Thursday, June 9, 2011

Growth of Patch, indie sites shows citizen journalism going mainstream

Note: This article also appears in the Summer 2011 edition of the CCJIG newsletter

and has been cross-posted to the author's personal blog

By Jack Rosenberry
CCJIG Newsletter Editor

One of the most striking recent developments in the world of online news, and citizen journalism, has been the rapid expansion of the Patch.com network of local news sites owned by AOL.

Patch was started in 2008 by a group that included Tim Armstrong, a former Google executive. Armstrong joined AOL in early 2009, and the company acquired Patch that June. Patch sites were located in 11 communities in New Jersey and Connecticut in late 2009 but grew to about 100 sites in nine states by August 2010 and approximately 800 sites across 20 states by early 2011.

These local news sites primarily cover affluent bedroom communities that surround large cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, DC. Each site has an editor, who is provided with equipment – a computer, cell phone and digital camera – but no office; instead, editors work from home or from community locations such as coffee shops.

More recently, Patch has moved aggressively to augment the paid professional editors with a citizen journalism component of volunteer writers and local bloggers contributing to the sites. Each site lists all of its contributors, which can run to several dozen on some sites, and a section of the home page highlights local bloggers.

But independent online community journalists have been critical of Patch, notably the idea that an outside corporate entity can ever have the true community connection that they see as the heart of local journalism. In an interview with LA Weekly, Timothy Rutt, who runs the hyperlocal site altedenablog.com, compared Patch to “Walmart moving in and driving out the mom-and-pop businesses.”

Now, Rutt and operators of some other independent sites are joining forces in a network seeking to counter the influence of Patch. The coalition, which calls itself Authentically Local, announced its formation in mid-May 2011 with 30 founding members. By the end of May it had grown to nearly 50. The list includes names that are familiar to many CCJIG members from having representatives of the sites on CCJIG convention panels – including BaristaNet, Oakland Local, West Seattle Blog, Twin Cities Daily Planet and iBrattleboro.

In a news release announcing the coalition’s formation, the members said they “have joined forces to launch an ‘Authentically Local’ branding campaign to emphasize the importance of supporting homegrown media, stores and places.”

“Local journalism doesn’t scale and it doesn’t need to scale. It needs to emerge from people deeply engaged in their local community, determined to make a difference and provide a vital service,” Lance Knobel, a co-founder of Berkeleyside.com, said in the news release.

While the Authentically Local group’s concerns are understandable, it’s not entirely clear why an a priori conclusion that “local doesn’t scale” is warranted. Operators of the Authentically Local sites are in the same situation as – and essentially fighting the same fight as – local retailers and dining establishments against national big box stores and restaurant chains. They make that analogy themselves on the AL website.

But is it necessarily and automatically the case that out-of-town ownership degrades the quality of the journalism?

For decades before online hyperlocal news coverage emerged, out-of-town ownership of small local newspapers was not the exception but the rule. And while many of those chain papers were poor to mediocre, some were pretty good – while some of the small locally owned ones were true rags. In other words, ownership had no general correlation with quality. In a similar vein, there seems to be little fundamental difference between small local newspapers being owned by large corporations (e.g. Gannett, which owned dozens of such papers but was not the only corporation that did so) and a local news website being owned by a large corporation (i.e. Patch/AOL).

Patch encourages editors to share information about themselves on their sites, and a quick review of a few sites revealed that many editors had local roots, as either natives or at least longtime residents of the communities they cover. Many have worked for local weeklies or dailies in their coverage area before joining Patch. If these individual journalists are capable and sensitive to their communities they will find good, local stories to cover. And if the editors are conscientious about soliciting and curating the work of citizen journalists in their area, local flavor and connections will emerge.

Patch is still an experiment, and one trend that has developed with ventures into online local coverage by large legacy media organizations is that such experiments have a short leash and their owners are quick to cut them loose if the economics don’t work out as hoped. Loudon Extra, TBD, and sites launched by The New York Times that were later taken over by AL member Barista.net stand as evidence of that.

But the interesting and important thing about the emergence of Patch and other legacy media forays into this arena is how they indicate that hyperlocal and citizen journalism are no longer some exotic oddity.

Instead, citizen journalism is becoming a routine part of the landscape of news coverage, a development documented by J-Lab in its New Media Makers (2009) and New Voices (2010) reports and encouraged by its Networked Journalism project.

The more routine and more expected such coverage becomes, the more it will contribute to the emerging news ecosystem, no matter who owns the site where it is published.

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Background information in this story about Patch came from published reports in sources such as Columbia Journalism Review, Newsweek, LA Weekly and The New York Times. The author has completed a comparative content analysis of Patch sites and independent hyperlocal ones (though not specifically the Authentically Local ones); the results of that research will be presented at the Thursday Scholar-to-Scholar session at the St. Louis convention.

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