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Patch Sites, Heavy on School News, Face Retrenchment

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From its very beginnings, the hyperlocal news site Patch has made coverage of local schools a priority.

With a retrenchment announced last month by Patch's owner, AOL Inc., however, many of Patch's 900 local web sites will be shut down. Layoffs of Patch employees are expected to reach 500 out of some 1,100 employees. Many of those are Patch editors, so that means a lot of journalists who are at least part-time education editors and reporters are losing their jobs.

Patch launched in 2007, and was acquired by New York City-based AOL in 2009. The Internet company rapidly expanded the number of community Patch sites, mostly in upper middle class suburbs. As described by one early local editor in a cover story last year in the Columbia Journalism Review, "Patch aimed to be the community newspaper and more, a hub for local businesses and a forum for community conversation: everything a local news outlet should be."

That editor, Sean Roach, said local editors were given some latitude to set their own coverage priorities. "Some editors focused almost exclusively on sports and schools, while others preferred hard news and politics," Roach wrote last year. (Put aside that Roach did not seem to include schools coverage in the category of hard news.)

Patch's media relations team did not respond to a request for comment on the editorial priorities of the local sites.

Here are some recent Patch stories on education, from a spot check across the country:

● "State Releases New Grade 3-8 Test Results," the Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow (N.Y.) Patch, Roach's former site, said last month.

● "Virginia Standards of Learning: Arlington Students Outperform State in Most Categories," said the Arlington, Va., Patch on Aug. 20.

● "Naperville District 203 Taking Closer Look at Random Drug Testing for Athletes," said the Naperville, Ill., Patch in June.

● In what might be called superhyperlocal news, the Glen Ellyn, Ill., Patch reported last week about a gnat infestation shut down the lone portable classroom outside Lincoln Elementary School.

● The Palo Alto, Calif., Patch had recent stories on state test scores, back-to-school shopping, and "Yummy or Yucky? Palo Alto Kids Vote for Their Lunch."

Ken Doctor, a former newspaper editor and now a media analyst who writes the weekly "Newsonomics" column for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, said in an interview that with most Patch sites having one full-time editor and a small budget for freelance reporting, they could only "hit the patina of education."

"They didn't say, 'We're going to cover education better than anyone else in the community,'" said Doctor. "The coverage has been wide but shallow, and it varied site by site. The story on the new principal is great, maybe that's a net plus. But it's not a major advance in understanding global education."

Still, said Michelle Ferrier, an associate dean at the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, the Patch idea held promise at a time when many local newspapers were cutting back.

"Patch was going to go into places where there had been cracks in the media landscape," she said.

As has been documented, Patch began to transform its sites in 2010 and 2011, making them more of a "platform" for contributed content and less of a mostly news outlet.

And this year, the push was on from AOL to make the advertising-supported sites profitable.

"Patch's platform needs to do three simple things," AOL Chairman and CEO Tim Armstrong told analysts in a Aug. 7 conference call in which the retrenchment was announced. "Allow people to get high-quality information locally, allow people to upload and share information, and allow people to transact advertising and commerce with online tools. Going forward, any and all of the investments in Patch we have [will be] focused squarely on those three things."

The company is expected to shutter about 150 of the 900 sites by next month, and to seek "partners" for another 150 that show some promise. The rest will continue to be run by AOL.

"Our number one North Star goal is to get Patch to profitability," Armstrong added in the conference call. "And to make the tough decisions around Patch to get there."

Media observers such as Doctor say it's a bit unclear at this point what the Patch developments mean for the larger story of hyperlocal online news sites, which go well beyond the AOL unit.

"It's possible 18 months from now they shutter the rest of the sites and it just goes down as a footnote in history," Doctor said. "It's also possible the sites build from here. The Patch story may not be over."

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