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Entertainment & Arts

On the Media: Patch.com’s growing pains

Patch.com can blow you away with numbers. From about 50 outposts a year ago, the company now has 827 hyper-local websites spread across 20 states. Nearly 1,000 journalists post 5,000 articles a day. That’s one every 12 seconds. In addition, Patch has added 2,000 bloggers, for a total stable of nearly 6,000. Traffic has been spiraling upward, from 3 million unique visitors in December to more than 9 million in May, according to research firm ComScore.

One final statistic: After Patch headquarters in New York put out a call on Twitter (echoing my own) for feedback, it came trickling in. After 66 Patch editors asked readers to contact me (only a couple actually pleaded for cheerleading), a total of 40 readers responded. Most of them said they really like their hometown Patch.

This seemed to confirm, along with weeks of poking around several of the websites, a certain profile of Patch.com sites: very much a work in progress, still unknown in many homes. They bristle with calendar items, photo galleries, sunny profiles of “whiz kids” and upbeat stories of new-business openings, but offer only the very occasional deeper insight into the communities being covered.

That summation might describe a lot of traditional small-town newspapers. But Patch’s bosses want to provide a broader and more ambitious platform — one that reports the news, catalogues businesses and organizations, promotes volunteerism, engages diverse voices, and somehow does a little muckraking. “We help small communities get digitized,” Editor in Chief Brian Farnham explained.

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When I first checked in with Patch a year ago, I had my doubts about whether its formatted, franchise-style approach would produce enough novel information to attract readers and, importantly, the advertisers needed to keep the thing rolling for the long haul.

Now, as the fastest-growing media outlet in America and carrying a hefty overhead of $160 million a year, the imperative to find revenue has become even more critical. The company said its plans, both editorially and economically, are on track. But local banner ads appear few and far between. And I can’t find many of the national advertisers that Patch hoped to attract because of its multiple locations, mostly in upscale suburbs.

None of these reservations come with any joy. I’m rooting for any company actually investing in creating new information and paying people to do it. Editors I have interviewed make between $40,000 and $50,000. (Disclosure: My wife was a freelance writer and columnist for our local Patch.) And it’s early to pass judgment on what amounts to hundreds of micro-businesses, most born just a few months ago.

Make no mistake, the local editors who make up the heart and soul of Patch.com are working furiously to try to create something lasting. They not only have to carry a reporting load familiar to previous journalistic generations but also take pictures, shoot video, hire and edit freelancers and promote their little Patch of the universe.

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There previously have been complaints that the jobs are simply too demanding. Some editors quit and moved on. “We target and like to hire perfectionists,” Farnham told me. “A lot of perfectionists, I think, struggle to get out of their own way. They have enormous difficulty unplugging.”

But now Patch has regional editors and a longer bench of backup personnel, making it easier to get time away, several local editors told me. Farnham said he has stressed to supervisors to help editors recognize “when enough is enough. We are not asking them to work around the clock.”

The FCC this week issued a voluminous report, which concluded that the retreat of newspapers and other media had left many communities seriously wanting for “accountability journalism” — reporting that rides herd on public officials and roots out wrongdoing.

I don’t see a lot of that at the handful of Patch operations in California I have followed. But Patch executives said they think they can fill the void.

Patch made its biggest splash in that regard last month, when a regional editor in New Jersey, Tom Troncone, spotted New Jersey Gov. and austerity proselytizer Chris Christie arriving for one of his son’s high school baseball games. A state police helicopter delivered the governor — a revelation chased by a score of other media outlets.

Patch HQ in New York can also point to other stories in which they have held officialdom’s feet to the hot coals of public opinion: résumé padding by a City Council candidate in Hercules, Calif., wasteful air-conditioning spending at a Connecticut school, drunken-driving by a highly-paid school spokesman in Georgia, alleged personal use of food bank money in Beaumont, Calif., and exorbitant city employee salaries in one Rhode Island town.

These achievements take place, though, against a backdrop of some Patch journalists flailing to keep up with basic institutions. One editor in California told me he was so busy he couldn’t complete all his other work and still cover the City Council and school board.

Patch depends on many others, however, besides its paid employees. A new initiative, started a month ago, called for recruitment of more bloggers. Arianna Huffington, who effectively became über-editor of Patch when AOL bought the Huffington Post earlier this year, inspired the blogger boost, similar to what powered her website for years.

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Patch claims mayors and congressmen among its bloggers. When I glanced this week at Patch operations in Manhattan Beach and Los Gatos, I found a high school student, a life coach, a linguist, a public relations executive, a personal trainer, a Kiwanis Club member and an older woman searching for her artistic muse.

That sounds charmingly eclectic in theory. But, in execution, those blogs were plodding and self-promotional. You don’t know click-remorse until you pop on an item about rattlesnake bites, only to be told you should a) stay calm and b) call 911.

Perhaps, Farnham suggested, the offerings might have resonated more if I lived in those towns and knew the authors. “We are hoping to be the hub for these communities,” he said. “Is it worth it to take the risk to get those few gems, which you ordinarily wouldn’t get? We think it is.”

That could be said of Patch as a whole at this point: a very big dig, grinding through lots of raw material, with treasure promised to those who persist. We’re waiting.

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey


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