Last year, when America Online officially changed its name to Aol, it seemed like it might be scraping to gain some sort of relevance aside from vague references to the second best movie that starred both Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks (the first is obviously Joe Versus the Volcano). Little did we all know that the company had already purchased Patch, with plans to invest heavily in the venture, hoping to establish itself as the leader in the hyperlocal news movement.
Today, with Patch launching its 500th site in Hopkins, Minnesota, it appears Aol knew what it was doing. Brian Farnham, Editor-in-Chief at Patch, took some time out of his day to speak with FishbowlNY about Patch’s obstacles and how it has been able to flourish.
One of the main criticisms about Patch is that it hurts bloggers and other local news operations that have been covering the areas for some time. As anyone who lives in the city can attest, having a large company come into your neighborhood and squeeze out the locals can be a tough pill to swallow. Patch has worked to address any of those concerns. “We know there’s a lot of scrutiny of us as a new journalism organization – and there should be,” says Farnham. “We want to talk about Patch and our mission and we also want to respond to any criticisms. For the most part, we’ve been welcomed by local media, especially when they see we aren’t there to compete, but to just add another voice to serve the community.”
One of the ways in which Patch involves the neighborhoods it launches in is by enlisting freelance writers that live nearby (full disclosure: I currently freelance for the Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn site). In addition to the freelancers, Farnham says that each Patch is overseen by a full time Editor, who reports to a Regional Editor. At a time when journalism jobs are hard to come by, Patch’s rapid expansion has been a bright spot for the industry.
Farnham says that positive, unfortunately, carries some negatives with it. “The biggest obstacle to establishing as many sites as we have is hiring: there are a ton of smart, talented journalists out there, but obviously the process of finding, interviewing, testing, and on-boarding them is time-consuming and complicated. We were dead set on not sacrificing quality for speed, and I think we’ve built a phenomenal team of journalists at every experience level, from three years out of school to 25 years in the business.” He adds that Patch hired the most journalists in the country since it first launched, something the company is “damn proud of.”
As with any new venture such as Patch, time and a wide variety of other factors, including what direction online journalism takes, will determine if it is successful or not. There might be a 1,000th Patch at this time next year, or there might not be any at all. At 500 sites it sure does seem like its on the right path.