Whither Silver Spring Patch?

The Patch brand of hyperlocal news websites was conceived of as “a new way to find out about, and participate in, what’s going on near you.” A simple premise on its face, although one could argue that there’s not all that much “new” in putting local news on a website.

The fact that Patch is actually a commonly owned network of hundreds of individual neighborhood sites is new, but people who visit Silver Spring Patch are probably not all that interested in the business model at work. They want the “comprehensive and trusted local coverage” they were told would be delivered.

And do they get it? In some ways yes, in some ways no, and in some ways it is too soon to tell.

They are definitely getting a new source of Silver Spring specific news and information that did not exist before. To have a single web destination that focuses solely on one neighborhood without dealing in national news, DC news, or even Bethesda news is definitely a plus for the community. Points are scored, then, for simply existing.

So they’ve delivered local coverage, but is it comprehensive and trusted?

I can’t say that they have maximized the degree to which their local coverage could be comprehensive, but it also is worth noting that they have gone quite a bit further in that direction than any news organization had previously. Time will tell if Silver Spring Patch grows into its role as a comprehensive source of local news.

As far as the trust issue goes, in the past three months I have found absolutely no evidence that the coverage provided by Silver Spring Patch cannot be trusted. Their accuracy and fairness have not been challenged, at least not that I have seen. Deep trust is something that forms over time, though, as a community grows accustomed to habitually looking towards a specific news organization for the information that they need. This kind of bond doesn’t form overnight.

In a way, it is almost unfair to spend too much time on in-depth analysis of the job that Silver Spring Patch has done so far. I’m rooting for them to succeed, and hope that the growing pains they are going through now result in something more polished and more essential to the community in the future.

Silver Spring Patch takes the “social” out of “social media”

Silver Spring Patch's Facebook feed

An impersonal string of links doesn't inspire reader interaction

As discussed in a previous post, Silver Spring Patch does a fairly decent job of utilizing Facebook and Twitter as alternate streams of distribution for the content originally published on their website. But how well do they employ the interactive elements of these popular social media tools?

The Facebook page of Silver Spring Patch is almost entirely devoted to links and abstracts of new stories as they are published on the main Patch site. Aside from a few lonely and unanswered comments (all by the same person) and a “like” or two, their Facebook wall is just one link after another.

Similarly, their Twitter feed is mainly a compilation of links. Occasional personal observations and breaking news details from editor Tamika Smith break the monotony somewhat, but there is little two-way engagement to be found.

It takes two to tango, as the saying goes, so maybe there are no conversations evident in Silver Spring Patch’s use of social media because the readership is just not holding up their end of the give-and-take. To test this theory I attempted to engage Patch via Twitter and Facebook regarding their recent coverage of the Veteran’s Plaza ice rink in downtown Silver Spring.

First I tweeted:

Tweeted question to Silver Spring Patch

Then I commented:

Facebook comment on Patch story

Three days later, I have yet to see a response to either form of my question. In contrast to this silence, I tweeted a similar question to Elahe Izadi, Montgomery County reporter for TBD,  and received an answer less than an hour later:

Question tweeted to TBD reporter

Reply tweet from TBD reporter

This kind of engagement via social media is the sort of thing likely to breed reader loyalty. Getting themselves up to speed sooner rather than later would, I think, serve Silver Spring Patch very well.

Distribution Channels: Delivering content by all available avenues

Satellite dishSilver Spring Patch seems to have realized that simply posting stories on their website and hoping people will stumble across them is not the most savvy internet strategy available in the year 2010. They have wisely established a presence on numerous alternate distribution channels, although whether or not they are using these channels to their full potential is definitely a subject for debate.

Patch gives its readers the opportunity to receive updates through RSS feed, email, Facebook and Twitter. For those who choose email, Patch has options that allow the reader to select daily, weekly or breaking news updates.

Offering multiple methods of news delivery is definitely a plus, but there is room for Patch to take its use of these channels to the next level.

The items posted on Silver Spring Patch’s Facebook wall are almost exclusively links to stories on Patch’s main website. The result is a sort of repackaged version of Patch’s homepage located on Facebook. Users who “like” Silver Spring Patch will see these posts appear in their news feed, definitely a service that could potentially drive readers to click on stories of interest. It would be nice to see some extra material only available on Facebook, but it is hard to fault them at this early stage.

The Twitter feed of editor Tamika Smith provides similar links to new stories, but to her credit she will occasionally use Twitter to provide additional information on breaking news or to solicit ideas from her followers. The best example of her effective use of Twitter was early in the history of Silver Spring Patch, when the Discovery building hostage crisis played out over the afternoon of September 1st:

Tweet from Silver Spring Patch

Smith kept her Twitter followers updated throughout the crisis, an excellent use of alternate distribution channels for a young news organization that should leave no stone unturned when it comes to winning the loyalty of new readers. Granted, events like the Discovery hostage crisis do not come up every day in Silver Spring, but finding ways to use Twitter and Facebook that do more than just echo the content of the main site would be a step in the right direction.

Crowdsourcing at Silver Spring Patch

Black and white photograph of a crowd

Crowdsourcing: writers and readers collaborating to provide a more complete product

For all the potential that the concept of crowdsourcing brings to online news gathering, there remains one unavoidable fact that has so far kept it from enhancing hyperlocal sites such as Silver Spring Patch: it requires a crowd. Absent a large number of engaged participants, it remains a concept rather than a tangible asset.

Patch is structured in such a way as to allow and encourage the participation of its readership in the creation of content, but as of yet it is hard to find an example of how this openness has paid off.

Every story on Silver Spring Patch provides the opportunity for readers to not only comment, but also to upload related photos, videos and PDF files. The bottom of every page also provides links in order to send in news tips, put an event on the calendar or post an announcement.

There is no doubt that, logistically speaking, Patch has done what it can to facilitate crowdsourcing. In exploring the site, however, it is hard to find an example of the Patch readership pitching in to enhance the content. Some announcements have been posted, a few comments have been made and here and there a photo has been added to an event listing.

It is possible that the relative youth of Silver Spring Patch (it has been active for only three months) is contributing to the dearth of user-supplied material. Hopefully as time goes by the residents of Silver Spring will see Patch as a useful part of their community and become more engaged.

Until the small gathering becomes a crowd, and until that crowd enthusiastically embraces Silver Spring Patch, the potential benefit of the crowdsourcing tools already in place will be unrealized.

Silver Spring Patch – Navigation and Design

Sketch of an antique sextant

The layout of Silver Spring Patch is straightforward enough that a sextant should not be necessary to navigate its pages.

Silver Spring Patch shares with all of the other Patch hyperlocal sites a basic design and style that is pleasing to the eye and relatively simple to navigate. Various shades of green and blue are used over a white background, the fonts are easy to read, and clutter is kept to a minimum. The style is coherent throughout, and distinctive without being obnoxious.

Improvements could be made, however, in the page positioning given to various content on the site.

Chronology, not significance, dictates the order in which stories appear on both the home page and the main news page. In this way Patch seems to lean more towards the modern sensibilities of a blog rather than the traditional layout of a newspaper, but I’m not sure it’s the right choice.

Obviously it is less labor intensive – no decision has to be made about what story deserves the top slot because the most recent thing published is automatically placed there. It is likely, though, that readers would expect for the top item to be the most significant story the site has to offer.

This expectation is enhanced by the fact that the top item on the homepage is two columns wide, with two smaller items side by side directly underneath it. The logical assumption would be that the top item has been selected as being more important and has been given the top slot to emphasize its significance.

Listing news items in chronological order could leave the impression that none of the stories being reported are more important or newsworthy than any other story. Readers want to know what is important and what is not, and if everything is treated equally they may decide nothing is worth reading. Not exactly the ideal result for a start-up news gathering organization.

Does Silver Spring Patch give search engines what they need?

Screenshot of Silver Spring Patch news story

Would better placement of key words improve the chances of a Google search leading to this story?

A story involving the arrest of a suspect in an attempted rape and robbery that took place in the heart of their hyperlocal beat should be custom made for quality coverage by a news site like Silver Spring Patch. Why, then, when one enters the terms silver spring rape into a Google news search does their story get listed third behind Gazette.net and TBD.com?

The screen shot to the left provides most of the information needed to answer the question.

It would be hard to make an argument that the name of the street where the suspect lives is the most important item being reported in this story. However, there it is as the first item in the headline and the second, after the suspect’s name, in the story. (A quick point that has nothing to do with search engine optimization and everything to do with sloppy reporting: does he live on Conover Street or Conover Drive? Settling on one or the other and keeping them consistent between the headline and the story probably would’ve been a good idea.)

The Gazette.net headline for the same story: Man arrested for attempted rape, assault of woman in Silver Spring.

The TBD.com headline for the same story: Man arrested in Silver Spring attempted rape.

It seems likely that had Patch featured the key details in its headline and opening paragraph, it would have improved its search rank. It also could have followed TBD’s example and used tagging to improve its chances. TBD tagged its version of the story with the key words Attempted Rape, Montgomery County, Silver Spring. Silver Spring Patch does not seem to utilize tagging for any of its stories.

Other stories that missed the mark on optimizing relevant terms:

  • “Pollard Calls for Montgomery College to be ‘Most Relevant'” – Not surprisingly, this headline contributed to a third-place listing for Patch’s coverage of the inaugural ceremony for the new president of Montgomery College¬† in a Google news search for montgomery college president. If George Clooney or Britney Spears had been named the college’s new president, using their name in the headline would’ve been a logical choice. With a less well-known person such as DeRionne P. Pollard, though, it might have made sense for Patch to go with “New Montgomery College President Sets High Goals.”
  • “TP Police Respond to Sex Assault at Montgomery College” – Coincidentally, another Montgomery College story could have used a better headline. TP Police? Locals would be able to figure out that this refers to Takoma Park, but Patch does itself no favors by using this shorthand instead. In any event, is the fact that the police responded the story, or is the story that there was a sexual assault? The simplest way to improve this headline would be to reverse the order of the facts described and to loose the confusing abbreviation: “Sex Assault at Montgomery College – Takoma Park Police Respond.”

For the most part, Silver Spring Patch does a fine job with its headline writing – the point of the story is made clear and the key items discussed are identified. Occasionally, though, they fall short. And when they do, the chances decrease that their version of the story will be found first.

Writing Styles

Old Typewriter

Technology has improved, but has writing?

Stories on Silver Spring Patch are written in the tried and true style of typical news copy, with simple and descriptive language organized into short paragraphs that make up brief articles. Nothing too flashy or flowery, and no overly ambitious or groundbreaking prose.

All of which would be fine if they would do a slightly better job of mastering the basics of the style they have chosen. Some of the writing is effective but clunky and unpolished, while other articles contain fragments that frankly make little sense.

This example is from a recent article by Amber Evans called “DC School of Rock presents Best of the 60’s” :

Students who attend the School of Rock said they enjoy it. Gabrielle Oliver, a flute player, said “The music and friends.” Fizzy Lathbury a young guitarist with a killer rock star look added, “I love it all. It is a big part of my life.”

The paragraph leaves the reader to wonder what Ms. Oliver was referring to when she said “The music and friends.” We can assume she was stating her favorite part of attending the school, but from the way the story is written, this is not at all clear. Weather a result of sloppy writing or bad editing, these types of passages are unprofessional and do nothing to enhance the credibility of Silver Spring Patch.

We can at least, I hope, agree that Fizzy Lathbury has a fantastic name well suited to a future rock star.

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