Warren St. John: March 13 at SXSW
Scheduled March 8–16 in Austin, SXSWeek brings together hundreds of top industry experts from across the United States and around the world. Stay tuned to this space over the next few days as we interview and highlight some of the most interesting speakers on the 2019 schedule.
Today we connect with Warren St. John (pictured above), who will speak about “Reviving Patch: How Technology Can Save Local News” on Wednesday, March 13 at 3:30 pm in Salon D at the JW Marriott Hotel.
St. John is the CEO of Patch. Before gaining this title in 2016, he rebuilt the news operation of post-turnaround Patch as editor-in-chief. Warren was a reporter at The New York Times for seven years, has written two best-sellers — “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Journey into the Heart of Fan Mania” and “Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team that Changed a Town.”
Patch has gotten a lot of press recently, with some pretty strong coverage in places like Recode as well as AdAge. For people who aren’t familiar with these write-ups, can you give us a quick overview of your company’s approach to journalism.
Patch is a hyperlocal news platform powered by 150 people — including 110 amazing reporters and an innovative product and Dev team with a mission of creating a sustainable model for local news and information. Our goal is to give our users everything important about their communities in one place. That means we need to be agnostic about the sources of information, so long as we know we can trust them. So our content model is a layer cake: we make it easy for local users to post news and events. We partner with other publishers, including nonprofits like ProPublica and CalMatters, to help distribute local news produced by other quality sources. We curate news from trusted sources on social media, like the local public library or school district. We use AI to generate articles on more commoditized local subjects like weather and real estate. And we have team of amazing local reporters and editors, including alumni from places like the Boston Globe, the Des Moines Register and the Baltimore Sun, to do our own original reporting. We’re all believers in the power of local news and information to bring communities together and make them stronger. It sounds a bit earnest maybe, but we see it happen every day.
How long have you been at Patch? Where were you previously employed?
I’ve been at Patch for 5 years, since we spun the company out of Aol. Before that I was at The New York Times for seven years as a reporter; I wrote a two books for Random House. And I was at Wired, the New Yorker as a contractor and the pre-Kushner New York Observer.
Is Patch really a one-man show? And if so, are you that one man?
The opposite — the CEO is the least important person at Patch. We actually bake that into our culture — one of our leadership standards is replacing oneself and building a team that doesn’t need you. The animating force at Patch is our mission and our commitment to covering our communities, which we know requires both great local reporting by our editors and constant innovation on the business model and platform by our product and engineering teams. It’s a 150-person effort and when it comes to life every morning, it’s a miraculous thing to see and be around.
What is a typical work day like for you?
I start the day with a quick scan of all our real-time dashes, to make sure the pipes are flowing and nothing’s broken. That’s a habit I developed when I ran the editorial team. The rest of my days are typically 1-on-1s with executives, planning and recruiting talent. We have amazing leadership on the editorial team — Dennis Robaugh, our editor-in-chief, runs the show — and our coverage is really shaped at the local level. So there’s less for HQ to do there than at than one might think. So I spend the rest of my time mostly working with Product and supporting and serving the various department heads to help them meet their goals and grow their careers.
The AI element of Patch has certainly gained a lot of attention (because everything AI gains a lot of attention). Tell us more about that.
We’re using AI to produce content around weather, events and real estate. The idea is to free up our editors from busy work so they can do more valuable and fulfilling local reporting, while still making sure that local users get basic information about what’s happening around them. We’re a long way from robots covering zoning board meetings, but if a robot can free up our reporters to cover more zoning board meetings, that’s a win for our communities, for Patch and for our partners.
What are your hopes for Patch in the coming year?
Two things. The first is to continue our effort to shift our business model from a display-based publisher model to something that more resembles a platform, through our growing self-serve advertising offering, distribution of partner content and more opportunities for local users to post news and events relevant to their communities. The second is to continue to improve our core news product. We’re still stretched too thin in many of our key coverage areas despite having nearly doubled our newsroom in the last two and a half years. We realigning our editorial staff, hiring in key areas and we’re also making it much easier for other local and hyperlocal news partners to reach our audience on Patch.
From your perspective, what does the future of journalism look like? Do consumers want giant companies giving them their daily agenda? Or, is there still a strong demand for hyper-local news?
There’s huge demand for local and hyperlocal news and information. We see that in engagement on our emails and push notifications, which have a roughly 30 percent open rate network-wide. All the large platforms we work with see and understand the interest in and value of local information. We also set a traffic record in January and we’ve been continuing to grow both our app usage and our email lists, almost all of it organically. So the demand is there. It’s a basic human need to understand what’s happening in one’s immediate vicinity. I don’t think that will ever change. The challenge is the business model. I think smaller publishers are going to have to depend on subscriptions or memberships, which can work with a high-quality niche product that a user can’t get anywhere else. We have an opportunity to scale, so we’ve left our content free and instead are trying to take a page from the playbook of the platforms that slurped so much revenue from local news — Craigslist, Facebook and Google — by building audience and monetizing that audience through self-serve ads and a diversified offering for everyone from small businesses to national brands and platforms. That’s a unique opportunity available to a Patch or a Nextdoor that might be hard to replicate for publishers more constricted by geography. Whatever approach you take, you have to find a way to monetize visits at a level well-above the old model of a few pennies per page view. But if you can figure that out, there’s a big opportunity.
You’ve got a couple of books under your belt already. Do you have plans to write another? If so, what is the topic.
I was working on a third book for Penguin Random House when I came to Patch — it’s on ice right now. I’d like someday to write about everything we’ve learned at Patch. One theme would be that being a reporter can actually be helpful training for business. Reporters are routinely tossed into new environments, with new characters, new rules, new undiscovered truths. You have to learn your way out of a jam repeatedly and then come out of it with a narrative that’s intelligible to a broad audience. You learn how to police your assumptions, how to ask for help, how to stay inquisitive. You learn how to learn and how to communicate what you’ve learned. I’m hopeful about the future of local news because I see so many young people with that kind of background and training going into coding and product and analytics for digital news. The generation that will figure all of this out is really just getting started. It’s a very exciting time.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often cover tech-related trends; other times they focus on books, pop culture, sports and other current events.