NOTE: Originally ran on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201011/1907/
The topic of AOL’s Patch has been on journalists’ minds before I asked the question at the Online News Association conference in D.C. It has sparked debate and open conversation about whether this hyperlocal venture is part of the future of journalism or a sign of the end.
In keeping with the ongoing dialogue, I asked people to share their experiences and thoughts on Patch, and many of you did.
This post is a collection of tweets, emails and hallway conversations that I think capture the mood of those outside of Patch are feeling.
While the details are still being worked out, I would like to crowdsource some questions. I will be bringing up the thoughts expressed here, but feel free to send me your questions, thoughts and concerns: r.hernandez [at] usc.edu
Sprinkled throughout the responses was a hopeful, wait-and-see sentiment, but it was overshadowed by a lot of unknowns and questions that have journalists confused.
Corona del Mar Today founder Amy Senk doesn’t understand why Patch moved into her community. “It’s such a small village, just 6,000 homes, with a daily successful news site (mine), a weekly Newport Beach paper with offices in CdM village, and two legacy papers that cover it,” she said in an email.
About an hour north is Pekka Pekkala, who asked the same question.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the question isn’t why come to a succeeding community, it’s why try where others have failed?
@DavidVeselenak was contacted by Patch for a possible job, but he’s not sure how Patch will turn out. Veselenak is open to working for them when “I see them a bit more firmly planted in the ground, esp. in Michigan.”
The perception of long hours for poor pay is an undeniable concern many have.
“It may not be evil, but it is a sweatshop,” said an anonymous commentator in the previous Patch post. “I was just hired by Patch last week as a copywriter and was assigned to write business listings as described in the article. IT IS A JOKE. … turns out they are grossly underestimated the time it takes to create a business listing.”
“I’d rather work at Walmart for that pay. At least I’d get an employee discount.”
That said, a few people have colleagues that expressed a more positive outlook and are loving their jobs.
At ONA10, I chatted with a friend who is a regional editorial director for Patch and asked for her take. She was genuinely excited about her job and hinted that Patch had more plans to grow. It is clearly a committed force.
Being journalists, though, there is an incredible amount of skepticism when it comes to Patch. When many in our industry have been laid off, furloughed or heard about the falling revenue, they can’t help but question how a company can being doing the opposite and investing in this venture, especially at such a fast rate.
But there is the counter perspective.
“I’ve seen first-hand a blog network try this before,” said Steve James, from The Dagger, a hyperlocal site in Harford County, MD. “They had posting and tweeting quotas, just like patch. They paid too much for the returns they were getting from advertising. The stronger blogs were supporting the weaker way out at the end of the long-tail. It lasted for a lot longer then I expected, but the hatchet fell, and fell hard. Mass layoffs and executives removed.”
For me, one of the toughest criticisms comes from two different people I spoke to at ONA10. They each told me they were literally warned by different Patch employees, saying “we’re coming to your town.” It did not sound like a possible partnership, but more of a competitive fight.
As National Public Radio‘s Vivian Schiller said, there is nothing wrong with competition. It’s a good thing. But if the goal is to serve the community, isn’t it better to work together for the community, rather than undercut each other for individual survival?
Well, obviously capitalism doesn’t make for great friendships. But, truthfully, those who were “warned” admitted that they really don’t feel threatened.
“In terms of putting me out of business, I don’t think so,” said Senk. “I mostly run as a labor of love and my profits are not great. I get a fair share of revenue from two legacy media partners that will want to help me succeed and not let Patch take me over.
I’m cautiously pessimistic about Patch because I think hiring reporters and creating more news outlets is a wonderful thing, but going into communities like mine and duplicating efforts seems predatory and not noble; and I have no sense that if sites like mine go away, that Patch has a long-term plan to keep the local news flowing.”
I asked people what type of relationship they wanted to have with Patch:
In an email, James said when Patch came to his community, “they originally made offers to our current writers to be editors,” but settled with former writers as freelancers.
“Also, I don’t know about this partnering thing,” said Senk. “I have been running Corona del Mar Today for going on two years and I understand that a Corona del Mar Patch is opening. I used to work with the women running Patch on the West Coast, so I emailed her to ask about it. She asked if I wanted a job but there was no offer of partnering, and the local Patch editor has not contacted me once — although several of my sources including a city councilwoman told her that she should do so. (I was copied on the emails a couple of times, so I believe that it’s true.)”
Taking all these perspectives in, I think this tweet from Andrew Sims said it best.
Doesn’t it really matter what journalists think? Probably not. What really matters is how the community embraces or rejects another source of news and information.
It’s on Patch to prove their worth to the community (and also it’s advertisers). That’s capitalism. That’s business. And that’s why we’re going to have to wait and see.