What’s up at Patch?

While Patch is no stranger to change, the recent flurry of activity from the hyperlocal news network and its more than 850 websites has us scratching our heads.

In an Aug. 22 note to readers, outgoing local editor Donna Evans announced  that California’s La Cañada Flintridge Patch would make a big change: “As for La Cañada Patch, we really hope community members will upload to the site events and announcements of import to residents. The site will no longer be editor-run, but, rather, a cooperative site with local blogs, shared content from other Patches and occasional freelance pieces.” Evans’ post also instructed readers to contact co-assistant regional editors Redmond Carolipio and Dan Abendschein with any breaking news or concerns.

Eight days later, Abendschein published a story in which he introduced the “new team that will be running La Cañada Flintridge Patch.” This group consists of Abendschein, Carolipio, Evans, who now oversees South Pasadena Patch, and Montrose-La Crescenta Patch editor, Nicole Charky. Abendschein mentioned that other unnamed editors would contribute as well.

Both articles from Evans and Abendschein seemed to indicate that Patch was moving away from its traditional model of one local editor overseeing one Patch website. However, in a Sept. 4 email, Janine Iamunno, who served as Patch’s vice president of communications until early September, referenced Abendschein’s column and denied any changes were taking effect. “Patch doesn’t have plans to have any sites that ‘aren’t editor-run’ as it was phrased in that LE’s [local editor’s] comment,” she said.

When asked whether Abendschein’s piece meant La Cañada Flintridge Patch would be run by a team instead of one specific editor, Iamunno said she could not comment on personnel issues, while also hinting at the possibility of hiring a new local editor for the website.

On Sept. 6, Jaimie Cura, the local editor of Woodbury-Middlebury Patch in Connecticut, announced that she would now serve as the community manager of New Canaan Patch. In regards to whether the community manager position was essentially the same role as local editor, Iamunno said the position was “a totally different thing.” But when pressed, Iamunno explained, “this LE is serving as a community manager in the same way all of our LEs do – if you read the column, you’ll see it’s just an extension of her duties as an LE.” Cura is currently filling the same role at Wilton Patch, and her post regarding New Canaan has since been edited and any references to “community manager” have been removed.

Editors taking on additional coverage areas has also become an increasing trend at Patch. In August, Patrick Creaven, editor of San Ramon Patch in California, introduced himself as the new editor of Danville Patch, and explained that he would be overseeing both sites. That same month, Woodland Hills Patch local editor Rebecca Whitnall announced that she and Agoura Hills Patch editor Susan Pascal would share editing responsibilities at California’s Calabasas Patch, in addition to their current roles.

“Patch appears to be trying to rein in its editorial expenses, which are comparatively high among hyperlocals,” said Tom Grubisich, a columnist for Street Fight, in an email interview. “Having an editor in every community as a given can’t be justified when you’re losing in the range of $100 million yearly. Patch should be going after editorial efficiencies much more aggressively. Where it has established competition – which it does in many markets – it shouldn’t try to beat its rivals through volume but through selective coverage that, above all, shows residents how well their community is performing. These silver-bullet stories would strike home, be commented on in local social networks and bring to Patch the engaged audience that will attract advertisers who want to cut through the digital clutter.”

Perhaps the most revealing information regarding what’s going on at Patch came in a Sept. 7 post on Jim Romenesko’s media blog. In the piece, an anonymous frustrated Patch editor mentions that he or she oversees “editor-less sites because ’we just aren’t hiring right now.’”

On top of the editor changes, there have also been several recent merges among the Patch sites. In late June, local editor Marc Shapiro announced that Owings Mills Patch and Reisterstown Patch in Maryland would merge. That same month saw the merge of Holliston and Hopkinton Patch in New Jersey. August was also a time of consolidation in California, with Fair Oaks Patch and Carmichael Patch joining forces, as well as Pinole Patch and Hercules Patch.

Despite the merges, Patch still launched 28 new sites at the end of August, and it plans to debut even more later this month, such as West End Alexandria in Virginia, Bernardsville-Bedminster Patch in New Jersey  and Eden Prairie in Minnesota.

But Grubisich said he isn’t surprised that Patch is simultaneously merging sites while launching others.  “Growth, at this point of Patch’s still-young life, should be guided by the potential of new sites becoming sustainable,” he said. “Patch doesn’t need a Bigfoot-type footprint.”

As for the future, Grubisich explained that although he expects Patch to progress, he thinks development will largely be influenced by the company’s revenue stream. “Patch has a new ‘chief content officer,’ Rachel Fishman Feddersen, who seems to be open-minded to change (when and where it’s needed), so I would expect Patch to continue to evolve editorially, possibly faster,” he said. “But change will mostly be driven by financial imperatives. Can it upend the bleak forecasts of its major minority stockholder, Starboard Investments, which says even if Patch sold ’80 percent of ad slots to local advertisers near rate card pricing’ – a stupendous achievement in an industry where there is a glut of ad inventory – it would still lose $20 million to $60 million yearly?Based on these stats and the other recent developments, Patch’s road to growth is sure to be a rocky one.

–Lauren Cohen