Trying to Patch the sinking news lifeboat

Soccer is the game of the future, its deriders have long said, and always will be. After the latest news that Patch, the pet project of AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, has laid off two-thirds of its remaining staff, you have to wonder if hyperlocal news sites are becoming the European football of journalism.

About two weeks ago, AOL turned over its majority stake in Patch to Hale Global, a technology investment firm specializing in turning around troubled assets. In Patch, it has its work cut out for it, as the reporting and aggregating sites have lost up to $300 million since Armstrong launched them in 2007 when he was at Google.

The ax fell on hundreds of staffers in a cold conference call by Patch COO Leigh Zarelli Lewis, whose blunt, matter-of-fact, mass-firing contrasts with the hyperlocal focus the company tried to build its foundation on. Unsurprisingly, one of the enterprising (now-unemployed) journalists on the conference call recorded it and handed it over to media blogger Jim Romenesko.

“Hi everyone, it’s Leigh Zarelli Lewis. Patch is being restructured in connection with the creation of the joint venture with Hale Global. Hale Global has decided which Patch employees will receive an offer of employment to move forward in accordance with their vision for Patch and which will not. Unfortunately, your role has been eliminated and you will no longer have a role at Patch and today will be your last day of employment with the company. …Thank you again and best of luck.

Romenesko says as many as two-thirds of the staffers at the 900 sites in 23 states were laid off, while Fox Business says just 100 staffers – reporters, editors, and advertising reps – remain to populate and sell space on the sites. Patch officials say all the sites will remain active but it’s hard to imagine they’ll be more than zombie sites, aggregating local feeds and offering bloggers a place to write. In Massachusetts, one of Patch’s prime regions, there are at least 82 sites. But who remains where is anybody’s guess.

Patch’s problems are not surprising to anyone who has watched. Back in August, AOL laid off nearly half of the 1,100 Patch staffers and the constant hemorrhaging of money nearly cost Armstrong his job. Not only is Patch competing with hyperlocal sites that are truly boots-on-the-ground in their communities, it is butting heads with legacy media that are also trying to leverage their news-gathering organizations and lay claim to their surrounding regions.

When GateHouse Media was formed about six years ago, it bought up more than 500 existing daily and weekly newspapers around the country, including such venerable institutions as the 175-year-old Patriot Ledger in Quincy and the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln awaited word of who would be the Republican presidential nominee in 1860. But while those outlets gave the company instant access and instant credibility, the idea was to turn those assets into hyperlocal sites, which they dubbed Wicked Local. But, given the recent sale and bankruptcy of GateHouse, they, too, have yet to figure out a way to monetize their sites.

The Boston Globe also da bbled in hyperlocal content, launching the Your Town sites on boston.com . But the sites are mostly aggregators and bloggers, failing so far to live up to the hope and promise of their launch.

It’s a vexing problem, how to make a living off providing news, especially at the local level. Local media critic and Northeastern University professor Dan Kennedy examined new age journalism in his book “Wired City,” focusing mainly on the New Haven Independent. But Kennedy also spotlighted some other seemingly successful ventures at the local and national level.

And there clearly are success stories. Here in Massachusetts, Universal Hub and The Dig have been able to find their niches. Perhaps that’s the lesson for megaplayers such as Patch and GateHouse. All news is local. The operators should be as well.

–JACK SULLIVAN    

BEACON HILL

House Speaker Robert DeLeo promises “fiscal discipline,” effectively ruling out the new taxes and fees proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick, State House News reports.

The state Department of Revenue wants more taxpayers to pay the “use tax,” a tax on purchases made out-of-state if the company selling the item doesn’t collect the levy, CommonWealth reports.

Joan Vennochi pulls back a bit of the Teflon coating that seems to insulate Gov. Deval Patrick from taking heat over a string of screw-ups by his administration.

Greater Boston compares Patrick’s State of the State address to governors in neighboring states using a word cloud.

Charles Chieppo blames stagnating and falling student test scores on a decision by Patrick to scrap an independent school district oversight board that, Chieppo argues, “told inconvenient truths to an education establishment that has been among the governor’s largest campaign contributors.”

Jailed Rep. Carlos Henriquez is reading up on the state budget from behind bars.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Removed as part of a purge by Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, the city’s comptroller asks the City Council to reinstate him, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is restructuring his cabinet to have only 17 members, NECN reports.

The Quincy Housing Authority has agreed to pay a tenant $11,000 after she filed a suit against the agency for failing to make needed repairs that left her without heat or smoke detectors for extended periods of time because of water leaks.

The Brockton Police Supervisors Union filed suit to block new Mayor William Carpenter’s appointment of 71-year-old Robert Hayden as interim chief. The suit claims the appointment is illegal because the one-time Boston police supervisor and Lawrence chief is past the mandatory age of retirement of 65.

Margery Eagan compares the racy modeling photos that got a 23-year old Fitchburg teacher’s aide suspended to the nude Cosmopolitanspread that Scott Brown shot while putting himself through law school.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee talks with Timeabout income equality and how it is dividing the city.

ELECTIONS

Increasingly restive New Hampshire Republicans say Scott Brown should decide whether he’s running for US Senate there or not.

African American Democratic activists complain that many of the gubernatorial candidates are not hiring minority campaign staff members.

GAMBLING

Gambling mogul Steve Wynn is pushing for a cut in the state tax on gambling revenue to match the deal the state is offering the Wampanoags. On another front, the Gambling Commission is supporting the push by Wynn and others for elimination of a controversial policy on tax withholding contained in the law, a controversy first reported by CommonWealth.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

A new report ranks Massachusetts 29th in the country on transparency in disclosing the details of business tax credits and other economic subsidies, Governing reports. Film tax credits like the one Massachusetts offers have caused a diaspora among film industry workers, who are abandoning Los Angeles rather than commute to far-flung film sets.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh tells biotech honchos that he wants to help their industry grow in the region, not just in Boston.

Developer John Rosenthal says a $7.8 million tax break he’s seeking from the city is the do-or-die issue for his $500 million project that will partially straddle the Mass. Pike near Fenway Park. A year ago, CommonWealth profiled Rosenthal, a prominent gun control activist, and his Fenway project.

Facebook’s stock surges after the company reports $2.59 billion in revenue in the fourth quarter, Time reports.

Google leaps out of the mobile phone market nearly as quickly as it jumped in.

EDUCATION

State officials named three education nonprofits to take over failing district public schools in Boston and Holyoke. One of the nonprofits, Unlocking Potential, was featured in a recent CommonWealth story on a Boston turnaround school.

A Dorchester man says a Milton Catholic school rescinded its job offer to run the Fontbonne Academy’s food service operation when it learned he has a husband.

State Auditor Suzanne Bump has approved a proposal to privatize the UMass Dartmouth bookstore over objections of the school’s professional staff union.

HEALTH CARE

Dr. Paula Johnson, who runs the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is trying to convince the nation’s medical and research establishments that men and women really are different, CommonWealth reports.

Scientists say they have discovered a way to make stem cells relatively easily, NPR reports.

Nurses at Greenfield’s Baystate Franklin Medical Center strike for one day in a pay dispute.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

The state has granted the owner of the infamous “Mt. Trashmore” in Fall River a permit to build a solid waste transfer station and close the behemoth landfill, leaving the city without a facility to dump its waste.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

About 12 people protested a report by Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett clearing police for using deadly force against Denis Reynoso of Lynn, the Item reports. The protesters questioned why no evidence besides police testimony could be found indicating Reynoso fired an officer’s weapon. They also asked why police entered Reynoso’s home and why witnesses mentioned in the report were not identified. CommonWealth wrote about Blodgett’s report and police use of deadly force in general.

Boston Police Commissioner William Evans meets with about 25 members of the clergy to discuss ways to stem gun violence, the Associated Press reports.

A Wayland man was placed on three years probation after he pled guilty to vehicular homicide when he hit a state trooper while driving drunk in 2003. Trooper Ellen Englehard was in a coma from the accident before dying in 2011, triggering the homicide charge.   

MEDIA

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

Time Inc. will cut nearly 500 employees, the New York Post reports.

Washington Post editor Marty Baron sends staffers a letter outlining lots of new hires, mostly for the newspaper’s website.