Sunday, February 20, 2011

OconeePatch Bringing New Competition to Oconee County Media Scene

Users Invited to Join Effort

Three big stories dominated news in Oconee County on Friday, giving the four media organizations active in the county the opportunity to showcase their resources and approaches to news coverage.

The Oconee County school system announced on Friday that a North Oconee County High School student had died the day before.

Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry held a press conference to explain circumstances surrounding the death of a man who had been shot but not killed by a deputy on Thursday.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Agricultural Research Service confirmed that funding for the J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center in Oconee County is not included in President Barack Obama's 2012 budget.

The Athens Banner-Herald by the end of the business day on Friday had the story on Berry’s afternoon press conference on its web site, as did The Oconee Leader.

The Oconee Enterprise had the story of the press conference and the story of the death of the high school student on its web site by the business end of the day.

OconeePatch had all three, and it was the only one of the four to have video of Berry’s press conference.

OconeePatch followed up that strong day on Friday with a story very early this morning about a fire last evening in a business complex on Jennings Mill Road. The story had seven pictures from the scene.

As I post this, none of the other media has written on its web site about the fire.

Though the story about the death of a high school student certainly is important, the closing of the Campbell research center, if it happens, could have the biggest impact on Oconee County.

The large tracts of USDA farmland on Hog Mountain Road at Daniells Bridge Road and across from the Civic Center currently are surrounded by commercial and residential development, making the land valuable for and a likely candidate for nonagriculture use.

The OconeePatch story hardly scratched the surface of the story, relying on a spokeperson simply to confirm that funding isn’t in the proposed budget.

What is informative is how OconeePatch got the story.

I tipped the editor about it on Wednesday.

And that illustrates what really distinguishes OconeePatch from the other media sites.

It is a product of a small professional staff and of the community.

AOL, a national internet services company, launched the Oconee news and information site on Dec. 22. The company launched sites in Barrow County, Lawrenceville and Dacula within days of the Oconee launch.

A site for Athens is being built, according to Perry Parks, a regional editor for Patch responsible for Northeast Georgia. That site will go live in a month, he said on Feb. 7.

Parks was meeting that morning at my invitation with students in a basic newswriting and report class I teach at the University of Georgia.

The national media were reporting that morning that AOL had announced that it was buying the online site, The Huffington Post, as part of its expansion into online media content.

Patch, being rolled out around the country, also is part of the strategy.

Nearly 800 sites are active, Parks said, and most have been launched within the last fiscal quarter.

A Patch site allows users to upload comments about almost anything, to upload pictures that relate to stories, to provide announcements and certain kinds of advertisements without cost, and to become regular contributors.

In order to comment, users have to subscribe to the site, but that is free. A subscription produces a “push” message from the site each day to the subscriber’s email box summarizing what is on the site.

A lot of what is on the OconeePatch site is very light, and it is quite conversational, in the style of Facebook and other social media.

Since its launch, OconeePatch also has written periodic summaries of what appears on local blogs, including on Oconee County Observations. Of course, I like that feature, as it helps me reach additional readers for what I write.

The backbone of the Patch system is a local directory that is designed to be a comprehensive listing of businesses and organizations in the service area, much like the traditional telephone book, but with pictures and additional information.

A basic listing is free, but a business can pay for an upgraded listing.

The Oconee site currently does not have any advertisements, but it is designed to contain them in the future.

At present, the site is being funded entirely as an investment by AOL. The depth of AOL’s pockets is the big unknown.

OconeePatch has no offices, no printing expenses, no mailing or physical delivery costs, and a software backbone operated and maintained by AOL.

So costs are relatively low.

“We’re building a business here,” Tim Windsor, editorial director of the South Region, based in Baltimore and responsible for Patch in Georgia, said when I talked with him by telephone on Feb. 4.

The goal now is to get an audience to the site.

“The expectation is that in order to sell an audience (to advertisers) you have to have an audience,” he said.

Windsor said Patch is happy with the rollout of the sites generally and with the rollout of OconeePatch specifically.

Since its launch, OconeePatch has had some rough spots.

The first editor, Jane Lee, lasted only into the new year. After a trial period, Stephanie Gross took over as editor.

She is the only full-time employee, though she does have a budget for correspondents. She works out of her home, currently in Clarke County, though, she told me earlier this month, she plans to move to Oconee shortly.

OconeePatch lagged far behind both the Enterprise and the Banner-Herald in coverage of Feb. 4 announcement by the Georgia Department of Banking and Finance that it was closing North Georgia Bank and turning it over to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation as receiver.

The FDIC put out a news release about 6:15, and the Enterprise and the Banner-Herald had the story on their web sites shortly after that.

At 8:17, former Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Wendell Dawson put a note on Oconee Patch in the comment section about the closing. Dawson had the story on his web, Another Voice from Oconee County, shortly before that.

It wasn’t until about 11 p.m. that OconeePatch had a story of its own, and then it was a rewrite of media reports from other sites. Parks, who wrote the story, was clear about his dependence on Dawson and on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the story.

“Traditional media tends to have this sort of pushing back policy against other media providers, other information providers,” Parks said in my class on Feb. 7.

“We feel like it’s ok for us to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. We don’t know everything,” he said.

“Part of the whole idea of the digital atmosphere is that information flows so quickly and changes so rapidly that the very idea that you can be like the single source of intelligent information about a community is sort of antiquated,” he added.

I uploaded a picture to OconeePatch with the new BankSouth welcome sign the day after North Georgia Bank closed and becames a BankSouth branch.

I also put a link in the comment section of Patch on Feb. 6 to a story I had written on the closing and its implications for the county.

On Feb. 7 Patch followed with a report by two professional writers that expanded on some of the implications of the closing and linked to my blog report on the closing.

Neither Windsor nor Parks said they were authorized to provide information on traffic on the OconeePatch site.

Yao Carr, a sales representative handing the OconeePatch site, did give me information when I asked him about placing advertisements on the site for the Oconee Farmers Market.

I am a member of the Board of Directors for the market and am helping develop an advertising campaign for the upcoming selling season.

OconeePatch had attracted 2,600 unique visitors during the 30-day period ending Feb. 14, Carr told me. Time on site is averaging about 11 minutes, he said.

Carr said the growth rate has been strong and beyond expectation, which is consistent with what Windsor said as well.

The two local weeklies, at least, seem to be paying attention, as the coverage of Friday’s stories indicates.

By comparison, on Feb. 5, the day after the closing of North Georgia Bank, the Leader’s web site had as its top news story the announcement that Oconee County schools would be closed because of snow–on Jan. 13.

It didn’t have anything on the site about North Georgia Bank closing.