When the news came out recently that AOL is selling a majority stake in Patch to Hale Global, it marked a new phase in the roughly four-year history of the hyperlocal news network in Rhode Island.
While there has been no specific plan released for the nine staffers running the 15 local sites [originally 16 sites, each with its own Local Editor], Hale has announced that it plans to keep the existing 900 sites running.
That’s a different matter than making them profitable — although I’d argue that keeping the local sites afloat would take less effort than in other areas.
Rhode Island sites were among the first launched by AOL, and typically led the way in traffic, audience engagement, and ad revenues among sites on the East Coast.
The sites in the Ocean State also broke some of the biggest stories, ahead of television and print, making them go-to destinations for readers, both in the state and outside it.
From the prayer mural controversy in Cranston to the child abduction in Portsmouth to the discovery of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s widow in North Kingstown, Rhode Island Patch sites had experienced, knowledgeable editors getting the news — and getting it published — first.
And that’s in addition to all of the local coverage of government, schools, sports, and business that Patch editors have been providing on a day-to-day basis.
That quality and frequency of reporting is the hallmark of Patch sites in this state, and it’s something I hope the new owners see as an opportunity worth continuing in Rhode Island.
And while I don’t want to dwell on the situation that led Patch to where it is today, the fact is, Rhode Island Patch sites worked best when their editors were left to do solid community journalism.
We built our audiences primarily through personal interactions, with a healthy dose of social media to build our audience online, and became the faces of our individual Patch sites.
Other outlets have documented the moves Patch made over the years to try and reach profitability, so I don’t feel the need to rehash any of that.
Suffice to say, the more that Local Editors were supported in the core mission of covering their communities and building their audiences in person and online, the better their sites performed.
The question now is: What does the sale mean for Rhode Island?
For the short term, it probably means that local Patch sites will continue the way they’ve been going, with a mix of content [hard news and lifestyle articles] and a focus on getting people to add their voices to the sites.
And depending on the ultimate decision by Hale, there’s a range of possibilities.
It goes without saying that I hope the result is not lost jobs for my talented former workmates, since it would leave a fairly large hole between the statewide media that gets the biggest of the big stories [often resulting in neglect of smaller communities] and the community print media that may get the story but usually doesn’t get the news online quickly enough to capitalize on mobile readership.
Should Hale decide to try and make Rhode Island Patch work, a good step would be to recruit aggressive ad salespeople who can market the strength of the sites on the local level.
Given the staff reductions that have happened over the past several months, and since personnel is the main cost of running a Patch site [as opposed to brick-and-mortar offices], I should think that compiling a $2 million annual ad book on the existing sites is fairly reasonable — it also provides a healthy profit, even after salaries and benefits are paid.
And by treating Rhode Island as its own region — instead of tying it into larger geographical areas where the success isn’t as uniform — it would be much easier to keep local sites afloat, since they’d be justifying their own costs within the Rhode Island market.
Most importantly, since AOL has already made the investment to get the Rhode Island sites up and running — and undergone more than a few iterations to see what works best — Hale has the chance to focus on the strengths of the local product and build upon those.
Scrapping the Rhode Island group — or, alternately, further trying to make user-generated [i.e., free] content a main focus of Patch — would not only be misdirected, but it would ignore the real need that still remains in these towns for solid local journalism.
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