Patch faces to huge obstacles on its path to profitability: The first is expenses; the second is revenue.
Expenses: Tim Armstrong is absolutely right that a great deal of the expense of a print publication can be wrung out of local news coverage. Not only do you get rid of industrial age presses and trucks along with paper and ink, it also takes a lot less staff — because of the efficiencies of online publishing — to cover a community.
Reportedly, AOL is spending $160 million a year on Patch. That’s a lot of money, and I don’t just mean because that’s more money than a lot of us will ever see in a lifetime. I mean, it’s a lot of money because the Patch content model shouldn’t be that expensive. That means Patch is spending about $190,000 per each of its reportedly 864 sites.
In the one-reporter-per-community model, expenses should be $140,000 or less per site. (I’m also including in that some expense for sales and support.)
Of course, Patch isn’t spending $190,000 per site. It’s spending less than that, and the remainder of its $160 million annual expenditure is going to overhead. Some of that is legitimate, such as infrastructure, programmers and technical support. By legitimate, I mean, there is some level of expense on technology for every local news site.
But some of that money is part of the unsustainable expense of running a large chain news organization. For Patch, it’s regional editors, regional sales managers, supervisors for the regions, executives over them, HR departments and legal and regulatory departments (necessary for a publicly traded company).
These are all expenses that the local independent site doesn’t face and raises the bar much higher for Patch overall to become profitable.
It’s a major factor of expense that advocates of “scale” in local news often overlook. News isn’t a widget. It isn’t a washing machine or box of software. It isn’t an industrial product. In industry, scale is vital because the largest part of the expense of making the product is just turning the machine on. In news, each new piece of product (a news story, say) costs essentially the same amount of money as the previous piece of product. There is no expense savings in producing more product, there is only more expense.
The same analogy applies to each individual news org you create (each of the 864 Patch sites). In trying to scale a national news organization, you’re not saving money by scale. You’re scaling up your expenses, both in local staff and then in the national and regional staff (as pointed out above) to run the company.
Expense is the Catch-22 of trying to scale local news.
This expense was masked in the newspaper industry because every newspaper that is now part of a national chain was a HUGELY profitable, family owned newspaper at the time it was absorbed into a chain. That profit helped feed the beast of corporate overhead, thereby masking the real expense of creating the chain.
In fact, the problem for newspapers today isn’t so much that individual newspapers lose money; it’s the fact they’re still saddled with the expense of being chain owned.
Revenue: According to Ken Doctor, Patch executives claim 1/4 of its 864 sites is making at least $2,000 per month, and Doctor is somewhat rhapsodic over the figure. He sees this bit of revenue growth as a “rocket launch.” In reality, $2,000 is nothing.
With The Batavian, we went from practically no revenue in March 2009 to more than $4,000 a month four months later. And that’s with one person covering the news and selling the ads, and in a market that is far more economically challenging than any Patch has launched in.
The successful independent sites I know are all doing at a minimum $10,000 per month.
Clearly, Patch is struggling to sell local ads, which should be the bread-and-butter of its strategy.
If somehow, every one of the 864 sites managed even just $10K per month, that’s still only $106 million a year in revenue, far short of the $160 million in expenses weighing down the chain.
To achieve break even, each Patch site needs to do more than $16,000 per month in total sales. That is a very achievable number with the right business and sales model (which I don’t believe Patch has, but that’s another topic).
So the problem Patch faces is burdensome and unnecessary corporate overhead expenses and a failure, so far, to generate any meaningful amount of revenue. Patch should be much further along on the revenue side than it is and that spells trouble for investor patience.
CLARIFICATION: Shortly after posting, I should add. I think each of Patch’s 864 markets is capable of generating at a minimum of $500,000 in annual revenue. I just think time will run out on Patch before the chain breaks even. Also, as Patch generates more sales, expenses will increase. That will further delay the break-even point. If Patch were to survive, fix its business and sales model, achieve maximum velocity, we’re probably looking at a company with $250 million in annual expense and $500 million in annual sales (at the current size of the company). I assume investors would be happy with that performance. I just don’t see how they sustain the losses to get there.