Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The future of journalism?

There have been a few stories recently about AOL's Patch "hyperlocal" news websites. Well, I've browsed a few (well, more than a few) Patch sites, and read the coverage of them. I've also been an active poster in the past on our own Salem Patch, and in both my public life and private life I interact with most of the Salem Patch employees and contributors. So I'm a little biased. But here's my take:
Patch, in general, is a neat concept and long-term I think it's the future of mainstream media. There will always be room for regional and national newspapers. But most people have online access nowadays, and mostly they care about what's happening in their town - and their neighborhood. Patch is their USA Today, a site that uses the same basic formula to handle all but the edge cases of information that neighborhood people want to know. What were the police doing across the street yesterday? Who is moving into that store with the paper on the windows? Why did the restaurant close all of a sudden? What's going on in town this weekend?

Those are the questions that most people want answered, and Patch is for them. Are there exceptions? Yes - of course! Salem's Patch mixes that sort of coverage with very good feature writing, good political coverage, and most importantly an editor who has been on the job for a couple of years and has developed local connections and become part of the city's fabric. She has managed to assemble a good team of contributors and as a result Salem Patch has kind of stepped into a middle ground between your typical event calendar and a local newspaper. Sure the Salem News has more resources overall and they can work a more traditional story. They have influence because of that, and they are a pretty good local paper. Where Salem Patch differentiates themselves is speed and versatility.

I'll sum this up with an anecdote from a local event last night (because I was there). Cafe Polonia and Coffee Time Bake Shop teamed up to host a paczki-eating contest to benefit the Boys & Girls Club. Great event, great cause, and everyone had fun. The Salem News sent a photographer, who arrived just as the last contestant was finishing. He got some pictures, took down names, and was gone after a few minutes. It'll make a nice photo feature in the paper, and he did a good job - but he missed the spirit of the event.

Patch's editor, though, was there the whole time. She captured it on video, did interviews (full disclosure: I was one of the interviewees), wrote a story, and had it posted online with a well-edited video by 6AM this morning. And when it was over, she tried her first paczki with everyone there and pronounced it delicious.

That, folks, is hyperlocal journalism at its best. And if that turns out to be where Patch goes, they'll do just fine as a business.

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