On the Media: Patch.com clicks with veteran California journalists
When we last checked in on Patch.com, the fastest-growing news outfit in America was staffing up and making the most robust media foray into suburbia in years.
Patch this week opened its 600th hyper-local website, in the Atlanta neighborhood of Buckhead. The sites, which provide basic news coverage and ask readers to bolster reportage on their towns, have opened in 105 California communities, with more launching every day.
The remarkable thing about Patch, besides its explosive growth in recent weeks (it had 565 sites just one week ago), is how it’s no longer luring just rookies but, more recently, a cadre of seasoned news veterans. Many of the journalists are returning to the sort of work they did when they started in journalism decades ago.
The news pros are bringing writing chops and a touch of savvy to the fledgling news operation, which has been better known as the first employer of recent journalism school grads. Patch needs that kind of consistency — not the burnout and turnover that afflicted some of its initial battalion of young editors — if it is to build credibility in communities where it’s still largely unknown.
Some critics can find little to like in Patch, largely because of its ownership by AOL. They depict the startup as a giant corporate octopus, which threatens to strangle the life out of mom-and-pop local news sites.
But I have a hard time rooting against even the biggest of the big boys if they are willing to pump new money and troops into local news coverage, which has become more and more anemic, especially in small-town America, with the retreat of many newspapers. The best local sites will survive the challenge from the newcomer, though almost all Internet news operations still must solve the puzzle of how to make enough money to survive.
In the meantime, it takes some pretty extreme contortions to depict most of the local Patch editors as unworthy interlopers. Take the case of Nancy Wride. Wride devoted nearly three decades to the news business, most of them at the Los Angeles Times, before being caught in the downsizing besetting much of media.
Last Monday, she started all over again, launching the Patch site in Belmont Shore, the Long Beach community where she has lived for 16 years. She’s been active at her son’s school and in organizing a yearly writers conference.
Even before the Belmont Shore-Naples site had its debut, the former police and general assignment reporter bagged her first triumph with her reporting on the police shooting of a 35-year-old father. Wride heard helicopters and got to the scene first because she lives just two blocks away.
She posted the first video and telling details about Doug Zerby — the dead man’s struggles with alcohol, his earlier life as a competitive high school swimmer and his recent efforts to find inspiration, watching movies about recovering alcoholics, including the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line.”
Not even officially out of the gate, she posted the information on her Patch Facebook page. That reporting outdid the Long Beach Press-Telegram, and the venerable newspaper had to quote from Wride’s dispatches.
“This is the quintessential Patch story and what we want to be doing — first, fast and knowing where to go, because it’s your neighborhood,” Wride told me this week, adding that she planned a detailed reconstruction of the shooting this weekend.
Her experience on the L.A. news scene (along with, she quips, “personality, charm, flattery”) has helped her assemble an impressive group of veterans to help with the site.
Her husband, Kent Zelas, who worked in the readers’ representative office at The Times, helps with reporting. Other contributors include former Times photographer Lori Shepler, former Times outdoors writer Pete Thomas and former KFWB radio reporter Sharon Katchen.
L.A. news mainstays have been popping up on other Patch sites as part-time freelancers. Charles Rappleye, a one-time editor at LA Weekly and more recently author of history books, put together a few community news items for Patch outlets in the South Bay. Former L.A. Times Hollywood-politics columnist Tina Daunt plans to station herself at L.A.'s City Hall and cover multiple communities for Patch. Morris Newman, a real estate writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and many other publications, has been writing about real estate and development in Arcadia and Eagle Rock. (His wife, Sharon Bernstein, is an editor on The Times’ business desk.) Former KNBC television fixture Doug Kriegel is writing a community column for Sherman Oaks Patch.
FOR THE RECORD: This story misstates the role of Doug Kriegel at Sherman Oaks Patch as writer of a community column for the site. Kriegel is the editor of that Patch site.
No one will get rich on what Patch is paying. An AOL spokeswoman wouldn’t be specific about salaries, but some of the Patchers I spoke to said they believe editors make between $35,000 and $50,000 a year. (That’s less than half what editors are generally paid at The Times.) Freelancers typically get just $50 for a 500-word piece, sometimes a little more.
Newman recalled a college philosophy teacher who noted how much he valued his electrician’s license as a shelter against tough times. “I wish I were an electrician,” the real estate writer said with a laugh.
But like most of the others who find themselves starting back to the future with Patch, Newman said the new reporting assignment has its appeals. “The Web feels like a warm medium. There is an immediacy. You want to file in a timely way, and you feel the response.”
Wride said she finds out instantly how much people care about what she is writing. They tell her at her son’s elementary school or at the supermarket.
There have been complaints that Patch has expanded so quickly and demanded so much that it’s burning out some of its workers. The editors of three South Bay Patches — in Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach — quit after just four to eight months on the job.
One former editor of a Southern California Patch site told me he worked 70-hour weeks and got many promises of help, but not enough action. He complained of facing a constant push for “quantity, not quality” in reporting.
Sara Catania, one of the regional editors who oversees sites in L.A., said Patch has been ramping up its support for the editors. She compared the challenge of the editorships to foreign-language immersion — learning an entirely new vocabulary while keeping up with all the other academic subjects. “These are not jobs for a lot of people, for most people,” she said.
But Wride thinks she will be in it for the long haul.
“I didn’t take this job for the salary,” she said. “I took the job because I believe in it. I saw it as a way to serve the neighborhood, to be able to be a mom and have almost total autonomy in how I run the site. I can do hard news or fun features and work with a team of people that I hand-pick.”