By Janice Bates
Many newspapers have begun to show some concern with the growing popularity of sites like 'Patch.com,' which have taken business away from various newspapers and local news businesses. These hyperlocal websites attempt to cover information specific to local communities across the country, and it is suggested that they do a better job of this than local print newspapers do. However, is Patch.com still a threat to the print-news business model? Or will it burn out sometime in the near future? These are just a couple of the questions that a panel of speakers at the APME Conference in Denver attempted to answer.
Brad Dennison began by giving everyone a brief background on Patch.com (an AOL company), as well as each of the speakers that would follow him. Neal Simpson was next, a reporter from The Patriot Ledger out of Quincy Massachusetts, and former writer/reporter for Patch.com. He provided everyone with his own experience with 'Patch', which gave decent insight into what 'Patch' has looked like, and progressed to in the last year. When he was approached about writing for 'Patch', he was working for a print paper in Brookline, Mass. and was eager to work at a place where he would "be on the leading edge" of journalism, "a place on a blazing trail." However, he went on to find out that he would be working long hours, with very little help and not a lot of teamwork since he would see his regional editor maybe once a week. They also proceeded to hire people with less experience, who would come in and try to run things, which seemed to leave him frustrated. Simpson went on to say that he left 'Patch' in April 2011 after they moved to focusing on one topic each day in an attempt to create more traffic to their sites. Since then, he feels he has the best job that he's had in his short career in journalism, a reporter at the Ledger, and he loves the teamwork, and pride that everyone has in the final product. He still has to compete with 'Patch', which keeps him on his toes, trying to report as quickly as he can.
Overall it seems that he doesn't regret his experience with Patch.com, however he enjoys working for print newspapers a lot more than an online company. While he didn't really directly answer the question 'Is Patch.com a threat?' he gave off the notion that 'Patch' is not, and will not be a threat to newspapers and how they do business.
Up next was John Lynch, not the football player but the Director of Digital Strategies at Serengeti communications. He focused on looking at 'Patch' from a "search engine perspective" and tried to show their business model through statistics based on this perspective. He started out by giving an example of a Google search page, and asked the question, "Why is Patch.com's link at the bottom of the search page, instead of at the top?" His answer to this was that search engines look for trust signals when they determine which links go where, and 'Patch' doesn't send out too many of these signals, which is why they are not featured at the top of the page. This he felt was one thing that hurts 'Patch' in the amount of revenue they take in. He went on to give numbers on 'Patch's' attempt to gain revenue through how many times people click onto their page. While he feels that 'Patch' needs to have a call to action in order to get more traffic to their sites, he ultimately felt that they are in no way a threat to print news. He gave various reasons for this, one being that he feels they don't organize their content very well, and that their site is tough to navigate through. He also gave suggestions that 'Patch' competitors could use to gain the upper hand on these hyperlocal sites, which is how he ended his lecture. He suggested that print news needs to focus on creating lasting relationships with their users/readers, and that they also need to harvest reader contact info. He also felt that if print news uses Google and Facebook to get long-term enthusiasts for their papers, they will have an advantage over hyperlocal sites like Patch.com.
The final speaker was Brian Timpone, the CEO of BlockShopper.com/Journatic. He focused mainly on what print newspapers are currently doing wrong, and what they need to focus on to compete with hyperlocals. He feels that there is currently a production problem in print news, and that there is not enough content for the right cost. He then went on to talk about his website, which focuses on real-estate in local communities all over the U.S.
Timpone continued by explaining some problems he sees with Patch.com. He feels that they take a "top down approach" to the stories they cover, and feels that they are centered around individual talent, instead of a team oriented environment. This reminded me of what Simpson was saying about his experience with working for Patch.com and his feeling of a lack of teamwork in the newsroom. Timpone ended his talk by giving a very positive outlook for print newspapers. He feels that if they focus on local news, and personalizing their papers and stories more (keeping the personal touch), they will then in turn create more competition for each other which will only fuel the industry.
Overall, there were some similarities in what each speaker had to say about Patch.com and print newspapers. While Lynch was the only one to firmly answer the question as to whether or not 'Patch' is still a threat to print and local news businesses, everyone seemed to feel that Patch.com would not remain a threat, and is currently not a threat to print media. Although no one from 'Patch' was able to speak with this panel, Simpson's account of his experience working for them did give credible insight into how they operate and what they focus on. In addition, Timpone did somewhat explain and give ideas on what print media could do to improve themselves, and compete with hyperlocal sites like Patch.com. Only time will tell as to whether or not hyperlocal sites will remain threats to print newspapers, or if print newspapers will change some of their content focus and compete with and supersede these hyperlocal sites.