In the forthcoming AJR, Barb Palser argues that journalists should “give Patch a chance.” After all, she says, they’re hiring reporters and making a good effort at doing hyperlocal news.
For all the debate about the work environment and expectations (see the the Business Insider and the Chicago Reader), at least they’re not just ripping off teasers from local newspapers and using that to sell directory listings, classifieds, deals, online display ads and whatever other revenue streams they can conjure. So kudos to them for that.
But I don’t envy them their business challenge.
Several people have weighed in with skeptical looks at the business model. (See this quick list of published critiques.) For the most part, these are prospective estimates, developed before there was much of a track record to evaluate.
Now, with some of Patch’s early sites entering toddlerhood, we’re starting to get a better sense of the business realities behind hyperlocal publishing Patch-style.
And it’s daunting.
Slim pickings on traffic
Compete.com gives an approximation of the traffic coming to various Patch sites. Compete is not perfect, as anyone with access to detailed site logs will know, but it’s a reasonable enough outside view, and at least it gives us a little more to chew on in trying to deconstruct the Patch business model. So far, according to Compete, Patch sites don’t seem to be generating anywhere near enough traffic to sustain any substantive, dedicated editorial effort — even the more established sites.
Last month, according to Compete, the top Patch subdomain attracted fewer than 32,000 unique users. The next subdomain on the list had just over 13,000 users.
Interestingly, that top Patch subdomain was for Ashburn, Va., a site that just launched in October. (As a point of reference, the town has a population of about 88,000.)
The second site on the Compete list, for the far smaller town of Maplewood, NJ. (around 24,000 population), has been around for more than a year. It had its best month of the year in October, when it topped 13,000 users, but mostly it has bounced around between about 2,000 and 10,000 UUs for the last 12 months.
I don’t have the high-dollar Compete membership, so I don’t know how many page views any of that translates into. But Patch overall gets about two visits per user per month, and if you grant them five PVs/visit, you can estimate the October PV volume at about 320,000 for Ashburn and about 130,000 for Maplewood.
It’s pretty tough to develop a business plan that supports ad sales, ad and web production and editorial on top of 320K PVs/month, let alone on 130K PVs/month.
But let’s try.
The costs are relatively easy to estimate. Patch is apparently paying around $40,000 for reporters, and they have committed to hiring dedicated editorial staffer for each community, with editors overseeing clusters of Patch sites. (See Ken Doctor’s description of the structure.) They’re also paying for freelance contributions, at least initially. With benefits and the rest, you’re looking at $55,000 or $60,000 per site for editorial, ignoring the editorial structure at the cluster level and the freelance budget.
On the ad side, the basic structure as described by Ken Doctor suggests between one and two salesreps per town at final build-out. If they pay their local salesreps no more than their editorial staff, they’d be burning through another $55,000 to $120,000 on local ad sales alone. Call it $80,000 on average for local ad sales, and you’re up to about $140,000 for ad sales and editorial alone.
Then you’ve got production and technology and corporate overhead. That certainly will be centralized. Leaving site development aside as a sunk cost, let’s lowball all of this at $20,000 a year. And let’s assume the operations are entirely virtual, with no local storefront presence.
So we’re looking at a nut of about $160,000 a year per site.
A rough look at revenue
On the revenue side, we can try to build up an estimate by looking at each of the potential revenue streams, such as display ads, marketplaces, directory products, Groupon-like deals and so on.
But first, let me propose a very crude rule of thumb approach that works reasonably well for modestly sized news sites. My experience has been that a very well-run news operation would be happy to get, on an annual basis from all web-related revenue sources, about 40 cents for every monthly PV. So a site with 5 million monthly PVs could gross $2 million annually. A site with 1 million monthly PVs might get about $400,000. More typically, I’d suggest the number is closer to 20 or 30 cents per monthly PV.
But maybe Patch, with all of the accumulated wisdom of AOL and its serious technology and sales chops, will do much better than 20 or even 40 cents per thousand monthly PVs. They’re certainly in a much-better position to get national ads. Maybe they’ll get 50 cents.
For Maplewood, that suggests annual revenue of about $65,000 at the 130,000 PV level. You’re certainly not going to be able to afford a dedicated salesrep and dedicated editorial staff on that kind of a revenue base. And remember, that’s their second-best site, and it has been up for more than a year.
For Ashburn, at 50 cents/K PVs, you’d be earning $160,000. Not bad — they could be breaking even.
But that 50 cents per thousand PVs a month is a tough bar to hit. It depends on flawless local sales execution, great national ad sales support and significant penetration through self-service windows. Certainly, as is clear from even a cursory view of their sites, they’re nowhere near that now.
So what happens if they hit more typical revenue levels? What kind of traffic do they need to support the sites?
Given a more realistic but still generous estimate of 40 cents per thousand monthly page views, the break-even rises to 400,000 PVs. At 30 cents per thousand monthly page views, they’ve got to hit more than 530,000. If they get “just” 25 cents per thousand — a level many community news publishers would be thrilled to reach — they’d need 640,000 PVs/month.
I’ll give them some credit for executional skill. Even though we’ve probably low-balled the expenses, this crude approach suggests the Patch model is doable at about 500,000 PVs a month, but it depends on really good sales execution and a very tight rein on expenses.
A build-up view of revenue
I also tried building revenue up more atomically, estimating the potential from online display sales and other sources. That process is a whole ‘nother thesis in itself. I won’t go into the grinding details, but here’s an overview.
Assume the revenue pillars for sites like this are online display ads (including video, standard IAB units and so on), marketplaces (classifieds and related verticals) and directories (including coupons micro sites and Groupon-like deal programs). There are lots of ancillary revenue possibilities (archives, photos, events, auctions, mobile apps, what have you), but it’s probably safe to assume the Patch sites need to cover their costs with the tried-and-true revenue pillars. That said:
- The potential for online display revenue is easy enough to estimate; make your own guesses based on average sell rate, spots per page and average CPM. With my most generous estimates, I see a chance to cover about half the $160,000 nut through display sales at a site with 500,000 PVs.
- The potential for marketplace revenue is also pretty easy to estimate — it’s basically nil. With craigslist, ebay, job sites, car sites and real estate sites killing long-established newspaper marketplace franchises, the odds of a new player gaining a toehold here are tiny. And a look at Patch sites today shows minuscule use of their marketplaces I checked out the four sites with the most traffic that had been open for a year and counted 14, four, six and six classifieds.
- The key to Patch’s success, then, seems to be in their business directories and in their ability to extend revenue from their directory infrastructure through deal programs, business micro sites and blogs, niche interest sites and whatever else they can cook up. And the directories are pretty darn impressive, with tons of photos, nice layout and good execution on all the things you’d expect. (Check out techcrunch for more on their plans here.)
So can they get $75,000 or $100,000 a year out of local businesses? Maybe. Certainly other small-market online publishers have. Selling directory listings is a tough job, though, with lots of competition. If they can get close to $100 a month or $1,000 a year from each advertiser, the price goal cited by techcrunch, they only need to sell 75 or so to hit the nut. But if they get more like $25 a month, then they have to sell closer to 400 businesses on the listings. In a town like Maplewood, that has to be a pretty high percentage of the potential advertisers.
Ultimately, their ability to sell deals and directories and all the rest (or at least to retain the advertisers they do get) will depend on whether they can deliver real value to advertisers. And that depends at least in part on simple volume. At 500,000 PVs per month, or even a million, precious few trickle down to the listing for any individual business.
Climbing the mountain
Now maybe 500,000 or a million PVs per month doesn’t sound like much to an AOL exec based in New York. And maybe there are lots of underserved towns and suburbs with desirable demographics and commercial centers, all of them just waiting to flock to Patch.
But 500,000 PVs is 12,500 loyal users coming to the site twice a week and looking at five pages each time, for a total of 40 pages a month.
Certainly, Patch sites today don’t seem to be generating that kind of reader engagement. Check out the Compete charts for Maplewood, Ridgewood, Darien and Garden City — all of which have been open for more than a year. They’re all growing decently, but outside of Garden City, which had a spike mid-way through the year, the charts don’t show them on a path to hit 500,000 PVs any time soon. Most importantly, as I noted above, the top-level Patch stats show an average of only two visits per user.
To develop deep reader engagement, with all of the competition and alternatives out their in the real and virtual worlds, you’d better have some useful and lively content resources. No one editorial person, short of Clark Kent, could do that. The only hope is that community members will step up and make the site their own, turning to it as the focal point for community dialogue.
And maybe that will happen, at least in some Patch communities. The sites aren’t bad, and they’ll get better. I wish them luck with that. But how many of Patch’s now-planned 500 sites will strike gold like that? And can they carry the rest?
I can’t help think that when long-established media companies with deep roots and journalistic expertise struggle to develop the traffic and the revenue models that support meaningful journalism online, maybe it isn’t so easy for a tech company to waltz in, hire a tiny editorial staff, stuff a community site with reader comments and rake in the dough.