When Tropical Storm Irene plowed into the New England coastline a week ago, Susan Petroni (right) was ready. Armed with a computer and a cell phone, she set out to mobilize the citizens of the largest town in the U.S. to help her cover the story.
Petroni live-blogged throughout the storm, encouraging her readers at Framingham.Patch.com to be her eyes and ears. Readers snapped cell-phone phones and e-mailed them to Petroni to post on the Patch site. Locals flocked to the Framingham Patch page on Facebook to update each other on power outages and roads blocked by fallen trees. Petroni stayed on the phone with town officials to update her audience on disaster preparedness warnings and clean-up plans. For residents who had lost power, the Framingham Patch Twitter feed kept updates coming to cell phones.
In the days that followed, Susan Petroni’s online outposts became rallying points for citizens trying to find out when power would be restored or whether the opening of the school year would be delayed. Much of this information came not from her but from each other. Facebook was a quicker way to find out where the lights were coming on than the overwhelmed officials at the local utility.
The same scene played out at dozens of Patch sites up and down the east coast, demonstrating the power and agility of a new type of media we might call “curated citizen journalism.” It’s a model that relies upon the news judgment of professionals like Susan Petroni, who is an accomplished and award-winning journalst, and the contributions of concerned citizens who want to be part of the action.
Like many online journalists, Petroni left the daily newspaper grind for Patch in order to gain scheduling flexibility and spend more time with her young daughter. She posts five to seven stories on a typical weekday and a couple on Saturdays and Sundays. Like any good Metro reporter, she covers the important local government meetings and any news that would be likely to make the regional newspaper. However, most of her posts are short and few are earth-shaking.
About the Editor
One other Patch innovation that strikes us as novel and worth emulating: the “about the editor” page. Mainstream media typically sanitizes these profiles to limit them to professional accomplishments, but Susan Petroni’s page is far more personal. It includes disclosure of her religious beliefs, political affiliations and even opinions on some local hot-button issues. “We promise always…to adhere to the principles of good journalism,” the profile states. “However, we also acknowledge that true impartiality is impossible because human beings have beliefs.”
This approach is both endearing and practical. It gives the newsgathering operation a personal face while also heading off the constant bickering that takes place in newspaper comment sections over the political leanings of the editors. You may not like Susan Petroni’s politics, but at least you know what they are. And what’s wrong with that?
A typical Patch story might update residents on how long traffic will be disrupted by a sewer renovation program or tell how school bus routes are being changed. A weekly police log update tells where crime was a problem in the last week. Not Pulitzer Prize-winning stuff, but these are the stories that matter to the daily lives of the people who live nearby.
Curated Citizen Journalism
Patch encourages citizens to contribute to the effort without mixing their contributions with those of the single professional editor and assortment of freelancers who make up the core of the typical Patch site. Bloggers from the community get their own digital sandboxes, and comments are clearly distinguished from reported stories. People are free to post news reports to Facebook or the forums, but news only makes the main news feed after it’s been vetted by a pro.
Patch disclaims reports from the community, but also encourages them like crazy. There has been little problem with error or abuse, says Danielle Horn, Associate Regional Editor for Patch Metrowest Boston. The key is to know when it’s appropriate to turn over the reporting job to the citizens and when a pro needs to step in.
“If someone says the power is out on their street, then the power is probably out,” Horn says. “We haven’t run into any situations where people have posted news that is clearly incorrect. [Community newsgathering] is working out great.”
Patch has a thin staffing model, with typically one full-time editor anchoring each region. “Each editor knows his or her community like the back of their hand,” says Horn. The meat and potatoes of a Patch site is the little details that matter in residents’ everyday lives: library programs, school sports and street closings. “We want to be a resource for information that can enhance people’s daily lives,” Horn says.
We’ve developed a mild addiction to our local Patch site, and we even contributed some photos to the recent storm coverage. Why? Because we were asked. As our photos began to show up on the gallery, we found ourselves mildly intoxicated by participating in storm coverage. We were also gratified to get a thank-you note from Petroni herself. At the nearby Boston Globe, e-mails to editors generally disappear into a black hole, and phone calls are rarely returned.
Patch, which now boasts more than 850 hyperlocal sites nationwide, has been criticized for maintaining a sweatshop atmosphere and for paying its editors meager wages. In our brief conversation with Petroni (corporate policy dictated our interview request be directed to a regional editor), she said the flexible working conditions were one of the best parts of the job. Horn noted that while Patch editors are expected to produce content seven days a week, they have considerable latitude in how they do it.
The jury is still out on whether Patch will succeed, but we believe the experiment is already proving some essential new truths:
The Internet rewrites the economics of news. Our town could never support a daily newspaper, but it can pay the salary of a single editor with no overhead other than a PC and a couple of cameras. Thanks to thousands of layoffs at newspapers nationwide, quality journalists can be found who will work for modest salaries in exchange for workplace flexibility.
Hyperlocal is instinctively appealing. We long ago stopped reading our regional newspaper because so little of its coverage related to our local community. In contrast, the daily Patch e-mail is packed with news that impacts our daily lives, mundane as some of those issues may be.
Empowerment is intoxicating. Patch is drawing lines that enable the community to participate in newsgathering while keeping a firm editorial hand on the tiller. As we waited for Internet service to return following the storm, we monitored the Patch Facebook page from the local library and found it to be a more timely source of information than the statements of utility officials.
In our town, and in hundreds of towns like it, Patch is filling a gap left by the collapse of traditional media. The question is whether its business model is sustainable, and a lot of people think it isn’t. We hope AOL will stick with this venture and innovate beyond the traditional advertising-funded model. Even if the Patch business fails, it has laid a foundation upon which others can build.