Is micro-news the future?

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  August 20, 2010

A three-way battle
The fierce competition between Patch, Your Town and Wicked Local is just the latest dogfight in a long-gestating turf war that boiled over in late 2008, when Wicked Local's parent company sued the Globe for copying its content on boston.com's Your Town portals. The two parties settled in January 2009, establishing strict parameters for how boston.com could feature Wicked Local links and content. Almost as if a starter pistol popped, the race to provide extensive hyper-local coverage took off, and within a year, the rivals would have beat reporters in more than 30 common markets.

CNC has deep roots in small-town Massachusetts, with more than 100 daily and weekly publications — including regional anchors in Framingham (the MetroWest Daily News) and Quincy (the Patriot Ledger) — to feed its Wicked Local sites. Of the places where Wicked Local and Your Town compete directly, CNC owns a newspaper in all but one, while in some cases Your Town has been providing in-depth coverage there for less than a year. Globe Regional Editor David Dahl says his organization is confident that its reputation and wide suburban footprint, long-established by weekly regional supplements, makes it a player.

Still, for good measure, his company hired the majority of Your Town reporters away from CNC; there are currently Wicked Local alumni working Globe beats in Needham, Belmont, Beverly, Framingham, Cambridge, and Danvers, among other places.

Patch shook things up further. Founded by AOL CEO Tim Armstrong during his tenure at Google, the operation was acquired by AOL in June 2009 for $7 million and quickly made a top priority.

Currently operating in Virginia, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia, as of this month Patch has 100 working and interconnected sites nationwide, all geared for super-specific locales. By the end of 2010, AOL expects to have 500 Patch sites in 20 states.

Each Patch local editor, or LE, is assigned a single location to cover. LEs must write, report, edit, shoot video, snap pictures, tweet, dispatch freelancers, and manage a budget.

Despite the heap of required duties, former GateHouse employees told the Phoenix that it was probably a no-brainer for five reporters so far to leave CNC for Patch — leading some in the news scene to nickname it "Poach." (CNC did not respond to Phoenix inquiries.)

It might not seem like much to those not in the janitorial or journalism fields, but AOL's $38,000 to $45,000 salaries are significant, and in some cases more than twice the compensation paid at GateHouse weeklies. And if that wasn't enough, GateHouse expats say a breaking point came this past March, when an annual report revealed that company executives pocketed more than $1 million in annual bonuses despite losing more than $530 million in 2009. Of course, those desertions just mean more opportunities at GateHouse for other young journalists.

"It's never been as terrible for entry-level reporters as people may have thought it was," says Boston University journalism professor Fred Bayles. BU's State House program, which Bayles oversees (and of which I am a product), has fed several graduates to the Globe and CNC. "We always had some students who were hired, but now we can't make them fast enough — there's more opportunity for somebody graduating J-school now than when I did in 1972."

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