COAST CITIES — All but one local Patch.com editor was let go last week as part of the media organization’s national layoffs.
AOL purchased Patch in 2009 and quickly expanded the hyperlocal news network. There are 900 Patch websites throughout the country, with each website encompassing a city or community.
Investment holding company Hale Global, which acquired a majority ownership of Patch from AOL in mid-January, laid off many of the organization’s roughly 450 national employees last week, according to media reports.
The exact number of layoffs in San Diego last week could not be confirmed. But Michelle Mowad, who was the editor of the La Jolla and Carmel Valley-Del Mar Patch websites, said that she’s now running all of the 13 county websites.
She referred questions regarding Patch’s future advertising and editorial strategy to Patch headquarters, which did not return requests for comment.
In San Diego, as recently as two years ago, each of the 13 Patch websites had a dedicated editor and several freelancers contributing articles.
Even before the recent layoffs, Patch was hit by setbacks. A policy eliminating positions via attrition, which took effect in late 2012, left editors covering multiple websites. And this past August, the first round of layoffs further diminished the ranks of editors and supporting positions.
Deanne Goodman, editor of the Encinitas and Carlsbad sites, was among those laid off by Hale Global during a company-wide conference call on Jan. 29.
Goodman said she was drawn to the organization because it focused on individual communities, as opposed to the entire region.
“I liked the idea of covering your own community,” said Goodman, who lives in Carlsbad and plans to stay in journalism.
Looking back on her more than three years with the company, Goodman’s favorite part of the job was the impact her coverage had on the community.
For instance, one of Goodman’s multimedia pieces highlighted a 6-year-old Carlsbad girl who had just woken up from a coma following a car crash. The article, along with a follow-up piece, went viral and many donated to the girl, alleviating her medical bills.
“As a journalist, you can completely help change someone’s life,” Goodman said. “And with Patch, you got instant feedback from the local community.”
According to a recent survey from the city of Carlsbad asking which news sources residents rely on for information about city issues and programs, 5.6 percent of residents viewed Carlsbad Patch regularly. Respectively, 6.2 percent sometimes looked at the website, with 7.8 percent seldom viewing it.
Although popular in many communities across the nation, Patch reportedly lost money, and AOL was under pressure from investors to downsize or get rid of it, according to media reports.
“I had high hopes for Patch,” said Dean Nelson, the director of Point Loma Nazarene University’s journalism program.
Nelson said there’s still a tremendous amount of interest in local news. However, he suspects that the organization overestimated the demand for online advertising in small communities.
“Whether it’s the Huffington Post or the New York Times or Patch, online advertising is a very, very difficult business to get into,” Nelson said. “Nobody has made it work very well.”
“The industry is still trying to find a successful model,” he added.
Nelson said community newspapers are about the only news outlets experiencing some success right now. He noted they’re likely in a better position than Patch due to the emphasis on print advertising.
“Advertising in print just has a higher success rate than advertising online,” Nelson said.
Additionally, he noted larger media companies have struggled to tap into smaller markets. For instance, the Orange County Register, after pouring money into hyper-local coverage, recently let go of 32 employees.
With Patch eliminating its freelancers and editors over the last two years, that hurt the “breadth” of its coverage, Dean said. Going forward, he said it will be even more challenging for the organization to fulfill its hyperlocal mission with only one region-wide editor.
In recent months, some Patch websites have relied more on local bloggers for content.
Continuing that strategy will be difficult in light of the recent cuts, said Bey-Ling Sha, professor and interim director of San Diego State University’s journalism program.
“Your viability as a news organization depends on people trusting in your credibility,” Sha said. “When you take submissions from non-trained journalists and then you put those submissions in a position of being published with inadequate editorial oversight, you increase the likelihood that mistakes will get made.”
Increasingly, Patch websites have linked to other news sources in recent months, instead of posting articles written by local editors.
While it will be tough with fewer editors nationally, Sha said Patch will have to produce some original content if it’s going to be viewed as a credible news source.
“If you’re just going to be a curator of other people’s content, then you really can’t call yourself a news site,” Sha said.