Redefining hard work
The community-news gossip circuit lit up two weeks ago, when Phoenix contributor and Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy posted an anonymous letter from a Patch editor on his Media Nation blog. "What is becoming distressing is this sense that I can't get a break," wrote the complainant, who also grieved that her non-journalistic management duties were often staggering. "I've worked in journalism for more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter, online editor, magazine editor, and I've never worked so much in my life."
Such concerns were not unprecedented. In April, the Los Angeles Times profiled a 35-year-old Patch editor in tony Manhattan Beach, California, who works 70-hour weeks, and looks like it.
Reactions to the critical letter to Media Nation were mixed. One Massachusetts Patch editor came down in the middle: "We're doing something really big really fast," he told the Phoenix anonymously, in between assignments. "It's not a good fit if you have kids or anything like that, but it depends on the kind of person you are. I've heard some people complain that there's not enough support, but I've found that there are people higher up if you need them. Still, you have to be really independent."
The major difference between Patch and its competitors, Your Town and Wicked Local, is that the latter two have old-media backbones. Boston Globe stories that are relevant to Needham, for example, would appear on that suburb's Your Town site; the same goes for stories from a CNC print publication that could be featured on one or more appropriate Wicked Local pages.
For reporters trying to get a foothold in unfamiliar territories, those affiliations and support structures can be vital.
"My editors have always been understanding of the fact that there's not always news in every community every day," says Your Town reporter Molly Connors, who covers three South Shore communities. "My experience has been a positive one . . . even with as much as I've had to cover, my editors still gave me time and opportunities to do some longer stories and enterprise reporting."
Time will reveal what effect the saturation in community news will have on civic life. In some municipalities, including Danvers, Wakefield, and Needham, there can sometimes be up to five Fourth Estate representatives — from Patch, Your Town, Wicked Local, the local independent paper, and in some cases the Herald.
In certain towns, sources told the Phoenix, officials accustomed to talking to a single reporter a few times a week are now inundated with media inquiries.
Profitable — or not?
With that said, critics contend that the hyper-local movement has little to do with news — and everything to do with the bottom line.
Wolff is especially wary of the economic potential in costly hyper-local Web bureaus: "It's really hard to figure out a model in which you can fund journalism in small markets," he says. "I've done the math, and if you have a local market of even 25,000 people I don't see how you can make money unless you essentially pay [reporters and editors] nothing."