Preparations for Easter at St. George’s

Much thanks to Maplewood Patch editor Mary Mann for taking the visual images from St. George’s Palm Sunday observance and turning it into a spritely and thorough announcement of the upcoming Easter services.

Cranky political commentary will resume here soon.  In the meantime, may Holy Week and Easter be a time of reflection and renewal for you and yours.

(Video by Kirk Petersen, photos by the Web Goddess.)

A Prodigy in Madison: My Latest Article

I met a remarkable young man recently — a six-year-old taking organ lessons at the church where I work.  I wrote about him for’s Madison website.  Here’s how it starts:

His feet don’t reach the pedals.  His arms barely stretch to the top keyboard.  His pudgy little fingers seem dwarfed by the keys. But six-year-old Henry Marinovic of Madison is learning to play the organ.

“I’m actually pretty good,” he explained, accurately, shortly after I met him.

He has a piano at home, but the organ at Grace Episcopal Church is so much louder and cooler – all those buttons and stops.  His hands wander over the keyboard for a moment, producing a vigorous riff. I ask him if that’s a piece of music he has memorized, but his mother Amy says he was making it up.  “It’s called improvising,” Henry says helpfully.

Read the whole thing at  If you’re interested in reading more of my Patchwork, here’s a link to the complete oeuvre.  (What is Patch, you ask?  I’ve got an answer for that, too!)

Darwinian Selection in the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM

Big cyber-news today in Maplewood, NJ, the place one blogger once called “the center of the blogging universe.” The New York Times abruptly shuttered The Local, its New Jersey experiment in hyperlocal blogging.  I’ve chronicled the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM here, here, here and here.

Instead of just shutting down, the NYT is passing its baton to Baristanet, a venerable (since 2004) hyperlocal news site for other parts of Essex County.  Baristanet has launched new homepages for Maplewood, South Orange and Millburn, the three towns covered by The Local.

Timestamps on their respective articles indicate that Mary Mann at Maplewood Patch broke the story a full 13 minutes before the NYT posted its own announcement on The Local.  Congrats, Mary!  (Of course, I could make my timestamp read whatever I want it to read, but Mary wouldn’t do that.)  The first cryptic comment on Maplewood Online was even earlier.  And the Maplewoodian weighed in a bit later in the afternoon.

After the Web Goddess alerted me to the news via IM, I promptly lurched into action.  Stealing a few minutes away from my day job (forgive me, Mother Lauren), I promptly posted a self-serving comment on The Local’s announcement, thereby creating a small flurry of traffic to my previous coverage.  Then I worked the rest of the afternoon.  Then I came home and watered the lawn and borrowed my neighbor’s spreader to put down some Scotts® Turf Builder® With PLUS 2® Weed Control (no, this is not a paid plug… but Scotts, have your people call my people).

Eventually I connected with Mary Mann, hoping I could get some snarky, back-biting comments, but it was not to be.  “I’m very sorry to see The Local go,” she said.  (At least I think that’s what she said — we had terrible reception, despite trying four connections on different cell and land-line combinations.  I blame the Rooskie spies in Montclair for sabotaging the phones.)

So how about these Barista newcomers?  “Jolie Solomon is wonderful — very talented,” Mary said.  (Solomon is the former Patch contributor who will be anchoring Baristanet’s Maplewood coverage.)  “I’ve always thought there was enough room for everyone” in the Maplewood hyperlocal scene.

Such a nice lady.  (Disclosure: she sometimes publishes my stuff.)

AOL to Acquire Maplewood. Sort Of.

patch(Welcome, New York Times readers.)

Comes today the news that AOL is acquiring, the owner of Maplewood Patch, a stalwart member of the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM. (I’ll have you know I taught myself how to hand-code that superscript in HTML.)  Maplewood Patch, by way of disclosure, has seen fit to publish some articles I have written, and they even slipped me a few bucks in exchange.

Because of my previous coverage of Patch on this blog, I got a personal email (it started, “Hi Kirk”) from a media relations guy at AOL, along with a copy of the release.  My immediate thought was, in the spirit of my previous Maplewood coverage, how can I have fun with this news?

I first considered conspiracy rumors.  I knew that Tim Armstrong, a senior Google executive, was a major investor in Patch.  In March, he left Google to become CEO of AOL.  So, let’s review:

  1. Patch gets launched with Google exec’s money
  2. Google exec bolts for AOL in March
  3. AOL announces acquisition of Patch in June

I quickly realized that there probably was some boring explanation for this suspicious sequence of events — but I would not be deterred that easily.

Maybe… um… maybe this is some kind of “reverse Trojan horse” scheme?  I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds cool.  Is Google planning to acquire AOL?  Or is AOL going to acquire Google?  I know! Patch is going to acquire AOL and Google!  I could make fun of all three organizations by speculating about which outcome is least likely.

My next thought was, I could call the PR guy and mess with his head.  As a long-time PR guy myself, I know what kind of pressure he would be under on an announcement day. I’d start out with some innocuous questions to gain his trust, then I’d go all weird on him.

I could read him the CEO quotation from the press release (“Local remains one of the most disaggregated experiences on the Web today…”), then ask, “Does Tim Armstrong really talk like that?” And then, “Does Mr. Armstrong use (AOL’s) MapQuest now, or does he still secretly use Google Maps?”  With a new CEO in the building and a story that involves him personally, the PR guy would just love dealing with flaky questions about the boss.

Hm… Gratuitous cruelty to a guy doing a high-pressure job — that’s not usually how I roll.   Well, let’s just see what the boring explanation is.

I introduced myself over the phone to Chris Savarese of AOL Corporate Communications, and he said “You’re with All That Is Necessary, right?” I’m apparently on his media list — how cool is that?  How could I even think about tormenting him?

It turns out Armstrong recused himself from the decision to buy Patch. OK, that makes sense.  Kara Swisher, who’s an actual journalist, was all over the story first thing this morning.

I had one last arrow in my quiver.  “Is there some sort of juicy Maplewood angle to this?” I asked Savarese.  Uh, not really.

I thanked him and hung up, thinking, how the heck am I going to make a blog post out of this?

Googliath Continues Patchwork Expansion in NJ, the venture-capitalized, Google-zillionaire-backed startup that recently launched town-specific news and information websites in Maplewood, South Orange and Millburn, today announced plans to expand into an additional three nearby communities.

The newest Patches are slated to open in May in Summit, Westfield and Scotch Plains (including Fanwood), all in Union County. Summit is contiguous with Millburn in Essex County, but Westfield and Scotch Plains/Fanwood are further south, separated from the other Patches by Route 22 and by the towns of Springfield and Mountainside.

In a world-exclusive interview (OK, he replied to my email), Patch Editor-in-Chief Brian Farnham told A.T.I.N. that Googliath has “no specific rollout plans beyond these next three, or hard target figure to hit by end of year. I can say we remain bullish about expanding Patch as quickly as is prudent and in as many communities as can use us (which we think is a lot).”

Each of the new Patch towns are served by local newspapers, and Summit even has, a sister site of the venerable Maplewood Online. Even after the new sites open, however, none of the towns will have an online presence to rival the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM, which is served by five separate, general-interest websites.

Step Aside, NY Times — Patch Is Bringing Google Zillions to Hyperlocal Maplewood

I got interested in the hyperlocal Maplewood BlogolopolisTM because the mighty New York Times was wading into the fray (and I happen to know the local Times reporter). But it turns out the Times is only the SECOND-best capitalized hyperlocal effort in Maplewood. The newcomer to watch is something called

I barely noticed Maplewood Patch when it launched in … well, whenever it was. Recently. Their logo clearly says “Beta”, and besides I’m not nearly as well tuned in to the local scene as a lot of my Maplewood neighbors are, so I just wasn’t that interested. I visit the (extremely active) Maplewood Online (MOL) bulletin boards sometimes if I’m looking for a referral for a handyman or whatever, but I never got into the social gestalt of those boards, and I don’t follow local politics. Every time I peeked in, however, I was impressed by how vibrant the community was. And MOL honcho Jamie Ross has always been good about publicizing our events at St. George’s Episcopal Church, where the Web Goddess and I are both very active.

Well, I’m interested now.

Yesterday I wrote mainly about the launch of the NY Times “The Local” site for Maplewood and environs. I noted that and the NYT both chose the same three towns for their respective pilots — Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange — and I said something snarky about it being hard to reach somebody who could speak on behalf of Patch.

Today I got a call from Brian Farnham, Editor-in-Chief of … well, I guess of, although their About Us page is fuzzy on the name of the entity, referring to “the people behind Patch.” Brian confirmed what I was starting to realize yesterday — that although it looks on the surface as if the New York Times and have exactly the same business model for Maplewood, they are in fact closer to being exact opposites.

Brian, who had read my snarky comment, was very gracious and started by apologizing for not getting back to me more promptly. I parried that with an apology for not reaching out sooner.

Brian acknowledged what is obvious once you see the list of more than 20 employees at Patch’s NYC headquarters — Patch has national ambitions. He confirmed that all or virtually all of those 20-plus people are devoted full-time to the effort. And yet, the only sites currently in existence are the ones for Maplewood, South Orange and Millburn. (Each of the three towns also has a local Patch editor, supported by college students and freelancers.)

Brian wouldn’t let himself be pinned down about a timeframe for expansion, and he wouldn’t give me an estimate for the company’s monthly “burn rate” (a dot-com-bubble term that seems so last-century now). But the company is backed by a Google zillionaire, and they’re making a serious upfront investment.

About half those 20 people are fairly junior, but at the VP and Director level, everybody has serious online and/or media credentials. Brian, for example, is a former Editor-in-Chief of Time Out New York, and his fellow poobahs include seasoned Harvard MBAs and executives from non-trivial media ventures (Gannett, CBS, etc.) None of the senior people are working for just stock options and food.

The New York Times, OTOH, is taking its first tentative steps into the hyperlocal “space.” They’ve assigned one full-time reporter each in New Jersey and Brooklyn — and the paper says even that level of commitment is economically unsustainable in the long run. Maplewood resident Tina Kelley and her Brooklyn colleague at the Times were interviewed today on WNYC Radio, and they both freely acknowledged that the business model may look very different down the road.

Brian considers his company to be in competition with the awkwardly named NY Times “The Local” in this market, but he doesn’t think he’s really in competition with MOL, although obviously there’s some overlap. “I have enormous respect for Jamie Ross and what he’s built” at MOL, Brian said. “I hope people will get to feel less threatened by us — we’re not trying to put anybody out of business. We’re trying to be a news and information hub.”

This rings true to me. Think about Patch’s business model — if they don’t start expanding soon and build a broad base for advertising, even the most patient angel investor will get antsy. Salaries alone have to be costing them six figures every month, and their current revenue from the three initial Patches is either zero or something that rounds to zero. While the current faceoff looks like Googliath vs. Jamie Ross, by the end of 2009 I expect Maplewood Patch will be just one of dozens or even hundreds of local Patches.

MOL has an extremely loyal user base, as I (re)discovered when I posted what one loyalist described (accurately enough) as “your own self-serving advertisement to your blog” on MOL’s “Mostly Maplewood” board, which is only one of more than 20 active MOL boards. 80-plus comments ensued on the thread I had started, and to his credit Jamie not only left the thread posted, he personally took part in the discussion: “BTW, we got over 6,000 visits yesterday!” (Roughly 200 of those visitors clicked the link to my post, a nice boost for my humble blog.)’s business model will either work or it won’t — and if it works, Maplewood will be a tiny part of its traffic. The financially cratering New York Times will either find a business model that works or it will sell the extremely valuable brand to someone else — and either way, the Times‘s Maplewood blog will be a footnote (sorry, Tina, but I suspect you agree).

In any event, I don’t think MOL needs to worry. In fact, once the economy improves, I could envision a very nice payday for Jamie Ross, if he has any interest in having a partner with deep pockets.

Maplewood NJ, Pop. 23,000, Now Has Four FIVE Competing Local Websites

(Don’t miss my followup post about the true 800-pound gorilla of the story. Also, I tweaked this post’s headline and added a substantive Update at the end.)

Suddenly the Maplewood hyperlocal web neighborhood is crowded. The mighty NY Times today launched two local websites, each staffed with a full-time, veteran Times reporter. One site is in Brooklyn, the other covers Maplewood, South Orange and Millburn.

Venture capital-backed also focuses on its recently launched Maplewood, South Orange and Millburn sites for now, but clearly has bigger ambitions. The company’s About page lists 20 staffers and says “Patch is run by professional editors, writers, photographers and videographers who live in or near the communities we serve, and is supported by a great team in our New York City headquarters.” The site is largely focused on the snowstorm today, and recently covered an appearance at a local bookstore by former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

The well-capitalized newcomers are contending with the original local Maplewood site, Maplewood Online, started by Jamie Ross way back in 1997. Over the years Jamie has branched out and created sister sites for South Orange, Millburn, West Orange, Montclair, Summit and Morristown.

Maplewood Online for years was a one-person show. Jamie told me today that his brother moderates the message boards shared by all of his sites, and he has a friend working for him as well. He did much of the coding for the sites himself, and graphically, the sites have a distinctly 1990s web aesthetic. Jamie also is a standup comedian and local concert organizer, but says MOL and its sister sites are his primary source of income. He’s a 1992 Rutgers graduate, with a technical background, rather than journalism.

The Times’s local site is part of the newspaper giant’s effort to find new revenue streams to bolster its cratering primary business. In the past five years the company’s stock price has plunged from the upper $40s to about $4 per share today, and throughout the country long-time daily newspapers are going out of business or declaring bankruptcy.

Times digital editor Jim Schachter explained the local strategy to Editor and Publisher:

Schachter said the sites will be accessible through an address linked to the Times’ home page, such as They may expand to other communities if successful.

“The mission is to educate the community about how to be citizen journalists and contributors,” he added. “There are ‘place’ blogs everywhere. We have to create a real quality community that figures out the answers to questions on the minds of people in each place.”

But he admits the money-making options are unknown. “There is no conceivable way that a site staffed with a full-time New York Times journalist can pencil out as profitable,” he said. “We are trying to figure out using our people as experimenters if there is a model that combines journalism, technology and advertising that would work.”

The Times’s local New Jersey sites are staffed by Tina Kelley, an acquaintance who lives a few blocks from me in Maplewood. Tina, who can sometimes be spotted around town knitting at local events (how’s that for a hyperlocal bloggish touch?), has been on the Times staff for nearly a decade — the nearby picture is from the Charlie Rose show last year, when she was interviewed about a story she wrote on mysterious bat deaths. (I grabbed that photo before her site launched, where I could get her “official” headshot. But then I’d lose my chance to show up in Google searches for “mysterious bat deaths.”)

The site launched after 5 p.m. today, and Tina’s inaugural lead post explains the concept:

For those wondering why we chose Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange, when there are so many new Web sites and publications on paper here already, it’s very simple, actually: The Times wanted me to launch this experiment in New Jersey, and I live in Maplewood. And I knew the conversation here would be rich, fun and meaningful, because intriguing people live here, and for good reasons.

Jamie Ross’s theory was that the Times and both started in the Maplewood region because there already is a booming online community in the area — Jamie has 8,000 registered participants on his message boards, and the flagship site has a frontpage script that currently reads, “There have been 6,927,419 visits to this page since August 20th, 2001.” But Tina said no, it really was just as simple as the fact that this is where she lives.

Tina’s NYT site already has taught me something — there is yet a fourth Maplewood site, called the Maplewoodian. If I were still a real journalist I would work them into the story and try to reach the editor, but I’ve spent far too much time on this already, and I don’t have a night-desk editor to snarl at me for not making a phone call. So all you get is a screenshot:

For a website focusing on the hyperlocal market, it seems remarkably hard to connect with anyone from There is no phone number or email address on the website itself, and I’ve sent out a dozen feelers to local editors and New York staff via Twitter and LinkedIn, as well as using the site’s feedback page. The only NYC phone number listed for Patch Media Corporation turns out to be a lawyer’s voicemail. One of the local staffers eventually contacted me on Twitter and said she would try to find someone to talk with me, but that was the last I heard. Maybe they can weigh in in the comments.

Jamie was in town first, so I’ll let him have the last word. I asked him what he thinks about all the competition, and he said: “I think MOL will survive, but it’s tricky to go up against a company that has billions of dollars.”

Clearly there’s a market for local information on the web — it’s just not clear how to make any money generating it. It’s also not clear to me whether it’s worth my while delving into the local market myself from time to time, as I have today, or if I should just stick to my primary interest in national politics. So this is an experiment — I’d love to get feedback in the comments.

Update: Hey, since when did the venerable News-Record of Maplewood and South Orange start being available online? And why wasn’t I notified?

More seriously, why doesn’t Worrall Community Newspapers Inc. (parent company of the N-R and its sister publications) promote the website on the front page of the print News-Record? All there is now is a nondescript URL — — sandwiched between the date and the price. Last time I looked at it was a mess, and you couldn’t find Maplewood stuff on it. Now, Maplewood.LocalSource.Com seems to have most of the N-R content, and a fair amount of advertising.

So I’ve corrected my headline — there are FIVE hyperlocal sites in the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM.