Why Patch failed in so many places

Soviet partisans operating under Sydir Kovpak in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.  Wikipedia.

Soviet partisans operating under Sydir Kovpak in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.  My experience in community journalism has borne out a military truism: An indigenous force almost always trumps an outside invader. (Photo from Wikipedia)

So why did so many of the AOL hyperlocal sites fail? Of all the reasons being expounded, here are two I’ll add to the list based on our experiences here in Roanoke.

* Not all communities are communities. Some are simply places. For a hyperlocal site to work, it needs to be built around a jurisdiction that already has a strong sense of community. When we were figuring out what our community news zones would be in Roanoke, we had a checklist we used to try to measure sense of community. Does the place hold parades? Festivals? How big is high school football on Friday night?

Here’s a story I like to tell that illustrates the sense of community. In 2010, the Cave Spring High School and James River High School boys basketball both won state championships (in separate size classifications) on the same day. That evening, the Cave Spring team returned to Southwest Roanoke County to a modest reception at the school attended by friends and family.

Out in Botetourt County, though, the James River team returned to a full-bore parade through downtown Buchanan. A police car lead the procession. The team rode in on a firetruck, circled around downtown and then was deposited in front of the firehouse where a crowd of hundreds was gathered. Every politician who wanted to speak was given a chance, and believe me, they all did. Then all the players were expected to speak, as well! Finally, when all the speech-making was done, the team and crowd retired to a reception inside.

And this wasn’t just something done for a boys team; when the team’s volleyball team won the state championship a year later, the same drill was repeated. The point being — Botetourt County has a much stronger sense of community than Southwest Roanoke County — so it shouldn’t surprise us that our online traffic with The Botetourt View is significantly higher than with our SWoCo site in Southwest Roanoke County, even though Botetourt is less populous and rural and Southwest Roanoke County a populous, affluent suburb.

So I have to wonder if Patch simply picked some of the wrong places.

* Secondly, our experience has been that to do true hyperlocal journalism, or community journalism, you need an indigenous workforce. In war, a guerrilla army of natives always has an advantage over an invading conventional force. It’s the same way in journalism. Don’t hire some J-school grad from who-knows-where and send them into a community and expect them to be a community journalist; they’’ll get beat by the competition if that competition consists of true locals — even if those locals don’t have formal journalism credentials. Those locals know the place from the inside out; they will have street credibility you can’t buy. It’s better to find some people who are wired into the community and teach them the journalism skills they need than to take a fully-credentialed journalist and send them into a strange place and expect them to beat the locals. That’s not a message journalists and j-schools want to hear, but it’s the business reality.

Video: What I learned from our daily newsroom webcast

This was the logo for our daily webcast, the TimesCast.

This was the logo for our daily webcast, the TimesCast.

When I came up in the business, print and broadcast were two very different things, and naturally we print people looked down on the broadcast folks as superficial pretty boys.

So when Mike Riley, the editor of The Roanoke Times, proposed that we get into video back in the mid-aughts — and do so by launching a daily news webcast — you can imagine the reaction in some quarters of the newsroom.

But we did it.

From 2005 to 2007, we produced a daily webcast we called the TimesCast — this was look before the New York Times appropriated that same name for its own. (We offered this advice to the Times here.)

Photographer-turned-multimedia journalist Seth Gitner was the technical genius (he’s now a professor at Syracuse University, by the way.) I wrote the scripts and used my theatrical background to recruit and direct an in-house crew of presenters.

We weren’t the first newspaper in the country to do a webcast but we were certainly one of the first. When the TimesCast started, it was the only video we were doing and got decent traffic. Later, when we started other video projects, the numbers declined. Keep in mind, the TimesCast was launched as an experiment; it was never a business with a business model behind it. By definition, an experiment is a success if you learn something from it. By that measure, the TimesCast was a great success for it.

Here are several things we learned, usually the hard way:

* Video is a skill-set that doesn’t always come naturally to a newspaper. Because it involves visuals, photographers seem to take to it more naturally — although some reporters turned out to be very adept at the story-telling aspect of it.

* Video is also very time-consuming, and ultimately proved to be an expenditure of time we couldn’t justify on a daily basis. The problem with a daily webcast is that it expired with that day’s news — (although you can still find many of our old webcasts online.) Breaking news video always produced more traffic, and other video projects usually had longer shelf lives that produced more “long tail” traffic over time. We produced a sports spin-off — a weekly Sports TimesCast featuring our beat writers for Virginia Tech and UVA football. That did better, because of its longer shelf life and I always thought that had more economic potential. Eventually, we shut that down, too.

* Marketing is key. I don’t think viewers expect a newspaper site to have video. That may be changing, but if you really want to promote video, well, you have to promote it. I still think our sports webcast could have been a business success if we had invested in promotion. On the flip side, that would have also required more discipline on the content side — keeping the length tight, for instance, and the conversation more newsworthy.

We did win an award for the TimesCast; it took third place in the online category in the Virginia Press Association’s convergence category in 2006.

Here’s our April 4, 2006 edition:

Here’s some advice we gave the New York Times on the matter.

Search “Roanoke Times TimesCast” on YouTube and you can find some others.