Thursday, January 20, 2011

In Brooklyn, hyperlocal news gets a boost with Patch (but we need much more)

The nature of the local new media is changing and, for Brooklyn, there may be some promise in Patch, the AOL-funded enterprise that's hiring do-it-all editors (without offices) in communities around the country--800 so far, with a goal of 1000.

The editors are assisted by freelancers and other contributors and, in Brooklyn at least, form a bit of a network. Right now there's a Prospect Heights Patch, Park Slope Patch, Fort Greene/Clinton Hill Patch, Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill Patch, and Bed-Stuy Patch.

What, no Brooklyn Heights or Williamsburg? Maybe those communities were seen as already "taken" by the Brooklyn Heights Blog and culture blogs like Free Williamsburg. (Disclosure: I've done one freelance piece for Patch.)

Not just news

Patch, self-described as "your local source for news, events, business listings, and discussion," got some semi-skeptical treatment in a New York Times article January 17--an article that ignored Patch in New York but pointed out that the company is focusing on relatively affluent suburban towns that can generate advertising.

Indeed, Patch strikes me as optimized for small communities that don't have a newspaper to cover key local institutions like the school board and mayor's office. (See, for example, the comment by Ann O. at the bottom of this CJR post.)

Brooklyn lacks such cohesion--even the community boards stretch beyond a single community--so the match is inexact.

And Patch is still feeling its way. I'm not sure what an article on "Rent is Too Damn High" candidate Jimmy McMillan shilling for a New Jersey car dealership was doing on the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill Patch. Then again, Patch did a nice job covering the memorial for former District Leader Bill Saunders--and no other news outlet bothered.

The business plan

Patch is a business plan as much as a journalism effort, so marketing to local businesses and compiling listings does have a geographic component. And while Brooklyn has a lot of blogs, most are not serious businesses.

Consultant Mel Taylor has been following the competition between Patch and local weeklies. He observed:
Intellectual theorizing and to-do list creation from the incumbents only provides Patch more time to marshal small armies of sellers to get in front of every mom and pop business in sight.
Taylor added:
Patch is now building local advertiser directories, using good old fashioned face-to-face client calls. They build a relationship with small business in order to sell them something at a later date. Patch is serious about the revenue piece of hyper-local’s puzzle. They’re well aware that without revenue and profit, there’s no serious chance of consistent and self-sustaining, local news coverage.
After all, the New York Times's Fort Greene-Clinton Hill blog, The Local, while doing some worthy work, lost its Times staffer and has become mainly an outpost of the CUNY Journalism School, which means the staff waxes and wanes.

Competition with the weeklies

The local Patch sites are competing not with the dailies or blogs but mainly with the Murdoch-owned weekly Brooklyn Paper (updated daily online) and Courier-Life chains.

And the Bed-Stuy Patch offers some competition to the established Our Time Press, which has a significant institutional history in the neighborhood but a web site that, though improved, still needs work.

The new Patch sites lack the institutional memory, editorial page, and archive that the newspapers can offer.

(That's mainly to their detriment, but not necessarily. Patch is starting from scratch on Atlantic Yards, rather than swerving somewhat, like the Brooklyn Paper. In 2008, the Brooklyn Paper thought it was big news that Forest City Ratner lied about Frank Gehry being born in Brooklyn. Now more significant lies regarding Marty Markowitz on EB-5 and KPMG on the AY timetable get ignored.)

The cookie-cutter Patch web site is better than the lame Courier-Life site but not as snappy as the Brooklyn Paper. Indeed, as Brooklyn Paper founder Ed Weintrob has pointed out, ever-hyping editor Gersh Kuntzman has made the publication personal and entertaining, using new tools like video.

The five reporters--Park Slope Patch, Bed-Stuy Patch, Carroll Gardens Patch, Fort Greene-Clinton Hill Patch, Prospect Heights Patch--exceed the number of reporters (though not editorial staffers) at the Brooklyn Paper.

Patch has hired real reporters, if newish ones. Stephen Brown, formerly of the Brooklyn Paper, is running the Fort Greene site. (He was tweaked, appropriately, by former boss Kuntzman for not naming his former paper, which is a significant farm team. And Brown just won a big award for his work at the Brooklyn Paper--and Kuntzman won a smaller award.)

Covering Brooklyn?

Patch reporters are supposed to cover fine-grained neighborhood news--and crank out a lot each day, often thin stuff, as the Times suggested. That's fine for a small town or suburb.

In Brooklyn, however, such quotas suggest in-depth coverage will be a challenge. Until and unless a network like Patch decides it needs a few staffers to cover larger Brooklyn issues--and develops an editorial voice with columnists and editorials, rather than just submissions--it won't be competing journalistically with the local weeklies. And those local weeklies don't do that much in-depth reporting themselves.

But it's not Patch's goal to be a great newspaper. And, without printing costs, the business plan seems pretty lean.

With Patch, Brooklyn should be somewhat better served journalistically. But it will still be underserved, with many neighborhoods and broad issues/institutions getting short shrift.

So I'll repeat Brooklyn College professor Paul Moses's observation about Brooklyn's place in the local mediascape: Nowhere in the country do so many people get so little local coverage.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Norman,
    What a great story, so informative and detailed. Thanks for writing it.
    I wanted to bring to your attention South Brooklyn Post, SouthBrooklynPost.com, a hyper-local online news magazine covering Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and points nearby.
    We're a independent news magazine, launched just 2 weeks before Carroll Gardens Patch. We're dedicated to in-depth reporting and professional, magazine-style news journalism, and we're developing a roster of professional contributors.
    I'm the editor, and worked as an investigative reporter for 15 years at dailies and a weekly newspaper. South brooklyn Post has a small staff of professionals and we are looking to build a local advertising network and provide a quality community service by doing in-depth journalism on important topics.
    Anyway. Thanks again for this great story, and please check out South Brooklyn Post!
    All best,
    Lisa

    Lisa M. Collins
    Editor
    SouthBrooklynPost.com

    ReplyDelete