News Leadership 3.0

September 06, 2011

Patch by the numbers 1: Content

By Anna Tarkov

Amid much hoopla and skepticism about Patch, AOL’s group of 800-plus hyperlocal news sites, little has been said about the sites themselves. How much news do they produce? How do their users interact with them? To find out, I took a closer look at four Patch sites around the country for a month.

First of two parts

Much has been written about Patch.com, AOL’s foray into hyperlocal news. At an expenditure of about $160 million to the company, it’s not hard to see why. Will such a huge investment in an untested platform and business model yield results? While some have already rendered a verdict, the jury is undoubtedly still out. 

At AOL at least, enthusiasm doesn’t seem dampened. Starting out with a mere three sites in February 2009, the network has grown to, as of this writing, 861 sites in 22 states and D.C. It continues to expand though that has slowed. The stated goal is now on improving existing sites.

Not surprising for a new company, the coverage thus far has focused sharply on whether Patch will be successful in the long term. But the best anyone has been able to do is make an educated guess, especially given Patch’s unwillingness to share concrete traffic and advertising numbers.

Rather than try to foretell the future, I decided it might be instructive to look at what’s happening on the ground right now, on a fairly granular basis. Thus I picked four Patch sites for a month-long scan over the course of August. Each site was checked once a week for things like number of new posts, comments, etc. (See methology at the end of this post.)

I chose the sites at random to represent diverse geographical areas of the U.S. -  A California site (Hermosa Beach; launched 3/8/2010), a New York site (Rye; launched 12/22/2009), Florida site (Brandon, launched 12/15/2010) and a Midwest site (Northbrook; launched 9/9/2010). (Note: I reside in Northbrook.)

Here’s a brief summary of the daily ranges I found per site:

* New stories posted: 1 to 15,
* Comments on new posts: 1 to 25,
* Blog posts by community members: 0 to 3
* Comments on blog posts: none found
* Announcements (sample page): 0-4
* Events (sample page): 1-11

The information gathered is of course just a snapshot and probably can’t be used to generalize about other Patch sites or about the network as a whole. But it provides some insight nonetheless.

What’s the right amount of content?

Every online publisher has probably tried to answer the question of how much new content is too little to keep readers coming back and how much is too much or superfluous. Patch has tried to answer this question too and so far they don’t have a definitive answer.

In the past, Patch site editors were required to produce a certain number of posts per day. However, when I spoke with Brian Farnham, Patch’s Editor in Chief, he stated that this was no longer the case.

Farnham said that while 4-5 posts per day was the requirement at one point, most editors were outstripping it anyway so the need for a hard target lessened.

Farnham did stress the fact that number of posts and traffic are correlated and that Patch definitely looks carefully at those metrics, among many others. But since corporate obviously can’t oversee every site (and claims not to want to control things that tightly), it’s up to the site editors and their regional editors to determine what works best for them.

Still, Patch must have some sort of traffic goals, right? If so, Patch officials generally loath to discuss them. No official numbers have been released save for this leaked report which Patch has neither confirmed nor denied. The numbers that are openly shared aren’t exactly illuminating.

Patch President Warren Webster said that when Patch launched, the goal was to have 50% of each community using the local Patch site. Meaning, if a town had 20,000 residents, 10,000 of them would be Patch readers. According to Webster, that goal was hit in 2009 and has since been exceeded. He added that some of the “older” sites, the ones that launched earlier, are now attracting 80-90% of the community. To measure this, Webster says that Patch looks mainly at unique visitors and also what they are doing on the site: are they subscribing to newsletters, commenting, coming back more frequently, etc. Again, none of this can be verified since Patch has been unwilling to release any traffic stats.

Comments

So, what about comments? Does Patch care if their stories get comments, does it track their number and are there any goals set here? As for the latter, Farnham joked that the goal is, “...to quote Carl Sagan, billions and billions; it’s never enough.” He said that number of comments is definitely tracked and considered to be a valuable measure of audience engagement.

He added that Patch hopes to continually grow that engagement by making the site more conversational with the addition of things like the Q&A section (here’s an example) which was launched in November of this year. Farnham says that features like this are being explored for their potential to be “productized” more and for somehow becoming more prominently used on Patch sites.

Indeed, the sites obviously try to engender conversation and engagement at every turn. Many stories end with a question, a common tactic of bloggers, and an entreaty to answer it in the comments. Readers are encouraged to submit tips, photos and videos. Recent comments are featured in a sidebar on the homepage and new bloggers are solicited there as well. Links to social media sharing sites are rampant all throughout the site. Is it working?

In my tracking, all the sites added together got an average of five comments per day across all new stories and 0-1 comments on average per story. If we take into account estimates of Patch’s traffic from earlier this year, this number, while low, seems to be about right. If each post is being viewed 100 times, fewer than that may read the entire story and in the end perhaps one person will comment.

There are, of course, always outliers as this story from Rye about criticism of excessive police force by Muslim visitors to a local park illustrates. Though they didn’t all come on one day, to date the post has racked up 137 comments. Considering the controversial topic, it’s not difficult to see why and conversely, to understand why many Patch stories get zero comments. With a great deal of content being straightforward and informational, there isn’t necessarily a lot to say about it.

Comments of course are not the sole measure of engagement. To get a truer picture, one would also have to measure the number of likes and shares on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, emails of stories sent to family or friends, etc.

What topics are covered?

Patch editors are expected to cover certain beats consistently such as crime, local government, schools, local business and sports. Farnham admitted that each of these categories is potentially huge and editors aren’t asked to cover them exhaustively, just regularly.

As for what topics and types of stories get the most traffic or comments, Farnham said things that directly affect the community like crime, development projects and political scandals are typically the most popular.

I also posed the question to some of the editors of the sites I tracked.

Jennifer Fisher, editor of the Northbrook Patch, said stories on regional politics tend to be the most well-read though other categories like crime and schools are also popular. Fisher says she keeps a fairly close eye on what readers like the most (for instance, the top five click getters) and that it does inform her future coverage. Overall, she said she takes readers’ comments, suggestions and criticisms very seriously.

Jacqueline Howard oversees the Hermosa Beach Patch and she echoed Farnham’s comments in saying that the stories that get the most attention are those that impact residents’ lives the most. The topics she cited were parking, schools, environment and taxes and recalled this story about parking fee increases as an example of a good traffic getter.

As for whether traffic plays into her decisions on what to cover, Howard was even more emphatic. She wrote in an email: “I track our traffic daily and it absolutely affects coverage—if a story does not directly affect the community and doesn’t attract readers then there’s no reason to publish.”

The Huffington Post model comes to Patch

Speaking of having a lot to say (or rather hoping people have a lot to say), Patch ambitiously set out to recruit 8,000 bloggers earlier this year to blog on Patch sites. How have they fared? Farnham says the goal of recruiting 8,000 has been reached and in fact there is a new goal of 8,000 more that Patch hopes to hit by a date sometime in fall of this year.

How active and effective these bloggers are once brought on board is, of course, another matter entirely. Farnham fully acknowledges the difficulties and says that among those 8,000 bloggers there are those that wrote one post and were never heard from again and also those that consistently produce posts every week. As a result, he said the recruitment of bloggers is going to be a lifestyle for Patch site editors, an ongoing process.

Of course none of this will shock or surprise people who have tried to recruit and retain volunteer contributors to either report or blog on their sites. Having some experience with this myself, both professionally and on a volunteer basis, I can attest that it’s difficult and painstaking work. Writing consistently and reliably is difficult to expect from those who may have other jobs and responsibilities and it often requires a lot of hand-holding and by all accounts, Patch editors don’t have that kind of time. Farnham says that editors briefly review bloggers’ posts before they go live, but they do not closely edit them. That may well be the extent of their involvement.

Despite this, the two local editors I contacted seemed optimistic. Hermosa Beach’s Howard relayed that just this week she was meeting with a local middle school to discuss a possible partnership in which students in a journalism class there would use Patch’s blogging platform to publish some of their articles and reports.

Northbrook’s Fisher admits that finding bloggers has been a challenge mainly because she can’t seem to find many existing bloggers in her town. She has met her goals so far though and continues to press on. She adds that the people she has talked to about blogging do seem excited about writing on the site and she’s hopeful more will emerge.

Perhaps that will come in time, but right now the blogging numbers are decidedly un-Huffington Post-like, at least for the four sites I surveyed. Collectively, they saw an average of 0.67 posts per day which is to say less than one. That means there were days with no blog posts and in fact one of the sites I looked at never had a post on any of the four days on which I checked it. The highest number of posts seen on a given day was three which isn’t bad, but this was also not the norm for that site or for the others.

Patch vs. the indies

How does this all stack up against what Patch’s competitors in the local news space are experiencing? To find out, I asked some independent local news site publishers what goals they had for number of stories per day, what sort of commenting activity they generally saw, if they used unpaid contributors, etc. While it’s not a direct apples to apples comparison, it’s still interesting to consider.

On the matter of how many posts they strive to have each day, the publishers I spoke with were pretty much in line with Patch’s aspirations. They all cited anywhere from 3-6 posts per day as their goal and while some said they don’t always hit it, they feel that the two or three stories they do post are longer and more impactful than the quick-hit pieces that are faster and easier to produce.

Commenting activity seems to also be similar, at least in the case of the publishers I contacted. Their responses ranged from one or two comments per typical story to up to six and in one case, double digits were not uncommon. Like Patch editors, independent publishers also track other measures of engagement like Facebook likes and these often outpace the rate of comments.

Not surprisingly, the topics and types of stories that gain the most clicks and/or comments from readers were almost exactly the same ones that Patch editors said perform the best. Again and again, local issues like crime, development and politics i.e. those that have the most bearing on a community resident’s life, were the ones mentioned.

Where there was perhaps the most divergence was on the matter of community contributors. While Patch has, by their own admission, had difficulty recruiting bloggers and keeping them active, indie news sites seem more committed to the task and more successful at it. Of course not all independent news sites utilize unpaid contributors, but those that do seem to put a great deal of emphasis and effort on getting a lot of content from them.

One publisher said their site has about 45 regular contributors from whom they see about four posts per day. What is impressive about that is of course not just the consistency of multiple posts per day, but that it comes from such a small group of contributors. Clearly these are people whose level of commitment and motivation is extremely high.

Another independent site reported having a cadre of over 150 citizen reporters and three interns, none of which are paid (there is a paid staff of four and freelancers receive payment as well). Many of them post on a regular basis and in fact the site is a platform for community voices. Going a step further, the nonprofit site seeks to help create a more media literate community and they facilitate and encourage the creation of a variety of different “news bureaus” where people can learn, share ideas and access tools and support.

Conclusion

Perhaps the only thing that’s a constant in today’s media landscape is rapid change and it is this characteristic that may typify Patch’s operation the most. New features are being rolled out all the time and many others are doubtless in the works. On September 1, for instance, a new top-level category appeared on Patch sites called House & Home. It seems to have been mysteriously yanked for the moment (it was briefly in place of the Volunteer tab), but will surely make a comeback soon (though not currently visible to users, the pages seem to work; here’s an example).

A statement from a Patch spokesperson described the new section thusly:

“The H&H guide is designed as a one-stop, consumer-friendly guide featuring helpful content ranging from how-to videos and articles about repairs, renovations and design, to gardening/landscaping advice, before/after renovation photos and other content to inspire home improvements and making the most of this key investment. We follow housing trends in each of our Patches, keep readers informed about interesting new developments, design inspirations, land deals, open houses and recently sold homes, and other local events.”

This of course is only the most recent example as Patch sites have already evolved in myriad ways since their initial launches. Whether they are small changes or big, sweeping reforms, the mindset seems to be to constantly iterate, tweak and try new things. Many of the improvements are naturally designed to augment the bottom line which is perhaps crucial for Patch to ensure its existence. Will this approach help or hinder Patch as they strive for profitability? Only time will tell.

Next week: Advertising and other business-related issues on Patch sites. Is Patch meeting its stated advertising goals? What different revenue streams do they have?


Methodology of the site review:

I reviewed each of the four sites for one day a week over the course of August, counting:
* Number of new articles/pieces of content on that day
* Number of comments those articles garnered,
* Number of blog posts,
* Number of comments blog posts garnered,
* Classified listings, announcements and events,
* Ads (to be discussed in more detail next week).
I also tried to take note of any new features, types of topics being covered and how active the sites seemed in general.

Questions or thoughts on my methods or my findings? Feel free to leave them in the comments.

Anna Tarkov is a blogger and journalist obsessed with media and politics and especially passionate about reforming the news business. Find Anna on her blog and on Twitter.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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