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Rx for Patch’s hyperlocal sites? Downplay McMaps and beef up some of the writing—and photos and story placement

imagepatchlogo Fueled by AOL money, the Patch hyperlocal network has started up Washington-area sites in Riverdale Park-University Park and College Park.

Some well-credentialed media people are Patched in. Maryland Regional Editor Amy L. Kovac-Ashley, for example, is a seasoned Columbia J school grad who among other jobs worked for the Washington Post’s LoudounExtra.com offshoot. Talk about learning opportunities!

Patch is not repeating the Post’s Loudoun County mistake and taking on a whole county without fully grasping all the variations in mindsets and lifestyles within it. I applaud Patch’s highly focused town-by-town approach.

tbdlogo Hiring dozens and dozens of journalists for the D.C. area, Patch may well outstaff TBD, which will rely more on external  links to local blogs and other sites, some affiliated, some not. Patch’s bigger force of pros could mean more thorough coverage of civic matters than TBD can offer, given the hobbyist-type priorities of many bloggers. How often will TBD links to Patch sites? And what will be the pluses and minuses of such arrangements for both companies, as well as others like the Washington Post? Through sheer numbers, the Patch network might be able to make a helluva a positive difference in the D.C. area if it executes well.

imageBut if Patch creates zillions of small sites around the country, how successful will they be as reader magnets? Will QC be up to snuff?

I examined the RiverdalePark-UniversityPark Patch site and saw both strengths and weaknesses in the network’s philosophy, which is a little like McDonald’s: Idiot-proof your production as much as possible, even at the expense of variety. I’ll review a few news items briefly—including a flood-control piece and two nice essays, respectively about pickles for sale and about toads and a dog—but let’s start with the general look of the home page. The Web, after all, is a visual medium.

imageThis is a tour of just one site, but my casual impressions jibe with what I’ve seen elsewhere in the Patch network. Some Alexa stats do, too. As of August 2, readership for the whole network, comprising 100 or so operating sites, was merely several times higher than Baristanet’s (seven-day Alexa view). The latter is just one independent hyperlocal site that an ex-New York Times columnist and another entrepreneur started in New Jersey. As I see it, Baristanet is more passion-driven and better plugged into its community than typical Patch sites seem at first glance. The good news for Patch is that, after a sharp falloff in popularity last year, both traffic and page views per visitor are up in recent weeks, whatever the reason. Also, the view-per-visitor count dwarfs Baristanet’s. Furthermore, most of the flaws I’ll describe here could be extremely fixable, especially the local sites’ Web design, writing (quality varies), photos  and story placement, just so Patch is open to change.

imagePatch’s equivalent of the Big Mac may be its zoomable home-page maps, with little blue balloons that, when moused over, show mentions of  local events and, yes, of advertisers. Do readers want to behold a similar image day after day? And how about the separation between news and advertising? Choosing a balloon to click on while in the “Everything” mode is a bit of a gamble, a milder form of Russian Roulette, since you may see an unwelcome ad. In fact, at around 9:30 tonight, five of the seven balloons shown here led readers to ads—for the real McDonalds, S & J Bar and Restaurant, the International House of Pancakes, the Pollo Fiesta restaurant and Emmanuelle Beauty Discount Store. The only genuine non-ads  in this view are for two events related to crime prevention. At least a minor ethics crime? [Update, August 7: Patch’s Amy Kovac-Ashley says those are not ads—rather representations of directory listings—but Amy now understands how confusion might result. She is considering different arrangements. Great, Amy! Delighted if the feedback helped! – D.R.]

imageI’m not objecting to the scarcity of listed events—expected for a new local publication—but rather to the ad-editorial blur. Luckily or unluckily the ad-event ratio appears to be far more reader-friendly on other Patch sites. Still, this sneaky approach contrasts starkly with Baristanet’s use of tasteful, upfront display ads that help local businesses nicely establish their brand names. Shown are a few Baristanet ads next to links for nearby sites in New Jersey. Now, that is how to build a business, as opposed to hiding inside a blue balloon.

I also notice another  downside of the McMaps, beyond the advertisements about which color coding or other graphics could help tip off the readers. By definition, the most geo-relevant hyperlocal site will zero in on a small area, and if you do that, readers probably can drive from covered place to covered place within five or ten minutes. Paradoxically, then, in this context, when you do not even know what the balloons stand for unless you mouse over them, geo isn’t that big a deal. I can imagine exceptions, such as the use of Patch to tout and learn about neighborhood block parties. Close enough to you, the balloons could easily inspire you to do mouse-overs. But chances are you’ll see yard or phone-pole signs or get word of mouth. My friendly suggestion is to keep the maps but farm them out to inside pages and also rely on email, automated Tweets and other means to alert interested readers about neighborhood events and other hyper-hyperlocal news (Patch users can sign up for daily or weekly newsletters). On each site’s home page, Patch could run a list in the “Happening Now”  vein, boldface the event descriptions and names of neighborhoods, and use postage-stamp-sized photos and other images—maybe even pictures of the main people throwing the block parties. This would be more viewable, neighborly and ethical than those horrid McMaps. I love maps, especially if appropriately used, but people and transparency first!

Speaking of the peoplish matters, why are images of humans AWOL from the RP-UP Patch screenshot from yesterday, except in little mugshots? Isn’t the McMap at the top right of the Patch home page enough? Why did a map for a flood-control story also make the top of the page when, even on a 25-inch monitor, I had trouble puzzling out the details? The screenshot is actually charitable toward Patch. On a landscape-mode monitor, the maps will hog a much higher percentage of the screen than they do in the image. At other times—I do appreciate the frequent updates—RP-UP was more generous with pictures of residents. But the shots were less than fully inspired. One from today showed people in a library listening to a discussion of burglaries. Why not also show a  stock surveillance picture of a burglar at work (with a caption to establish the location of the shot and make clear it’s from outside the neighborhood)? Get in the local faces but also use the picture to drive home why the citizens are worried. Same idea could work on other stories.

Now on to the writing in the lead story in the screenshot from yesterday.

I love the idea of flood-control at the top, given the urgency of the issue; but by my standards, as a Web veteran of many years, it won’t sufficiently hold the attention of online readers. The story is too much in newspaper-speak and government-speak and fails to communicate the urgency in plain English. I myself would prefer something like this:

“Flood water might wash away the Matowsky family’s tomato garden in Riverdale Park if the town and others nearby fail to take anti-flooding precautions in the next year or so. That’s the fear of Riverdale Park Councilman Alan Thompson and some other citizens.

“And dozens of other residents in Riverdale Park, University Park and Hyattsville could also suffer damage if the warnings are on target—the reason why officials from the three localities want to team up on flood control.”

The lead is strictly hypothetical, of course, not really fact-based; but you get the idea. RP-UP Patch needs to try to set a scene at the start and otherwise write more concretely. And you know right away that this story should appear with a lively shot of John and Jane Matowsky by their tomato garden imperiled by creek. Quotes from them would help as well. This isn’t the only story by a Patch contributor that could have use a livelier approach.

image Now what about the cool little piece that Sonia Dasgupta, editor of RP-UP wrote—on pickles for sale? Delighted to see you write  in the first-person, Sonia. You show you’re a a human, not just a journalist. A difference exists between local and the best hyperlocal, where you want to blend into the community. Let’s see more sentences like these in Patch editions: “I took home two pints of his pickles last week—the horseradish and his spicy red pepper pickles. The horseradish pickle didn’t have the kick I expected but it had the familiar horseradish flavor, and the spicy red pepper pickles will clear your sinuses.” Shakespearean? No more than the post you’re reading now. Readable? Highly! And the chatty tone is just right for the RP-UP community. Way to go, Sonia!

I’d in fact have put the pickle piece at the top right of the home page, where the horrid MacMap now wastes space, to balance out the seriousness of the flood-control story. Why did Patch banish the pickles to near the bottom of the long home page? If that’s because the piece ran earlier, then another brightener should be in the top right instead. What’s more, even on the page devoted to the pickle piece, Patch stuck the photos at the bottom where visitors would not even notice them at first. The picture reproduced here for the purpose of review  ideally would have shown Jason Gallant, the pickle guy, talking to a customer. Even better, might the pictured customer have been sampling a pickle?

The real McDonalds cares endlessly about its pickles and other ingredients and their preparation even if the results are bland. Maybe it’s time for the QC specialists at Patch Central, Patch U, or whatever it’s called, to issue a corporate edict to prevent a repeat of the photo-at-the-bottom lapse. Hey, Sonia, relax, about that and other criticisms. I can empathize. This could just have been the Patch equivalent of a bad hair day, and for all I know, you may not have had control over what happened. I regularly commit my own atrocities. What’s more, I recognize that local Patches are like wire services and the busier blogs, with constant deadlines.

If the pickle story didn’t work out for the top right of the home page (with the McMap moved in my dream scenario), then how about Of Toads and Dogs: Riverdale Park’s Toads in Mating Season, by an RP-UP Patch columnist named Bruce Wernek, who will be writing on outdoorsy topics? In his essay, he observes: “Edgar my dog is fascinated by the toads. I’m not sure if he’s ever got a good look at one since they dart away if he gets too close.  He’s always happy to see what they smell like, but this is not easy—the toad jumps and Edgar follows in indiscriminate directions.” Once again, this is the kind of writing that the site needs to balance out the government-related stories, and RP-UP Patch should play it up. RP-UP’s news judgment needs to reflect life better—not just bureaucracy and politics. This is what Barisnet excels at, even if, because of limited resource, its coverage isn’t as deep as I’d prefer. One Baristanet-style positive I liked from RP-UP Patch was the inclusion of a video with a story headlined National Night Out Celebrated with Softball Game.

image Let me also comment on the handling of Sonia Dasgupta’s profile in the RP-UP edition, which you can reach by clicking on her photo on the home page. I see phone and email information, as well as handy links. But her bio info is invisible unless you bother to click on a “Read more” link with all kinds of helpful, informative facts, such as that she is a “fiscally conservative Democrat,” is Hindu but attended a Catholic elementary school, “so I’m open minded.” The most important community issues for her? Growth and saving the Chesapeake Bay.

Good stuff. But I actually think she might have gone too far in publishing the standard Patch pledge (presumably mandatory) to try to cover everything impartially. A little ‘tude can actually help at the hyperlocal level, just so it’s expressed tactfully and just so other viewpoints can appear. The best hyperlocal shows commitment to the community good as the writer perceives this. It is not just a miniature version of the supposedly “objective” sites found at the local and national levels. I’ll have more to say about these differences in a forthcoming installment in this hyperlocal series—for example, how hyperlocal can help journalists grow closer to their audiences, especially by helping ordinary mortals grow closer to each other.

Bottom line on Patch: Some flaws in execution, but they’re fixable, if the examples I’ve seen are representative and if the Patch network can draw the right level and breadth of talent.

Other D.C.-area Patch sites on the way—plus a few “bonus” thoughts: Patches are coming to Greater Annapolis, Hyattsville and Wheaton in Maryland, and Annandale, Burke, Reston, Woodbridge and  Old Town Alexandria in Virginia. An ad for an editor’s job in Alexandria where I live, starts the job description this way: “Are you a passionate and entrepreneurial online journalist?” Let’s hope the “passionate” part works out in real life. One more challenge will be for out-of-town Patch recruits to adjust. Lauren Evans, running the College Park Patch, comes from California, a rather different state from Maryland. Hey, I’m totally hypocritical since I grew up in D.C. paper and worked for a factory-town daily in Lorain, Ohio. But a difference in geography will be one more challenge for some Patch recruits, however talented and adaptable, to overcome.

Note: I’ll be alerting Amy Kovac-Ashley and Sonia Dasgupta to give them a chance to comment, as part of this blog’s discussion-oriented approach. Again, ladies, I can imagine the constraints you’re working under, I see promise in Sonia’s site, and I wish all Patchers the best of luck, just as I do the people over at TBD, the Examiner and the Post. You are absolutely blameless for the McMaps concept, Amy and Sonia. Perhaps you can quietly work within the organization to banish the maps from the home page of the Riverdale site and the others.

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4 Comments to “Rx for Patch’s hyperlocal sites? Downplay McMaps and beef up some of the writing—and photos and story placement”

  1. Hello again, David. I can help with at least one of your questions as it relates to what we’re doing at TBD. We intend to link regularly to all sources of news and information relevant to the people reading our site – including the Patch sites, the Post and other news outlets.

    We certainly want the local Patch sites to succeed as well – there’s a lot of news out there and all of us who live in this area need as many feet on the ground as possible to go find it

  2. David Rothman says:

    Thanks for the info, Mandy. Good for TBD. I’ll welcome comments from other news organizations about the linking issue.

    David

  3. Hi David. Thanks for your thoughtful column and critique. We’re busy at work with preparing other launches, otherwise I would have responded sooner.

    As you know, we just launched the two sites you mentioned – Riverdale Park-University Park and College Park – on July 30. So, it’s definitely early in the process for us of figuring out what the right content mix for each of the sites is. We welcome any suggestions from residents and others, and I think in the next few weeks and months you’ll see some tweaks to what we’re doing now, as we gain more of a foothold. (We’re also on the lookout for other local contributors who can help us with that content mix, and if anyone is interested, please reach out to me at amyk at patch dot com. We’re so happy to have folks like Sharon O’Malley in College Park and Bruce Wernek in Riverdale Park, for example.)

    On the issues of maps and design, I think you are right to point out some of the user interface questions. We are constantly talking about what the best way to display the maps and what their usefulness is, and I’m certain that you’ll see this evolve over time.

    One note on the point you make about the businesses that are featured in the middle content well: Those are actually not ads. If they were, they would be clearly labeled similar to the way that you describe that BaristaNet does. They are listings in our Directory product, which are meant to give people in the community – and anyone else who visits the site – a window into the businesses (specifically restaurants in this case) that are located in the town. But your point is taken that we might want to think more about how those are displayed.

    Also, since it seems you enjoyed reading Sonia’s column on eating from the farmers market, you might be interested in her latest piece on an orange watermelon she got from one of the Riverdale Park vendors. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the photos she got! Let us know if you try some of the recipes she mentions.

    Thanks again for your careful review of the site. We look forward to having you come back to take a look at what we’re doing in the future!

    And thanks to Mandy for her thoughtful response. We’re always glad to collaborate/cooperate with others, and we’re always grateful for links. I’m sure we’ll be doing a lot of linking out as well.

  4. David Rothman says:

    Thanks for the classy reply, Amy, and feel free to follow up with progress reports via email or in the comments area associated with this post or other relevant ones.

    I’m delighted you might make some tweaks in the handling of the info on the businesses. Meanwhile I’ve inserted an update into the copy so it’s clear you did not intend for readers to regard the listings as ads.

    I’ll take a look at Sonia’s watermelon piece and tell my wife about the recipes. Hello to Sonia! Those farmers market stories are useful not only in encouraging small business types but also in promoting good nutrition—well, at least the ones with enthusiastic descriptions of the fresh fruits and veggies!

    Glad to see nice vibes happening between TBD and Patch. If hyperlocal folks are relaxed about links—as people seem to be so far—the readers will be the real winners.

    Meanwhile, for the benefit of you and Mandy and Steve and other commenters, I’d suggest a visit to Gravatar.com. I believe that the mugshots you upload there will show up next time you comment in the Scandals blog, which I hope you’ll always feel free to do.

    Happy hyperlocal-ing!
    David

    Addendum #1: Also meant to thank you for being a good sport about my comments on the maps in other respects. Maybe Patch can let your people and a few others experiment with other approaches, such as listings mixed with mugshots and other images. Much friendlier, and the maps could still go on an inside page.

    Addendum #2: Nice watermelon story. Just back from a quick look. I’ll email it to Carly, complete with the recipe links.

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