Today they are standing on every corner in one town outside New York City. They are blonde, female and clearly under 25. They wear bright green T-shirts and visors that say “Patch,” and they hand out pens and stickers and leaflets by the gross. They do not live here.
“Have you read Patch?” they croon to the commuters and shoppers and mommies with strollers, many of whom stare straight ahead without stopping.
These are the new Journalists. At least they say they are.
Patch, or “Poach,” as someone here at Lost Remote once called it, is the network of identical hyperlocal sites that AOL is rolling out at a reported cost of well over $50 million this year.
In fact, the sites are parachuting down so fast they can’t even keep up with the list of “coming” sites on the Patch homepage; the town where we spotted the lovelies today isn’t even on the list yet, but they are advertising for writers on Craigslist.
In Southern Westchester New York, as well as in other affluent suburban areas in eight other states, Patch has let loose (what they say are) 75 young reporters, bloggers, marketers and sales people to cover an area that we do with two to four, depending on the day.
Editors of hyperlocal sites like mine, like Baristanet in New Jersey, OaklandLocal, WestSeattleBlog and dozens of others that were built on the passions of their founders, consider Poach, I mean Patch, to be anything from a pesky annoyance to a real threat.
My standard response when people ask me how we differ, is that Patch is like a drive-thru McDonald’s, all corporate and chain-like, and we are a comfy diner. That serves cocktails.
I think we must all be mindful that conglomo-sites like Patch, while legitimate local news gathering enterprises, could push bootstrap start-ups off the map, simply because they’re able to spend millions. It feels too much like what Gannett was able to do with dozens upon dozens of local newspapers almost a generation ago.
Patch is hardly the only one out there. I was approached by the Publisher of MainStreetConnect, who told me he has bought up 3000 urls, including www.thedailynorwalk.com in Connecticut. He offered me a job editing all the sites in Westchester County (which has about 72 towns and villages) for $40,000 a year.
“We are going to put you out of business anyway,” he said.
I declined. “We’ll be watching you carefully,” he added.
It’s capitalism. We are okay with that. Media is reinventing. We are okay with that too. These are great training grounds for young journalists. Even better. I’m jus’ sayin’ let’s all keep an eye out for each other and not lose sight of why we do this to begin with: to tell stories, inform, protect, advocate and provide a platform for all voices. The voices with the best economy of scale shouldn’t automatically win.
One of the most important things I learned at the Knight Digital Media Center earlier this year is the importance of the role of the publisher as community builder. Because online journalism is often a conversation between media and readers, rather than the Voice of God of yore, one of the most important things we can do is to help build partnerships and alliances when both sides are committed to the same community.
Last year, we at theLoop had the idea to sponsor a Bastille Day block party in our area with a local restaurant to give residents a reason to visit the village at night. We offered publicity and coverage. We paid the police overtime and the band with modest sponsorship money, and the sponsors put up their banners. Over 500 people came. There was music, food and drinks. It was great for the partner restaurant, for the sponsoring businesses and it was great for theLoop.
This year, Patch approached our partner and offered $900 and ten staffers (in T-shirts and visors and pens, flyers…) to sponsor our event. The restaurant agreed. Most of the staffers were dispatched from Patch HQ in Soho, New York City, and don’t live here. There was little we could do. We set up a table and tried to look cheerful.
But I am going to order some T-shirts.
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I was struck by this post. I work in traditional media and everyone knows what kinds of disruption this industry faces. But disruption knows no protected class. Today disruption happens at such a fast pace and on some many levels that even the disruptor is being disrupted. Amazing, really. Unsettling, as usual.