AOL's Patch has added South Pasadena to its growing network. Sonia Narang, who's worked as an online producer for PBS Frontline and NBC News, will cover the leafy city known for its parks, virulent opposition to the 710 Freeway extension, and public schools that attract discouraged couples from Pasadena.
Indeed, Patch sites are springing up with greater frequency across the Southland, and mostly in towns with that single-family, real-estate rich, suburban feel. (You can find the list here.) Whether the Patch network ever earns a reputation for digging or watchdog reporting, it increasingly seems to me to be a stable model for a form of hometown news.
By hopscotching over cities that are too big to be covered by one person, or present challenges with low readership or lack of business (cities that deserve and need to be covered, by the way), Patch can avoid "wasting" resources. By paying a better wage than most area newspaper chains, it will earn a reputation among reporters as a step up, even if the coverage is softer and less newsy. And, most importantly, it has the ability to become the local newspaper, for lack of a better term, in cities with populations that have the time and inclination to read and talk about hometown news. Indeed, many of these places once had city papers before the chains came in to gobble them up.
The drawback - and the biggest challenge - is the mission. Single editors are being asked to do a lot with a little, including that fancy multi-platform journalism, which requires video and sound and images and words all neatly and compellingly sewn together by one person. Additionally, hometown papers often thrive because they are owned by a local with a deep investment in journalistic standards and civic life. For Patch, some editors will get it and others won't.
And as someone who started at a twice weekly in a leafy town (Claremont), I know how easy it is to beat the bigger guys and earn local respect. If AOL encourages this kind of journalism to flourish (and I have my doubts, having read some of the Patch work produced in West Hollywood, for example) this could be a useful service. If AOL sees Patch as a series of straws to siphon local ad dollars into a national bank account, it will only add to the misery visited upon local journalism by newspaper-chain gangs.
Of course, I still lament the loss of tough city reporting, whether it be South Pasadena or South Gate. Patch isn't a solution to this, but it can be something more than over-the-fence gossip and the latest senior center press release.