It’s difficult for media people to search any job site these days without running into an ad for AOL’s Patch. It seems equally difficult to read media news sites without finding a feature story about Connecticut’s MainStreetConnect. MainStreetConnect has appeared in recent days in both Columbia Journalism Review and Journalism.co.uk. Like Patch, the community news organization is hiring, though on a smaller scale as it expands from four sites to 10.

The attention being paid to them isn’t surprising: These two companies are leading the charge to create a new, sustainable model for hyper-local, online community news. Both are pursuing a strategy based on scale and local reporting, both are still experimenting and looking for ways to generate revenue — and both have big national ambitions.

“We’ve sort of built the car and now we’re tweaking it,” said Carll Tucker, founder of MainStreetConnect.

Strategy and Some Local News History

For Tucker and AOL’s Patch, which now has 83 sites, the goal is to attract advertising aimed at local audiences. They hope to do this by providing content generated by an inexpensive workforce that has been grouped strategically to leverage resources. In that respect, the methods echo the techniques traditional newspapers used during the suburban wars of the 1980s and early 1990s.

In those days, metro dailies fought smaller newspapers in the suburbs for advertising supremacy by providing local news through targeted zones. One of the bloodiest battles happened in Atlanta, when the New York Times bought the suburban Gwinnett Daily News and went head-to-head with the Atlanta Constitution.

The preferred tactic at the time was to flood the zone with inexpensive local content. But in the years since, metro dailies have scaled back circulation and news coverage, leaving a vacuum of under-served businesses and local readers. Those are the advertising and reader markets that Patch and MainStreetConnect are targeting.

“Community business is the worst-served market in America,” Tucker said in a May interview I conducted with him. He noted that, “This company could not have been started five years ago” because the vacuum in the local advertising market was not as large as it is now.

Patch executives say that local readers also feel under-served.

“People are way more hungry for news at their local level than even we imagined,” said Brian Farnham, editor in chief of Patch. “There’s a lot of good sources for news existing at the national level and beyond, but at the local level the cohesive experience is missing.”

Site Design and Sharing

Tucker has built his sites with colorful tabs that reflect the vertical advertising markets that were the mainstays of traditional newspapers: “Wheels,” “Real Estate, “Food, “Wellness,” and “Home and Garden.” Those pages hold feature stories that almost always include a local businessperson. These stories are often shared between contiguous sites. The pages also hold business directories for advertisers. The “Wheels” sections at MainStreetConnect sites also display large auto ads.

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Tucker has a deep newspaper background with The Patent Trader, which he said covered 90,000 people over 10 towns before Gannett bought it in 1999. His company, which plans to have eventual affiliates across the country, began with the core of four Connecticut sites, with the flagship, TheDailyNorwalk.com, in Norwalk, Conn. Since mid-May, it has added six sites:

The other three original sites are:

The company’s current goal is to expand to 50 sites by the end of the year, with 12 in Fairfield County, Conn. When we spoke in May, Tucker downplayed any competition with Patch, even though Patch is in some of the same territory in relatively wealthy Connecticut. Norwalk had an estimated median household income in 2007 of $70,672, and the national average was $50,233 for that year, according to the U.S. Census. Patch also has sites in Fairfield and Westport, just like MainStreetConnect.

“In no way do we compete with them,” Tucker had said. When we spoke again this month, he explained that his company’s focus is on covering local people, including local business owners, with the goal of attracting “Main Street moms.”

Patch’s sites have more subtle design and more social-networking features, such as “boards,” which are like Facebook walls and are where readers can send feedback to specific writers. Those writers have profiles that list their current stories and sometimes recent tweets, as well as bio information and a statement of political and religious beliefs.
Patch’s focus appears to be more on hard news.

For example, a fire in early July in White Plains, N.Y., injured 33 people and destroyed seven businesses. The Patch news story ran in clustered New York Patch sites: The Rye Patch, the Harrison Patch, the Yorktown Patch, the Scarsdale Patch, and likely others, with local sidebars, video and photos.

Advertising and Visibility Packages

MainStreetConnect’s ads are sold as “annual visibility packages.” In May, Tucker said the smallest “visibility package” the company aimed to sell cost between $5,000 to $6,000.
In our recent interview, he said the company has found ways to accommodate smaller businesses with less immediately available funds. Some advertising can cost as little as $60 to $70 a week.

“We’ve widened our net for our smaller advertisers,” he said, noting that the company has had local success with real estate ads, hospital ads and banks.

“It’s not about a price; it’s about what you get for the money,” he said.

Tucker explained that the company’s visibility packages include extra service, such as a salute to advertisers’ customers in the upper right of site pages, in a feature called “Our customer comes first!” These include the company name and a photo and name of a customer.

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At Patch, Farnham said the advertising focus goes beyond banner ads to directories and self-service ads as well.

“We think the applications that are most interesting are around our listings operation,” he said. “We’re sending teams to communities who will go door to door and collect data about those places, structure it in our templates, and have a really rich Yellow Pages.”

Yes, They Have Job Openings

AOL’s Patch continues to recruit editors and open sites across the country, with sites up in California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. New sites are promised soon in Illinois, Rhode Island and Maryland. The company was recruiting in early July for more than 20 editor positions in the suburbs of Atlanta and Los Angeles. Farnham, the Patch editor in chief, said the company is looking for tomorrow’s journalists.

“It’s basically one full-time professional editor, who is the reporter and editor and curator of that site, and they also hire local contributors and freelancers to round out that coverage,” he said. “You’re not thinking about column inches, you’re trying to get up-to-the-minute information out there. Should this be a video or a slideshow or some other sort of multimedia?”

MainStreetConnect is also hiring, on a smaller scale, with ads on Mediabistro and Indeed.com. It is seeking experienced news reporters with five to 10 years of experience, preferably in local newspapers and with local knowledge.

Top staffers get a salary of about $40,000 a year, and rookies get less, Tucker said. His wife, personal finance writer Jane Bryant Quinn, serves as editorial director and coaches journalists on writing skills and headline writing. Twenty newsroom employees produce content for the 10 sites. The stories focus on local people, and the company currently does not rely on user-generated content.

“News gathering is a real profession,” Tucker said. “Citizen journalism is a completely false rabbit. It’s simply not going to succeed.”

Patch, by contrast, solicits citizen contributions for news tips, feedback and announcements and calendars.

What Happens Next?

Both Farnham and Tucker spoke about the move into hyper-local online sites as experimental, with adjustments along the way.

“We’re learning as fast as we can,” said Tucker, mentioning his local advisory boards and social media.

Farnham acknowledged that Patch is moving into some territory where local online ecosystems are already well formed.

“What we do when we come into a market is certainly not just announce, ‘Hey we’re the only game in town,’ “ he said. “What we want to offer is a cohesive comprehensive experience. There is that ecosystem.”

Farnham said the company is open to working with others.

“We are always open to exploring ways we can work with existing media outlets in communities where we are launching a Patch site. No option is closed off.”

Tucker’s company was formed with the idea of franchises or affiliates, and he said partners aren’t out of the question. “We have had interesting conversations with many of the major players,” he said.

For both, the focus is finding a way to make money to sustain local journalism. “There’s no free press unless it’s a profitable press,” Tucker said.

To read more stories in the Beyond Content Farms series go here.

MediaShift editorial intern Davis Shaver contributed to this article.

Andria Krewson is editor for two community sections of the McClatchy-owned Charlotte Observer in Charlotte, N.C. She posts at Global Vue and is @underoak on Twitter.

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