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AOL Gets Into Valley News

Among my summer reading was “Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends that Will Shape the News You Get” by Ken Doctor, a former editor and executive with Knight Ridder who transitioned into a media industry analyst. Every chapter of Doctor’s book is a jumping off point for a media column but the one I am addressing today is on the dwindling local news coverage in print publications and how start-up websites are stepping in as outlets for the stories not being published elsewhere. Newspaper and broadcast websites, Doctor wrote, struggle to be essential in people’s lives. The start ups, on the other hand, struggle to find the business model that works all the while growing while their print competition continues to shrink. These are sites that engage their communities, use blogging as a main channel of communication and appeal to specific niche audiences, Doctor wrote. “Newsonomics” was published before AOL introduced Patch, its network of hyper-local websites for news and information for specific communities. In the Valley there are Patch sites for Studio City, Encino, Chatsworth, North Hollywood-Toluca Lakeand Calabasas, each with a full-time editor and a team of freelance writers and reporters. Patch Media President Warren Webster wants the sites to be “the most useful on the planet.” As of Nov. 3 there were 325 sites in 13 states and the District of Columbia with the goal to have 500 by the end of the year. If Patch isn’t the future of journalism it is the future of community journalism, Webster said. “The reason we exist is to fill a real void with information and news and all the important things you need to know how to make a voting decision, how to make a buying decision, and what events are going on,” Webster said. Studio City Patch Editor Mike Szymanski said that local websites are the only journalism that is still available for reporters to work at. When he heard that Patch was coming to California, the Studio City site was the only one he was interested in having lived there when he worked for the Daily News. Prior to launching the site in September, Szymanski set out to find what residents were interested in and tailored the coverage toward those topics. So there is regular columnist writing about the environment, another on religion and charitable institutions, and a middle school teacher writing a pet column. Karen Young, former editor of the Sun Newspapers in the Valley who now puts out the My Daily Find website, was asked to write about dining and shopping. “Ultimately people care about what is going on in their backyard,” Szymanski said. As far as print goes, there are fewer places to turn to find out what goes on in your backyard. Papers go out of business, like the Sun, and others cut their staff, such as the Daily News and the Los Angeles Times. Cuts in staff leads to less news being covered and what often gets tossed to the side is the local news that has become the domain of blogs and online news sites. With Patch, AOL follows where readers are going. Having deep pockets, the sites can be sustained as the business model is worked out. Those deep pockets also mean that the editors get paid although a Patch spokesperson would not disclose the salary range. One would hope that it would be in line with the average of six years of journalism experience for site editors and nine years experience of the regional editors. Since launching, Patch has borne the brunt of criticism. There have been instances of some reporters plagiarizing from other news outlets without the proper credit that led the media company to be nicknamed “Poach.” The alternative LA Weekly has been particularly hard detailing missteps of Patch. One story quoted the operator of a hyper-local news site in the San Gabriel Valley calling the AOL project the Wal-Mart of news that would drive out the “mom-and-pop businesses.” That is news to Mel Reiter, the publisher of the Valley Voice, a monthly newspaper started four years ago covering the north central Valley. Reiter wasn’t aware of Patch when I called him and wasn’t concerned that one of the AOL sites overlapped with his coverage area. The paper’s model, he said, was so unusual that no one would be able to copy it and has proven to be successful. The Valley Voice is distributed free from 200 drop-off locations, has no sales staff and makes no contracts with its advertisers, and considers itself a true independent publication. While the stories in each issue concentrate on the north central Valley, national and international news is not ignored but get a local take. “A local paper has to be more than just pancake breakfasts and that has worked very, very well,” Reiter said. Patch Media takes the complaints seriously and has owned up when mistakes have been made of not attributing reporting done elsewhere, Webster said. The cases of taking content from other sources were few and guidelines are in place to keep plagiarism from happening, he said. “The vast majority of the content produced is original,” Webster added. When Patch gets called the Wal-Mart of news, Szymanski isn’t sure what that even means. “I’m proud of what I have done,” he said. “My patch is a mix of my identity. I cover school issues because I have kids in school. There are things that I am not interested in that I have other people cover. I am trying to hit all the bases and (make the site) a reflection of who I am.” Media Meeting Three members of different local media outlets acknowledged no one has all the answers on where their industry is headed but kicked around some ideas during a panel at the VICA Business Forecast Conference on Oct. 28. Participating in the panel were Los Angeles Daily News publisher Jack Klunder; Mark Lacter, editor of the L.A. Biz Observed blog and the former editor of the Los Angeles Business Journal; Cameron Death, senior vice president and general manager of Digital Studio-NBC Universal, and Kevin James, talk show host at KRLA radio, who moderated. Klunder, whose paper has been hard hit in recent years as have most daily newspapers, said that advertising is “showing signs of life right now.” He vowed that there would be no more job cuts in the Daily News newsroom – that he had cut as far as he could in that department. Staff Reporter Mark Madler can be reached at (818) 316-3126 or by e-mail at mmadler@sfvbj.com. Business Journal Editor Jason Schaff contributed to the “Media Meeting” item in this column.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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