The Limitations of Ultra-Economized Reporting

Matt DeRienzo probably isn’t a neutral observer when it comes to the spread of Patch, the hyperlocal journalism outlet, given his role as en editor of a bunch of local Connecticut papers.

Still, his blog post on how Patch overextended itself is interesting:

Before Tim Armstrong launched Patch, jumped from Google to AOL, bought it from his own investment group and expanded it across the nation, he ignored early advice suggesting that the hyperlocal’s one-journalist-per-town model would not work.

Quinnipiac University journalism professor Rich Hanley says he was asked to help with a secret “beta test” of Patch in Hamden, Connecticut, prior to its later public launch in three New Jersey communities.

Patch paid Quinnipiac students to test whether one full-time journalist could provide all the content necessary to make a hyperlocal website about the community viable.

The answer they gave – “No” – was not what Patch wanted to hear. Hanley said that their test in Hamden found the town to be too diverse, too complicated, too time-consuming for one person to handle

Patch pushed forward with the model anyway, but used the findings, at least initially, to shape the types of communities it chose for sites. They looked for towns with a defined downtown core, high average household income, and significant digital literacy. That is, communities that were not particularly diverse, or complicated.

But after AOL took over and took Patch from three sites to more than 900 in about 18 months, Hanley said, not as much thought or rigidity, at least, went in to selecting communities.

They had a great, easy-to-use hyperlocal web platform, and were “blinded by the ease with which you can replicate digital stuff.”

When you go to one of the sites, it really does come across as a cookie-cutter content mill. And that’s no knock on the people who run the sites—they are not put in an easy position by this assembly-line conception of journalism.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.