The news this summer that Patch appeared on its last legs was met in the industry with a mix of perverse glee and derision.
The 900-site hyperlocal network owned by AOL, which launched in 2009, had been cutting jobs for more than a year, with repeated changes in its basic structure and focus — changes that seemed more reactive than anything.
So, when word got out that there were more layoffs and even more change, it seemed that Patch’s end was at hand — and its detractors were having a field day.
Among the independent hyperlocal community — the shoe-string sites often housed on WordPress blogs, the press-release factories and the outstanding, single-person operations — Patch was the enemy. It was big and it was corporate, often referred to as the Walmart of hyperlocal websites.
The criticism was both earned — there is a sameness to many of the sites — and incredibly unfair, given the original commitment to quality journalism made by Patch, evident in its initial hiring of more than 1,000 talented journalists.
I worked or Patch for 18 months. I still believe in its mission and think, given the right set of circumstances, the right leadership and a bit of patience from investors, it not only can survive but do well.
Those circumstances do not appear to exist at the moment and, given the uncertainty over the current web-advertising model (no one has figured out how to generate enough revenue from the Web), they may never.
This does not bode well for our democracy — not because Patch is necessary, but because something like Patch is. Having lived through ups and downs with Patch, and having spent 20 years before that working in what I’ll call the hyperlocal print world — a chain of local weekly newspapers covering individual municipalities ranging in population from 3,000 to 50,000 — I know that there are few reliable places for citizens to get information about their local governments or their communities more broadly.
The local newspaper, where it existed, served that role well, though the erosion of print readership and advertising has turned most of them into shells of their former selves.
Michelle Ferrier, associate dean at Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University, is researching what she calls “media deserts” — communities that lack a reliable local news outlet. Since about 2007, she said, about 120 newspapers have closed, eliminating about 33,000 newspaper journalism jobs.
“We are talking about a significant reduction of that work force and brain trust that has been lost,” she said. “How do we measure and get people to understand what has been lost before it is too late, before our newspapers are really just advertising vehicles and no longer providing a critical function of providing fresh news and information to our communities.”
She is mapping newspaper circulation by ZIP Code, along with things like the existence of local news websites, radio and television to the communities that are being hit hardest by the decline of the industry. This will allow her to identify media deserts and, she hopes, to get the discussion started about the impact that these deserts have on people’s ability to “hold meaningful dialoge on issues of critical importance to our communities.”
“What you’re seeing is people are more knowledgeable about what is happening overseas than what is happening on their block,” she said, a view supported by recent surveys from the Pew Research Institute and others.
“There’ve been a slew of reports over the last few years that have said we are losing our capacity to create and disseminate local news,” she said. “As a result, our residents are not engaging in activity that helps support a democratic society.”
They are not attending planning and zoning meetings, where decisions are made on how the properties in the community will be used. They are not attending municipal government meetings, where decisions are made about taxes, services and education.
And, to make matters worse, there are fewer reporters covering these meetings, which makes it even less likely that the information will make it into the community.
“There are more sources – more opportunities for accidental knowledge overseas on Facebook, Twitter, people following stories that are breaking using Twitter and other media,” she said. “There are lots of other places where people can encounter national and international news — TV, radio, their internet browers when they log on.
“But locally, you don’t have that push or visibility,” she said. “Unless you are part of a geographic group on Facebook, you are not going to get that kind of sharing of local news.”
Patch was an integral part of the local news landscape in the communities it served for much of its existence. The jury is still out as to whether it remains a key element of the local news environment or whether, given its recent bumpy history, it can regain its footing.
I am convinced, however, that something like Patch – a network of connected community sites with decent funding behind it – is a necessary part of the mix.
The question we are trying to answer is how you pay for good reporting at the local and state levels. The answer to that question is that we will need a mix of media types – a retooled Patch-like entity, hundreds of feisty independents and a strong group of foundation-funded and non-profit sites – banging up against each other and working together when needed to ensure that the local press fulfill its democratic function.
Hank Kalet is a journalist and poet in New Jersey. Email, email@example.com; blog, kaletblog.com; Twitter, @newspoet41.
From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2013
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