Our changing world of media places particular challenges on reporting local news. One turning point was reached with the NYTimes’ announcement that on March 28 it is implementing an online subscription pay plan for visitors who read more than 20 articles a month. Also in February AOL announced it had entered an agreement to purchase the Huffington Post bringing together local reporting through AOL’s Patch and Huffington Post’s national reporting on politics, business and culture. While a prestigious newspaper like the NYTimes is more likely to succeed digitally than other newspapers, it still will face competition from online enterprises like AOL/Huffington Post/Patch, and while the NYTimes will continue local coverage, other newspapers and other regions will not be so fortunate.
Howard Fineman, newly appointed Editorial Director, Huffington Post Media Group, says, “As of today there are some 800 Patches in 18 states and DC, with plans to open two or three times that many more within two years, each staffed with a full-time journalist.” Patch launched its first three sites in 2009 in NJ and currently lists about 80 sites in our state. Article subjects include art, business, government, police, school and sports. They are often short, but generally provide the reporter’s name and e-mail address. Patch lets you leave a comment and enter your own email address if you want a follow-up to the article. As an example, today’s Teaneck Patch presents an attractive, uncluttered Home Page that headlines Saturday night’s killing of a former Teaneck High School quarterback, commuter problems, a weekend forum on redistricting and events including an art exhibit at FDU and Irish dancing at the library.
Beyond just growing pains, some of the challenges for the hyperlocals include acquiring/training/retaining good reporters/contributors, not overemphasizing the costs savings potential, steering clear of local political influence, and gaining readership and ads. The quality of writing and insight from one Patch site to another certainly varies, and some articles are short and lack depth. As with national radio chains that achieve cost savings by providing the same news reports to a number of stations, at Patch there are editors assigned to more than one site and the same article sometimes appears in different town reports. In Patch’s recent announcement that it will create two Newark sites, it stated, “We are very excited to work closely with Mayor Booker,” to which AdWeek responded, “The idea of a news organization partnering with politicians it’s supposed to cover is bizarre.” Patch later indicated that Mayor Booker will not have editorial input. Finally monetizing their effort will not be easy.
The challenges of Patch and similar ventures are formidable, but what happens in our towns is important. Taxes, council meetings, elections, board of education minutes, zoning, crime, arts, and sports matter to us. In order to stay informed we hope that hyperlocals will matter to us also.