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    AOL Patch and MainStreetConnect Expand Hyper-Local News

    by Andria Krewson
    July 20, 2010
    The Daily Norwalk, one of MainStreetConnect's sites

    It’s difficult for media people to search any job site these days without running into an ad for AOL’s Patch. It seems equally difficult to read media news sites without finding a feature story about Connecticut’s MainStreetConnect. MainStreetConnect has appeared in recent days in both Columbia Journalism Review and Journalism.co.uk. Like Patch, the community news organization is hiring, though on a smaller scale as it expands from four sites to 10.

    We're sending teams to communities who will go door to door and collect data about those places...and have a really rich Yellow Pages." - Brian Farnham

    The attention being paid to them isn’t surprising: These two companies are leading the charge to create a new, sustainable model for hyper-local, online community news. Both are pursuing a strategy based on scale and local reporting, both are still experimenting and looking for ways to generate revenue — and both have big national ambitions.

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    “We’ve sort of built the car and now we’re tweaking it,” said Carll Tucker, founder of MainStreetConnect.

    Strategy and Some Local News History

    For Tucker and AOL’s Patch, which now has 83 sites, the goal is to attract advertising aimed at local audiences. They hope to do this by providing content generated by an inexpensive workforce that has been grouped strategically to leverage resources. In that respect, the methods echo the techniques traditional newspapers used during the suburban wars of the 1980s and early 1990s.

    In those days, metro dailies fought smaller newspapers in the suburbs for advertising supremacy by providing local news through targeted zones. One of the bloodiest battles happened in Atlanta, when the New York Times bought the suburban Gwinnett Daily News and went head-to-head with the Atlanta Constitution.

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    The preferred tactic at the time was to flood the zone with inexpensive local content. But in the years since, metro dailies have scaled back circulation and news coverage, leaving a vacuum of under-served businesses and local readers. Those are the advertising and reader markets that Patch and MainStreetConnect are targeting.

    “Community business is the worst-served market in America,” Tucker said in a May interview I conducted with him. He noted that, “This company could not have been started five years ago” because the vacuum in the local advertising market was not as large as it is now.

    Patch executives say that local readers also feel under-served.

    “People are way more hungry for news at their local level than even we imagined,” said Brian Farnham, editor in chief of Patch. “There’s a lot of good sources for news existing at the national level and beyond, but at the local level the cohesive experience is missing.”

    Site Design and Sharing

    Tucker has built his sites with colorful tabs that reflect the vertical advertising markets that were the mainstays of traditional newspapers: “Wheels,” “Real Estate, “Food, “Wellness,” and “Home and Garden.” Those pages hold feature stories that almost always include a local businessperson. These stories are often shared between contiguous sites. The pages also hold business directories for advertisers. The “Wheels” sections at MainStreetConnect sites also display large auto ads.

    i-f54301fd78bbc651a2b4d8145d4e00df-MSClogo.jpg

    Tucker has a deep newspaper background with The Patent Trader, which he said covered 90,000 people over 10 towns before Gannett bought it in 1999. His company, which plans to have eventual affiliates across the country, began with the core of four Connecticut sites, with the flagship, TheDailyNorwalk.com, in Norwalk, Conn. Since mid-May, it has added six sites:

    The other three original sites are:

    The company’s current goal is to expand to 50 sites by the end of the year, with 12 in Fairfield County, Conn. When we spoke in May, Tucker downplayed any competition with Patch, even though Patch is in some of the same territory in relatively wealthy Connecticut. Norwalk had an estimated median household income in 2007 of $70,672, and the national average was $50,233 for that year, according to the U.S. Census. Patch also has sites in Fairfield and Westport, just like MainStreetConnect.

    “In no way do we compete with them,” Tucker had said. When we spoke again this month, he explained that his company’s focus is on covering local people, including local business owners, with the goal of attracting “Main Street moms.”

    Patch’s sites have more subtle design and more social-networking features, such as “boards,” which are like Facebook walls and are where readers can send feedback to specific writers. Those writers have profiles that list their current stories and sometimes recent tweets, as well as bio information and a statement of political and religious beliefs.
    Patch’s focus appears to be more on hard news.

    For example, a fire in early July in White Plains, N.Y., injured 33 people and destroyed seven businesses. The Patch news story ran in clustered New York Patch sites: The Rye Patch, the Harrison Patch, the Yorktown Patch, the Scarsdale Patch, and likely others, with local sidebars, video and photos.

    Advertising and Visibility Packages

    MainStreetConnect’s ads are sold as “annual visibility packages.” In May, Tucker said the smallest “visibility package” the company aimed to sell cost between $5,000 to $6,000.
    In our recent interview, he said the company has found ways to accommodate smaller businesses with less immediately available funds. Some advertising can cost as little as $60 to $70 a week.

    “We’ve widened our net for our smaller advertisers,” he said, noting that the company has had local success with real estate ads, hospital ads and banks.

    “It’s not about a price; it’s about what you get for the money,” he said.

    Tucker explained that the company’s visibility packages include extra service, such as a salute to advertisers’ customers in the upper right of site pages, in a feature called “Our customer comes first!” These include the company name and a photo and name of a customer.

    i-0627ecae81138c63da977ba487af77f6-patch.jpg

    At Patch, Farnham said the advertising focus goes beyond banner ads to directories and self-service ads as well.

    “We think the applications that are most interesting are around our listings operation,” he said. “We’re sending teams to communities who will go door to door and collect data about those places, structure it in our templates, and have a really rich Yellow Pages.”

    Yes, They Have Job Openings

    AOL’s Patch continues to recruit editors and open sites across the country, with sites up in California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. New sites are promised soon in Illinois, Rhode Island and Maryland. The company was recruiting in early July for more than 20 editor positions in the suburbs of Atlanta and Los Angeles. Farnham, the Patch editor in chief, said the company is looking for tomorrow’s journalists.

    “It’s basically one full-time professional editor, who is the reporter and editor and curator of that site, and they also hire local contributors and freelancers to round out that coverage,” he said. “You’re not thinking about column inches, you’re trying to get up-to-the-minute information out there. Should this be a video or a slideshow or some other sort of multimedia?”

    MainStreetConnect is also hiring, on a smaller scale, with ads on Mediabistro and Indeed.com. It is seeking experienced news reporters with five to 10 years of experience, preferably in local newspapers and with local knowledge.

    Top staffers get a salary of about $40,000 a year, and rookies get less, Tucker said. His wife, personal finance writer Jane Bryant Quinn, serves as editorial director and coaches journalists on writing skills and headline writing. Twenty newsroom employees produce content for the 10 sites. The stories focus on local people, and the company currently does not rely on user-generated content.

    “News gathering is a real profession,” Tucker said. “Citizen journalism is a completely false rabbit. It’s simply not going to succeed.”

    Patch, by contrast, solicits citizen contributions for news tips, feedback and announcements and calendars.

    What Happens Next?

    Both Farnham and Tucker spoke about the move into hyper-local online sites as experimental, with adjustments along the way.

    “We’re learning as fast as we can,” said Tucker, mentioning his local advisory boards and social media.

    Farnham acknowledged that Patch is moving into some territory where local online ecosystems are already well formed.

    “What we do when we come into a market is certainly not just announce, ‘Hey we’re the only game in town,’ “ he said. “What we want to offer is a cohesive comprehensive experience. There is that ecosystem.”

    Farnham said the company is open to working with others.

    “We are always open to exploring ways we can work with existing media outlets in communities where we are launching a Patch site. No option is closed off.”

    Tucker’s company was formed with the idea of franchises or affiliates, and he said partners aren’t out of the question. “We have had interesting conversations with many of the major players,” he said.

    For both, the focus is finding a way to make money to sustain local journalism. “There’s no free press unless it’s a profitable press,” Tucker said.

    To read more stories in the Beyond Content Farms series go here.

    MediaShift editorial intern Davis Shaver contributed to this article.

    Andria Krewson is editor for two community sections of the McClatchy-owned Charlotte Observer in Charlotte, N.C. She posts at Global Vue and is @underoak on Twitter.

    Tagged: aol beyond content farms community media jobs local news mainstreetconnect patch.com
    • Excellent work, Andria. This is the future of journalism. I hope to get personally involved.

    • Thanks, Steve.

      Interesting how the talent pool now is so broad, but increasingly sought after.

      I suspect success of the networks will depend on attracting and retaining the best talent (and that goes for the pure-play content farms profiled elsewhere in this series too).

      I keep hearing the “quality” word these days, after a couple of years of hiatus. That’s heartening.

    • Emily

      OK, but how do they expect to keep talented, educated, intelligent communicators on staff when the highest-paid staffers top out at $40,000. I agree with all the concepts here, but I really worry that the demands of the job of being a local reporter are going to rise so much, and the compensation is going to drop so much, that it’s just not going to be a way to make a living…it hardly is now. I get that it might be a part-time gig mixed with other things like PR, etc., but we will lose something with that shift. A true local reporter is immersed in her job, whether she likes it or not, 24/7. At some point crappy pay makes that not worth the headache, not to mention the working weekends and holidays.

    • Agree, Emily, I think that question is at the heart of the long-term success of all kinds of journalism.

      And it’s not new. For many people in local news, full-time work with low pay and bad hours has been reality for a long time.

      It also has been darn fine training ground for novelists, non-fiction writers, lawyers, PR people, marketing specialists, politicians, etc.

      Perhaps what is new: The large supply of talent, and the general dearth of capital, for those local news jobs as well as those other careers.

      So if that makes journalism or content producing only sustainable as a part-time gig, with full-time or other part-time allegiances elsewhere, you’re right, we all lose something. Ethical conflicts and changed motivations crop up; that will make for interesting times.

    • All of these local news experiments need a mix of three things. An easy to use and flexible platform, relevant quality local content, and revenue. The first two are most easily covered, the revenue question remains. One solution is clustering local sites together in a metro area to share sales and marketing support and combining sites into local ad networks for display advertising and daily deal programs. Online ad rates must increase on par with print to support these efforts long term. Local business directories are another revenue opportunity as well as event sponsorships and social media consulting. Some combination of all of these efforts should result in enough revenue to sustain a local media ecosystem.

    • Thanks for the first-rate piece, Andria. Well-reported and smartly written. We’ll know in the next several months whether our revenues match our projections, but so far the ramp is very promising, as is the reader enthusiasm. Readers interested in how quickly we’re penetrating communities and the stickiness of our offering can find out from Google Analytics, Compete.com, Quantcast, or the other analytic tools. And yes, we’re hiring as fast as we can. Thanks again. Carll

    • Hello —

      I am an Economics researcher and am really fascinated by how writing is becoming such an important task in online labor markets.

      I am beginning to conduct some experiments in how to crowdsource writing tasks. If anyone would like to share their experience with online writing or ideas for what would be interesting experiments, I would be glad to hear from you.

      I am especially interested in what are the best ways to setup and structure tasks so that people can write most easily and whether collaboratively written writing is better than individually written writing.

      Thanks,
      Dana Chandler

    • I really worry that the demands of the job of being a local reporter are going to rise so much, and the compensation is going to drop so much, that it’s just not going to be a way to make a living…it hardly is now. I get that it might be a part-time gig mixed with other things like PR, etc., but we will lose something with that shift.

    • Patch Local Editor

      Andrea,
      Thanks for the article, and I agree that “for many people in local news, full-time work with low pay and bad hours has been reality for a long time.”

      If you want to get a picture of the future of journalism, you might want to know a bit more about this job and its requirements. These requirements take this reality to a new and interesting level. For example, while we officially receive good vacation benefits, we have a hard time taking advantage of them. In fact, we have a hard time taking a night off, a weekend off. That’s because the local editors need to find their own replacements to cover the sites, and the sites of course need to run 24/7, and it is hard to find steady, reliable experienced journalists to do that. We can find freelancers to do the occasional city council and feature story, but it’s hard to find the journalist, who doesn’t have a day job, who can also fill in and manage the site.

      Also, we editors are not just playing local reporter covering a beat. We are also playing city editor/copy editor/managing editor/accounts payable/HR/marketing. It may be that in the new reality, journalists will also have to take on these additional roles. The new reality may be that companies are finding a way to save money by turning over some responsibilities, for which they traditionally paid other people, to the reporters. In a former job, at a magazine, the line between editorial/advertising/marketing was beginning to blur even more in cost-savings measures and consolidation of job responsibilities.

      Is any of this a bad thing? Does the quality suffer? Do readers care?

      Recently, I saw a post by a media analyst comparing the coverage of the same breaking news event by a Patch site and by a traditional daily newspaper site. The daily newspaper site, the analyst said, offered a more in-depth story. On the other hand, the Patch story had more comments and reader engagement.

      One thing I would say is that the Patch reporter, also the editor, probably wasn’t just focusing on that one story that day, but also trying to get freelancers paid, assign stories for the next week, editing a video, editing other stories. The daily news reporter can much better focus on filing his/her story…

      I’ve been a news reporter for a daily newspaper and a web editor and a magazine editor. I also worked full time and published a blog. I’ve never worked so much in my entire life. And, I’m pretty hard working and competitive and ambitious. So are most people who take on this job. We also do it because we want to provide the kinds of coverage that mainstream media is abandoning.

      But can even the hardest working people live and work in this new reality? Time will tell.

    • Thanks, PLE:

      Good luck.

      I suspect the thing that works for independent freelancers and blogs matter for you too: a strong network of strong colleagues. But yes, I can imagine doing payroll and marketing and networking while generating news can be truly be crushing. A strong sales/advertising partner would help that load greatly, but the good ones don’t work for peanuts.

      And I have my fingers crossed that the AOL Patch nonprofit end will find a way to cover the communities that aren’t so attractive to advertisers. They need local news too.

      Again, good luck.

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