerset Press publisher and Hunterdon County Democrat reporter who now directs the New Jersey Press Foundation. But, he adds, “in sheer numbers they’ve got a long way to go to get a lot of feet on the ground.”

Most Patch sites have a single full-time paid editor and rely on local freelance writers, photographers and unpaid bloggers to cover their territory. The site editors are overseen by more experienced county or regional editors.

Each region also has a sales team charged with selling display advertising on the Patch web pages. As with most commercial websites, they face an uphill battle persuading businesses to shift their ad dollars to the Internet.

In most instances, Patch is not the only game in town. The local sites must compete for stories, readers and advertisers with daily and weekly newspapers and their respective websites, as well as other independent hyperlocals.

Heather Taylor, communications director of the Citizens Campaign, which organizes the New Jersey Hyperlocal News Association (a networking and training group), estimates that, including Patch, there are about 140 hyperlocal sites in the state.
 
It was February 2009 when the towns of Maplewood, Millburn-Short Hills and South Orange saw the first Patch sites, distinguished by their modest patch-of-grass logo—and a promise to be local, accurate and first with news.

Since then, Patch has claimed its share of scoops—although not necessarily groundbreaking ones.
Take former Westfield editor John Celock, 31, who grew up in and still lives in neighboring Cranford. “It is a great benefit, growing up in Cranford, you are in Westfield all the time,” Celock says.

The local connection has paid off for Celock, who has been honored twice by the state chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for his Patch coverage in two key areas: unemployment and education. The first SPJ award recognized a 2009 series of articles on Searching for Work, a Westfield-based group; the second came in 2010 for 13 articles on a Westfield teacher fighting for tenure. (After editing Westfield Patch for two years, Celock is now the state politics reporter and Patch liaison for the AOL-owned Huffington Post.)

But while Patch editors are under pressure to break local news, Patch’s web pages are largely filled with local announcements, soft features and stories shared among neighboring sites.

An examination of Collingswood Patch in July found few local news stories. One was about a woman who falsely reported her car had been driven into a lake; another was about a local antiques dealer traveling to France. The Collingswood site also had regional items—shared with other Patch sites—such as a blogger promoting Atlantic City as a great getaway and the reopening of a library in neighboring Haddon Township.

Looking elsewhere, a weekly roundup of news on Fair Lawn Patch on July 30 did not include one Fair Lawn story.

When actress Denise Richards was interviewed briefly during an appearance at Bookends in Ridgewood on July 27, a video of the event appeared on several Patch sites. But there was no accompanying story—not even supporting information about the day and time the event occurred.
The quality of Patch reporting varies from site to site, as does the experience level and training of Patch editors. Some sites, such as those in Millburn and Belleville, are edited by veteran journalists with more than 10 years in the business. Others, such as those in Chatham, Long Branch, Little Silver and Lacey, have novice editors with little or no news background.

“The criteria that we look at when we’re hiring people allows us to hire people who might be right out of school, but [also those who] might have 25 years experience for a local editor’s position,” says Warren Webster, the New York-based president of Patch. “I think the average of our editors is something like nine years’ experience in journalism.”

A key goal is to hire editors with local roots. “Our direction is to make sure our local editors are of, by and for the town,” says David Chmiel, Patch’s Union County regional editor. Chmiel, a former editor of New Jersey Monthly, oversees eight Patch sites.

Patch editors receive “a lot” of training, according to Webster; he declined to offer specifics. “They go for a few days right off the bat,” he says, “and they go for online training that happens frequently.”

The local editors have no one above them editing their stories. This often is the case at other websites and most blogs, but is considered a recipe for disaster in traditional journalism.

Patch editors typically earn $40,000 to $50,000 per year, according to sources. That’s roughly equivalent to the average salary for a weekly newspaper editor in New Jersey, as reported by the employment site SimplyHired.com. However, it lags behind the $55,000 to $70,000 earned by mid-level news editors at the state’s dailies, according to Glassdoor.com, a corporate data website.

“We don’t have a specific [salary] amount for local editors,” says Webster. “It depends on experience, where they live.”

Tim Armstrong, a one-time Google advertising chief, co-founded Patch in 2007. Armstrong, 40, then invested $4.5 million into the site from his investment firm, Polar Capital. After he became AOL’s CEO in 2009, Armstrong spearheaded AOL’s $7 million takeover of Patch, which included another $50 million investment in 2010.

Publicly traded AOL doesn’t break out financial figures for Patch, but observers say, so far, the paperless publishing operation is deep in red ink. The New York Times reported in May: “Patch’s spending—$80 million in the last six months alone—far exceeds its revenue.”

But Patch’s Webster says that’s not an issue at the moment. “We are exactly where we want to be right now in terms of revenue, as well as traffic,” he claims. “Both have exceeded our expectations.”

In its second-quarter earnings report, released in early August, AOL gives Patch partial credit for a corporate-wide 5 percent increase in advertising revenue, compared to the same quarter the year before. But the report also acknowledges that an increase in net loss of almost 100 percent was related in large part to the “increased investment in Patch and other areas of strategic focus.” (AOL’s stock lost half its value in the 12-month period starting August 2010.)

Webster stresses the long-term nature of AOL’s investment. “Nobody at AOL or anywhere else would be as committed to it as we are or made the investment in it we are if we didn’t believe that it’s going to be and continues to be a successful business for us.”

Not everyone is convinced. “As a business strategy, it has baffled a lot of people, me included, as to how they expect to make money,” says Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“Part of the problem right now for them—and it is a problem for mom and pop sites, too—is the idea of kind of getting the local merchant to really shift over to digital advertising,” Edmonds says, “especially digital display advertising.”

But if Patch has yet to turn a profit, it has definitely stepped up its ambitions, thanks to its new boss, Arianna Huffington, founder of one of the Internet’s most successful content-based ventures, the blog-fueled Huffington Post. When AOL purchased Huffington Post for $315 million in cash and stock this past February, Huffington herself was installed as president and editor-in-chief of a new AOL content group that includes Patch.

Webster is upbeat about Huffington’s new leadership. “It has been great so far,” he says. “We get to draw on what has worked really well for the Huffington Post. We’ve done things like looked at their blogging platform and how we can adapt that for a local model. We also look at other things like how they approach social media with their content.”

According to Webster, Patch plans to increase its attention to the national political scene and its impact on the communities it covers in time for the 2012 presidential race. That’s a clear Huffington influence. He says Patch already has launched sites in the first primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, with more to come in those states.  And former Westfield editor Celock’s new Washington, D.C.-based position is meant in part to promote collaboration among local Patch sites and Huffington Post on political coverage.

As Patch reaches across the continent, it’s notable that it chose New Jersey for its initial site. That was no accident, says Webster, noting that a sophisticated process was used to decide which locations were prime for Patch.

He says Patch ran every region through an algorithm that included 59 factors—including election turnout, the local business landscape and community involvement in school issues—to determine residential interest in a website covering daily news.

“I think we couldn’t have launched it in a better place,” he says of New Jersey.

What does all this mean to coverage of the news in the Garden State?

Virtually all of the traditional media serving Jersey have had to cut back their editorial resources in recent years—this while budget, jobs, education, labor, transportation, immigration, health, environment and other issues cry out for coverage in a state plunged into the national spotlight by its flamboyant governor.

The state’s largest newspaper, the Star-Ledger, has undergone three buyouts since 2008, cutting its editorial staff from about 350 to about 200 employees. The Record of Bergen County closed its Hackensack headquarters and moved in with its smaller sister, the Herald News of Woodland Park. And Gannett’s six New Jersey daily papers also have seen steep circulation losses and job cuts. When the parent company cut 700 jobs nationwide in July, 36 positions were eliminated in New Jersey, according to Business Week.

Meanwhile, cutbacks at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times have left New Jersey coverage at a minimum in their pages, while the Philadelphia and New York television stations also have cut back their Jersey staffing. Most recently, the state stopped funding NJN, shifting operation of the public TV station to New York-based public broadcaster WNET, which is in the process of developing its new network, Jersey-based NJTV.

Since instant access to information on the Internet is largely credited (along with the economic downturn) with ending the dominion of traditional media, it’s no surprise that local editors and publishers should look to the web as the next-generation distribution platform for news.

Patch was hardly the first hyperlocal to pitch its tent in New Jersey. Two of the earliest sites—Baristanet of Montclair/Glen Ridge and Red Bank Green—each have carved out a niche with local content and commentary, and a good chunk of breaking news. And they both now compete head-on with Patch sites, as do many other independently owned hyperlocals.

Another Patch competitor is TheAlternativePress.com, a multi-town hyperlocal launched in October 2008 by former commercial litigation attorney Michael Shapiro. Originally covering Summit, New Providence and Berkeley Heights, the site now reports on 14 towns in Union, Morris and Essex counties, with 200 paid freelancers, nearly 50 columnists and five sales staffers. Shapiro claims his ad-supported site has been profitable since 2010.

Additionally, the major dailies all have established localized sites for most of the municipalities they cover, and the state’s many weeklies also have developed online versions—typically with the same 24/7 news capability as Patch.

Publicly, the Star-Ledger claims to be unconcerned by the Patch invasion. Publisher Richard Vezza says Patch is not a worry, but admits his paper’s business approach must change for other reasons.

“We’ve watched their audience, we’ve looked at their advertising model and what we think they are doing and what they are making,” Vezza says. “It doesn’t seem very worrisome at this stage, especially to us at the Ledger.”

What’s more, says Vezza, “When you look at the advertising and what they are charging, it doesn’t seem to be very good as the revenue source.”

On the editorial side, the Star-Ledger has adjusted its mission to focus on  larger stories seemingly beyond the reach of its local competitors.

“What we have decided to do is to redirect the resources of the paper where they can have the most impact,” says Star-Ledger editor Kevin Whitmer. Despite the recent staff cuts, he says the paper now has a 12-person Trenton bureau, one of its largest ever. “Instead of writing small, incremental stories about town government, we are writing big, broad stories that matter to every municipality.”

Debbie Galant, a former New York Times freelance writer and columnist who launched Baristanet in May 2004, also questions the viability of Patch. Galant is confident that she can continue to thrive in the face of AOL-funded competition; Baristanet is one of the few independent news sites in the state that is believed to be turning a profit.

“We have more of a voice and more of a personality and we take more chances than they do,” she says of her Patch rivals. “They tend to be just a little bit more playing it safe.”

With more than a dozen paid part-timers, Galant has expanded into Maplewood with an additional page, but admits her focus remains on Montclair and its neighboring towns. 

Does she think Patch can survive? “It’s hard to say…they have become the 900-pound gorilla in the room. I compare them to Walmart coming in.”

John T. Ward, publisher of Red Bank Green—which he launched in June 2006—may have the most intense Patch competition.

Formerly a freelancer for New Jersey Monthly and business reporter for the Star-Ledger and Asbury Park Press, Ward competes with Patch sites covering Middletown, Red Bank-Shrewsbury, Little Silver-Oceanport, Rumson-Fair Haven and Eatontown-Tinton Falls.

“One had to scratch one’s head at the rationale for doing what they are doing,” says Ward, 54.
Ward is known for timely local stories, like the time in October 2010 when Red Bank Green broke the news about two Sea Bright firefighters assaulting a third during a traditional “wet-down” of a new fire truck. The two subsequently were convicted of assault, while the supposed victim was found guilty of harassment.

The key for Red Bank Green was getting video and posting that online. “Ear-to-the-ground reporting,” Ward says.

In Morristown, indie hyperlocal Morristown Green is going head-to-head with a Patch site.

Morristown Green was launched in 2007 as part of the Star-Ledger, but went on its own when creator Kevin Coughlin left the Star-Ledger and relaunched the site independently in 2009.
A Morristown resident, Coughlin notes that the Star-Ledger no longer has a county bureau in Morristown, and the Gannett-owned Daily Record is not based there anymore. Patch, he says, is the only real competition—and it is potentially formidable.

“It is obvious that they pose a challenge for independent bloggers because they have Tim Armstrong and AOL’s deep pockets behind them,” he says.

Patch also competes with traditional media for staffers. The Record has lost three people to Patch, according to editor Frank Scandale. But he says his parent company, North Jersey Media, can cover its area better than most because, along with two daily papers, it has about 50 weeklies.
However, many of the state’s weekly newspapers are independents. They stand alone in the face of Patch competition and other challenges.

Jennifer Cone Chciuk has been publisher since 2002 of the 82-year-old Livingston-based West Essex Tribune, formerly owned by her father. She says circulation is down slightly, but doesn’t pin that on Patch.

“It is a variety of things,” she says. “People have cut corners wherever they can.”
The Tribune has an online presence through MyTownNavigator.com, which provides websites for 53 weeklies in New Jersey. Some update just once a week, while others strive for daily updates.
As for Patch, Cone Chciuk sees them as one of several rivals.

“We’ve got a couple of online presences in our town,” she says. “Patch is covering some of the same stuff we cover. They do some things different than we do. We do some things different than they do. It is definitely something to watch. Right now, we are all just living with each other.”

Not all the local operations have survived. The New York Times ventured into hyperlocal the same year as Patch, with one site—The Local—covering Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange.

The Times appointed veteran scribe Tina Kelley of Maplewood to run its hyperlocal test site. But the experiment was dropped soon after Kelley took a buyout in December 2009 and the paper had to cut costs. Baristanet essentially took over the beat.

One thing virtually all these websites have in common is a dearth of reliable statistics about traffic. But even if one assumes that the audience for online news is growing, that only raises the editorial bar for the lone wolves who edit each Patch site.

It’s a “huge problem,” says Alan Mutter, a media analyst based in California. “You have to have news every day.”

Patch, he says, “has boldly done what most have not—hired someone for each community.” And that, Mutter says, “is an expensive hire.”

Yet it hardly solves the content problem. “The name of the game is to put up a lot of content all the time, so you have to put up content that is sometimes superficial,” says Mutter. “To get good people to do this you have to pay them a lot of money.”

Patch management’s concern about the volume of content was made clear in May when editor-in-chief Brian Farnham, based in New York City, issued a memo to editors that seems to urge them to post a minimum of six new items each day.

The leaked memo, first posted at StreetFightMag.com, stated:

“…Right now we’ve got 68 sites producing six or more articles per day, so we know it can be done. I can also say that because article doesn’t have to mean an 800 word piece. And I can say that because of this: in South Florida, 14 sites just completed a three-month test that proved you can do seven posts a day…. So not only is more production possible, done smartly it’s possible to do with less pain.”

Farnham declined to comment on the memo, referring all questions to Webster.

StreetFightMag.com editor and co-founder David Hirschman, whose site covers the hyperlocal business nationwide, says the memo raises the essential question: “Do you change the quality of the content or the length to fill some need to get more inventory?”

The answer might depend on the site and its editor. “Patches really vary in quality,” Hirschman says.

Certainly, Patch’s place in New Jersey’s editorial landscape is still being sorted out, even as traditional media companies experiment with new ways to serve their audience.

It won’t get easier anytime soon. In fact, print dailies face a new threat from a state legislative proposal to allow government entities to skip paid public notices— a major revenue stream for many smaller papers—and instead satisfy the publishing requirement by posting the notices on their own websites. A senate bill has advanced through committees in both houses of the State Legislature, but the full Assembly and Senate have yet to consider it.

John V. Pavlik, professor and chair of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University, credits Jersey’s old-school media with hanging tough in the face of adversity.

“The traditional media are still doing a reasonably good job of covering the New Jersey communities,” says Pavlik. “The problem they are having is finding a business model to sustain the journalism.”

Their digitally birthed competitors will likely face the same issue for years to come.

Joe Strupp writes frequently about media for New Jersey Monthly.

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