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Patch never matched local news
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Last week, I wrote about Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post and how the so-called “demise” of print news is something most community newspapers like the Chronicle-Independent have been fortunate to avoid. That’s because the C-I and papers like it have been “hyperlocal” before anyone coined the term. We pretty strictly limit our coverage to news that happens inside the borders of Kershaw County. When we tackle something larger, we always “bring it home” by linking it to someone or something in the county.

Some of what I wrote about last week has to do with online media. I mentioned that, inside Kershaw County, the only real places for you to go are Facebook and the C-I’s website. One online endeavor that’s come close but never quite made it into Kershaw County is Patch.com. Owned by AOL, Patch is a network of neighborhood news sites. The closest one to us is focused on northeast Columbia.

On Patch’s main website, it claims to be run by “professional editors, photographers, videographers and salespeople who live in the regions they serve.” It supposedly allows visitors to its neighborhood websites to “keep up with news and events, check out photos and videos from around town, learn more about local businesses and the people behind them, participate in discussions,” blog and submit announcements.

In the Midlands, in addition to northeast Columbia, Patch maintains a presence in the Irmo - Seven Oaks area, Columbia and Lexington.

But what do these professionals do when it comes to reporting the news?

Let’s take the Gabbiee Swainson story. As we now know, Freddie Grant, of Elgin, pled guilty Wednesday to kidnapping and murdering Gabbiee. He suffocated her. Patch did a competent, but short story, apparently from inside the courtroom. Prior to that, however, Patch only parroted Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott’s press conference. Everything else -- both before and since -- relied on posting summaries of and links to other media coverage of the story.

In the meantime, we reported from the recovery site, interviewing Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews (in person) and Elgin Police Chief Harold Brown (by phone). That on-the-ground reporting brought you -- I hope you’ll agree -- some pretty in-depth, truly local coverage of the story.

Patch also did a competent job of covering a recent Columbia City Council meeting -- something any good local news organization should do. For a website of its type, it was a fairly lengthy article and touched on the kind of points I expect out my own coverage of Camden City Council.

Overall, however, Patch.com seems like its namesake: a patch.

I’m not disparaging the writers and editors at any of Patch’s sites. Some of them, from what I can tell, are professional journalists who decided to join up with what seemed to be a wave of new online journalism. Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out the way they thought.

Which brings us to last week’s announcement that Patch is laying off hundreds of those very editors and reporters and that 400 of its sites will be shuttered or “partnered” off with other sites.

Jim Romenesko, who used to work for the Poynter Institute and still maintains a fantastic blog about everything news media related, reported the numbers based on a conference call led by AOL CEO Tim Armstrong. (Armstrong also fired an employee during the phone call for taking a picture of him making the announcement.)

Fast Company, a technology/business/design magazine, said “a combination of corporate mishandling and an inability to actually go after on-the-ground readers, many of whom don’t regularly read newspapers online, has stunted growth.”

During the conference call, according to Romenesko’s accounts, Armstrong said that of the nearly 1,000 Patch sites, AOL would now focus on the “500 most important towns.” While some Patch editor’s hailed Armstrong’s “transparent approach,” one said the downsizing won’t save the network. A former Patch person claimed that sites in six states -- including South Carolina -- were “bleeding blood with profits.” That probably means at least some, if not all the sites in South Carolina will be shuttered.

The simple fact is that individual sites like those in the Patch network can’t replicate what local community newspapers do, especially ones like the C-I with nearly 125 years worth of publishing history behind it. That’s probably why Patch never came to Kershaw County.

You don’t just need “on-the-ground” reporters, editors and salespeople. You need a local publisher with an ownership stake in the company and a sense of truly being part of the community. Patch had none of that, at least not that I can tell. In fact, the local Patch sites share a lot of content amongst themselves and even ran national Patch stories. How really “hyperlocal” are they?

There’s probably going to come a day -- 10 years from now or 100 years from now -- when the C-I will be a strictly online enterprise. I actually have no problem with that, as long as the transition is handled properly, which I have every expectation it will be.

There’ll be a difference, though. We won’t be part of some faceless mega-corporation and we’ll still hire people with a true commitment to community journalism.

Moreover, we’ll be your neighbors, just as we’ve always been and always will be.