Today they are standing on every corner in one town outside New York City. They are blonde, female and clearly under 25. They wear bright green T-shirts and visors that say “Patch,” and they hand out pens and stickers and leaflets by the gross. They do not live here.
“Have you read Patch?” they croon to the commuters and shoppers and mommies with strollers, many of whom stare straight ahead without stopping.
These are the New Journalists. At least they say they are.
The sites are parachuting down so fast they can’t even keep up with the list of “coming” sites on the Patch homepage; the town where we spotted the lovelies today isn’t even on the list yet, but they are advertising for writers on Craigslist.
In Southern Westchester New York, as well as in other affluent suburban areas in eight other states, Patch has let loose (what they say are) 75 young reporters, bloggers, marketers and sales people to cover an area that we do with two to four, depending on the day.
Clearview Cinemas, a New Jersey-based chain of movie theaters with outposts in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, is owned by Cablevision, a giant corporation with plenty of enemies — which makes it hard to argue that it is an “authentically local.” Still, when we at Baristanet started our Favorite Places feature, we led off with the Clairidge, a Clearview theater based in Montclair, because it is one of my favorite places on earth. Clearview categorizes nine of its theaters as art houses, and the Clairidge is one. It’s where I saw Like Water for Chocolate, Remains of the Day, Eat Drink Man Woman, Life is Beautiful, Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — to name just a few.
Montclair used to have three art house theaters. We’re down to just one, and if the Clairidge ever shuttered, it would be a huge loss.
This past weekend, I went to another Clearview movie theater, Clearview’s Caldwell Cinema 4, to see a mainstream movie, “Bridesmaids,” which happens to be a hoot. Right after the trailers, before the movie started, an employee of the theater stood up in front of the audience, introduced himself and welcomed everyone to the show. I’d seen this once before too at the Clairidge. I think it’s both simple and classy.
Both the Clairidge and the Caldwell theater sit on Bloomfield Ave., their old-fashioned marquees facing the street. You either park on the street or in municipal parking lots that you reach via alley. I know people who prefer to go to AMC’s because the screens are bigger and the sound is better. But to me, going to a storefront movie theater is the quintessential small-town experience. There aren’t that many left, and like the Clearview ones, they’re probably all owned by corporations now. I’ll say this for Cablevision: they paid money to a local entrepreneur and kept the experience pretty much the same for the customer.
So are the Clairidge and the Caldwell Cinema 4 authentically local? I’d like the term to be completely unambiguous, to refer only to locally-owned establishments. But in this case, I think the big corporation maintained an authentically-local experience and saved the local landscape. Reasonable people may disagree. But certainly it’s a better result than what befell the Franklin Theater in Nutley.
A few months back, AOL dropped a 58-page handbook on its Patch editors entitled “The AOL Way”. After some introductory remarks on how the operations of its local sites should be organized—bolstered by more arrows and flags than an NFL playbook—the document got down to brass tacks. “The AOL Way” laid out exactly what each site—or “town” in AOL local news parlance—needed to do to goose pageviews and bring in more revenues. Which was, of course, exactly the opposite of what you really would need to do to grow the business if you were an authentically local site.
Look folks, it’s pretty easy to gin up traffic to a Web site. Get a list of the keywords du jour, and write to them. Hundreds of spam farms all around the globe do that every day. There are alphabetized list of of top tags so if I wanted to, I could write a sentence like “While blogging with Justin Bieber about Bin Laden, I watched the royal wedding on my Apple iPad and the horror that is Donald Trump in election 2012”.
As I read it, the “AOL Way” would have editors generate keyword-driven content. They are supposed to start their day identifying “high-demand topics” and assign topics on them.
Trouble is, Justin Bieber doesn’t live in my town, nor, thankfully, does Donald Trump.
This doesn’t mean that MyVeronaNJ.com ignores global events. When Bin Laden was killed, we took a moment to remember the three Verona lives lost on 9/11. Since “Three Cups of Tea” is on the assigned reading list at our middle school, we wrote about the recent assertions that the book is more fiction than non-fiction. One of our high school writers (we have both high school and middle school kids writing for us), penned a story last year about what “Toy Story” meant to his generation.
When an authentically local site writes about what’s closest to the hearts of its local audience, it gets the clicks. Lots of clicks. More clicks than if its writers followed some corporate handbook.
AOL’s Patch.com, with editor in chief Arianna Huffington, is on the aggressive move: it’s right now in about 800 communities, with a goal of 1,000 by the end of 2011. Huffington wants to make the Patches a keystone in coverage of the 2012 election, and AOL is investing heavily in them, so they’ll want a significant return. Patch isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
But I don’t think Patch is the best model for local news coverage. In the interests of transparency: I’ve been editor and publisher of Altadenablog in Altadena, California since October 2007. In 2010, AOL contacted me to see if I wanted to run the Altadena Patch. I turned them down, and Altadena Patch went online in October 2010 with another local editor.
One of the reasons I turned them down is that I had a different vision of a locally-owned and focused website — we don’t even accept national advertisers. Now that we’ve been operating side-by-side for several months — and the Altadena Patch is one of the better ones — I’m more convinced than ever that local news needs to have local ownership — the cliche is “it needs to have skin in the game.” The metaphor I use is the ham and eggs breakfast: the commitment of the chicken is different than the commitment of the pig. As a resident of Altadena and someone who runs his business here — I’m the pig!
Here are four questions to ask when Patch moves into your town:
Place has always been important to me. In 1998 I wrote a column for The New York Times about a swim club called Fernwood, which held a special place in my heart. Of all the columns I wrote in my five years at the Jersey column, this is the one people mentioned most. It’s easy to take favorite places for granted. But when they’re gone, it’s like a death…
Here are the first few graphs.
NEW JERSEY; Less Than a Country Club, but Much More
By DEBRA GALANT
EVERYTHING has its season and now that the children are tucked away in school, we have finally re-entered the Season of Productivity.
Although I spent half of August yearning for this, I now see that I should have been enjoying every last drop of the Season of Idle Lounging at my favorite idle lounging spot, Fernwood Country Club in Roseland, in what may have been its final season.
I would be lying if I described Fernwood — which is as much a country club as I am a supermodel — as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But I would not be misrepresenting things if I described it as one of the wonders of my world. My husband and I have been describing it for years as feeling like a tired Catskills hotel, comfortable but down on its luck.
In fact, it was originally built as a fresh-air camp for children and mothers from Newark. It is a place of grass and trees, sagging lounge chairs and ramshackle white buildings, a place so relaxed that the tennis courts often have large cracks with weeds poking out, and buckets of patching tar spend the season watching every game from the sidelines.
It is the place where both of my children learned to swim, and where paperbacks and the papers usually go unread in favor of endless conversations. It is a place so homey that even on the first day of summer none of us feels the least bit self-conscious about the overabundance of pallid flesh.
The restaurant decorated with bright glass bottles, renowned for its French toast and its convivial atmosphere when the tables are set up for outside dining.
The dry cleaner who doesn’t need to be told that you like your shirts folded, not hung. Light starch.
The shop owner that runs down the street after you when you accidentally leave your credit card behind.
The hardware store with the sign that says, “Husbands cannot buy paint without a signed note from their wife.”
The local website that runs the picture of your missing dog – connecting you with the neighbor around the corner who found him.
Yes, you can eat at an Applebee’s or buy your paint from a Home Depot. You can buy your books on Amazon, or download them to a Kindle. You can use an iPhone app to find the closest movie. But there’s a difference between something that’s geographically convenient and something that’s authentically local.
And the difference is this: Local doesn’t scale. Local isn’t McDonald’s, even if the McDonald’s is right down the street. Local doesn’t send profits back to a home office somewhere else. Local is something that’s part of what makes where you are unique. As unique and flawed and loveable as your own kids. Something is authentically local if it’s the first thing you’d want an old friend, visiting from the other side of the world, to see. It’s authentically local if its disappearance could potentially break your heart.
Local is suddenly the newest, hippest, most lucrative frontier. The local advertising market alone is estimated to be $100 billion a year. Companies like AOL, Google, Apple and Groupon all want a piece of the action. Some of the devices they sell you are even collecting data about everywhere you go – all to help their local campaigns.
Certainly big corporations add a lot of convenience and consistency to our world. They also threaten to homogenize it. If you want home to feel different from everywhere else in the world – or if you want a world that’s interesting to explore, support what’s authentically local. Know the difference, and vive la difference!