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The Patch Declares Profitability, But At What Cost?

Count us among those who were disappointed that the Patch’s hyper-local news platform was not financially viable.  There were times — many times — when the Patch was the only news organization in Orange County reporting on certain events, including San Juan and RSM city politics, or Capistrano Unified happenings.  This became especially true once the Register paywall went up.  The local Patch sites offered an important resource for civic affairs and community activism.  Yet sadly, hyper-local did not translate into profitability.  During the time that AOL owned the company, it is said to have lost nearly $200 million.  In January, after several rounds of painful layoffs, it was sold to a private equity firm that in turn laid off most of the remaining employees.  The end result was a skeleton crew keeping the lights on while the new owners tried to figure out a way to make money.

According to this New York Times article, under new ownership, the Patch is now profitable:

However, the charred remains were not the end of the story, says Hale Global, but the birth of a new, nimble company. In numbers released to The New York Times, the company said it was on track for $21 million in revenue in its first year, and was actually profitable in February, March and April.

Sounds promising, right?  Except that Patch did this by abandoning everything that made the Patch unique.  The article says that new management has “ditched Patch’s policy of keeping all articles on their local sites and has built a national desk. The desk’s aim is to pull the juiciest, funniest stories from the 906 sites and tailor them for a national audience.”  However, there is already an overabundance of national news aggregators trying to capture page views by promoting trending stories and viral videos.  In fact, the art of writing viral, attention grabbing headlines is itself a trending topic in social media.  See here, for example.  Apparently, the new business plan for the hyper local news site that used to send an actual reporter to the local City Council meeting to take notes and write up a story is to now compete for national internet traffic (and advertising dollars) by spamming us with those “When I saw what this young man did next, I nearly cried” type stories that have made Buzzfeed and Upworthy so successful, yet so vapid.

What’s frustrating is that when we see Patch headlines, we still intuitively think local.  So when a local Patch promoted a headline about a school rampage, my heart skipped a beat wondering which school was involved and whether anyone I knew was in peril.  Here’s the story.  Turns out the school was in Pennsylvania, although the headline on social media was crafted in such a way that you had to click the link to find out where the school was located.

The Patch now has one journalist covering most of Orange County and Los Angeles County.  She is a good journalist with strong South County roots.  With such a large beat to cover and hardly any resources, we don’t know how she manages to write anything local, and yet she does.  It is doubtful that other Patch communities around the country are so lucky.  Even so, the hyper-local value proposition of the Patch is quickly fading.  What local news is reported on the Patch is being increasingly lost in the noise of trending national news and the Craigslist-like advertorials and blog articles contributed by the largely unmoderated community.

There remains a need for hyper-local news, and we hope someone (whether at the Patch or otherwise) finds a way to make it profitable.

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