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Posts Tagged ‘Hyperlocal’
15 Dec

Journalism of the Web, not just on it: Q&A with Jim Brady

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NOTE: Originally ran on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201012/1920/

In the Web journalism world, it is hard to find someone who has been more of a pioneer than Jim Brady. From being a print sports reporter to becoming the executive editor at Washingtonpost.com to, most recently, launching (then leaving) TBD.com as the general manager, his career path is a proven track record committed to exploring Web journalism.

Jim BradyFor this week’s post, I had the privilege to “talk” with Brady a few days after he was the guest host on #wjchat, a weekly Web journalism chat held through Twitter. There were a few questions we had to cut because of time and hope to ask and explore them here. [NOTE: Play back the raw interview here]

Can you tell me a little about your background? Mainly, what was your first Web journalism job? How did you start? What was the environment like at the time? The culture?

The first web job I had was in 1995. I’d been a sportswriter at The Washington Post for a while, and had always been interested in new media, as they called it back then. I had a Prodigy account, an AOL account and even an eWorld account. Loved the idea of getting information whenever and however I wanted, but there was no practical application for a journalist to work online in the early 1990s. But then The Post launched a subsidiary called Digital Ink, and I joined in April 1995 to help it launch The Post’s first online adventure. We were a channel on a dial-up proprietary system called AT&T Interchange, which launched in late 1995. But we jumped on the proprietary bandwagon right as the web took off, so we quickly shuttered our presence on Interchange and I was sports editor [for] the team that launched Washingtonpost.com in June 1996.

The culture was totally freewheeling and wide open, and none of the web-print newsroom tensions existed at that point because, frankly, very few people at the paper gave a crap about what we were doing. We had an amazing creative bunch of folks there at that time, and many of them are still in digital media. It was a blast.

You have an amazing Web journalist, pioneering career. Your last adventure was with the D.C., local start up TBD. Can you describe the news org for folks. And, the question on people’s minds, the reason why you left it?

The concept of TBD was to produce a local news operation that wasn’t just on the web, but OF the web. What that meant, in my view, was avoiding the trap of producing traditional journalistic forms and just throwing them up on the web. To truly be OF the web, you have to produce journalism in ways that works in that medium. Sometimes, that still means producing a traditional all-text narrative. But, more than that, it means truly engaging with your audience, which we did via very aggressive conversation and newsgathering done via social media, via live chats and by building a network of more than 200 local blogs and linking to them and selling advertising for many of them. Being of the web means linking to other sites, so that you can become the first stop for readers interested in a topic and expose them to multiple voices in a region. It means not viewing mobile at something you have to do to check a box, but truly making an effort to produce a mobile site that thinks about that kind of information someone would want when disconnected from a laptop or desktop. It means not viewing the web as just another platform. I hate the term “platform agnostic.” I think it’s totally backwards. Some content works on multiple platforms; most of it does not. So we tried to blend these elements — all of which had been done separately in other places — into a unique local blend. And the audience response and traffic suggests TBD is on to something. And many of the calls I’ve gotten about consulting are asking for guidance on how we built TBD, which suggests others see it as a viable model as well.

As for why I left, despite the vision I just laid out, ownership of the company I worked for, Allbritton Communications, suggested we were out ahead of the audience and that we should scale back some of the aforementioned elements and focus on hiring more reporters and scaling back on the stuff I thought made us unique. We tried to find a middle ground, but in the end, there just wasn’t any. Both sides were pretty strong-willed in what they thought was right, and, as I told my friends, when you get into a significant dispute with the owner of a company, you’re always the one who ends up leaving. :-)

True. What do you make of the reactions about your departure? It seemed to be the talk of Web journalism, for better or worse.

Well, I think the fact so many people were so surprised suggests to me that they also thought we were doing something interesting, different and worth watching. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot we were still struggling with, and the site launched with about half of what we originally envisioned. So we had a ways to go. But the reaction, the comments I’ve gotten and the desire for many others in media to get more details on what we were doing suggests there’s something there. And people should continue to keep an eye on TBD. Erik Wemple is a tremendous editor, Steve Chaggaris has done an amazing job leading the TV side of TBD and there’s a ton of talent there that will continue to do interesting things, assuming management doesn’t declaw the good ideas over the coming months.

You talked a little about it during #wjchat, but can you talk about what’s next for you. What are you looking for? You mentioned people want to talk to you about replicating TBD’s successes, is that the immediate future for you? What’s your dream gig, anyway?

Honestly, I don’t know at this point. Going to start consulting next week, and have a few gigs lined up, some longer term and some one-day jobs. But I want to be patient and wait for something that’s the perfect fit. I know what I don’t want to do, and that’s go back into a newsroom full-time and evangelize the web anymore. I freely admit to being tired of that particular part of working in legacy media. I have reached the point where, after 15 years, the burden of proof really needs to shift to those who have decided to keep their heads in the sand. I don’t think I should have to explain to journalists why they need to pay attention to the web; I think the companies they work for are owed an explanation by those folks as to why they’re not paying attention. To be fair, I think those folks are in the minority in newsrooms now, but many still holds positions of significant power, and getting the web and print or TV or radio to work together requires real effort from both sides, and that effort needs to start from the highest levels of a company. But if I can find a job where that’s not a key component, that’s great. But what’s most important to me in the next job is to replicate the startup feel that the folks at TBD had for a while. The ability to launch something new, with a talented staff you get to hire and supportive management, is something I want to do before I get out of the business. I felt like we were close to that at TBD, but didn’t quite get the complete support of management there, though Robert [Allbritton] deserves a lot of credit for having the guts to support the idea.

Why do you think that is… that makes leadership/management still not understand or value the Web and its opportunities/possibilities? And what advice, if any, do you have to those that are still in newsrooms fighting this good fight?

Well, let’s be honest: A lot of it has to do with revenue. The legacy businesses still drive a significant majority of the revenue. And no one is suggesting — as I often see ill-informed types write on Twitter — that most of us digital types want companies to shut down those businesses. We don’t, and they can’t. But you see places where 80 percent of the revenue is from a legacy business, and 90 percent of mindshare is going toward the legacy business. To me, to have an effective long view, companies should be spending half their mindshare trying to build a business model in the medium that is clearly going to the future of most of these companies. That’s the frustration. I think people get that the web is a huge part of the future, but for whatever reason, it’s still hard to get those folks to actually focus on it.

As for those still fighting the good fight, my advice is the same as its always been: To be successful getting newsrooms engaged in fighting on the web, you have to show them what they get out of it, other than an occasional pat on the back. Find a few pioneers in your newsroom who are willing to try anything, then make sure the rest of the newsroom knows about those successes, which inevitably appeals to the competitive nature of journalists. And do everything you can to make sure successes are celebrated at the highest levels of the company. One of my criticisms of the management at Allbritton is that they never got TBD and Channel 7 together to share an overall vision of why the entire project had been greenlit. You need air cover from management in cases where you’re trying something new. The mangers and staffers lower down in the org have to make the day-to-day work, but without public top-level management support, it makes the battles in the trenches much harder.

Can you briefly talk about how you got started with TBD. Did someone approach you? Did you pitch the idea to someone?

I met with Robert Allbritton when I was doing some consulting for Politico, and he asked me what I was interested in doing next, and I mentioned local as something — based on my experience at The Post – [that] seemed like a real opportunity. He was interested, so I went off for a few months and pulled together a business plan, a competitive analysis and a strategy for the site. He thought about it for a while, and decided to go ahead and do it, to which I owe him greatly.

Because of time, we had to cut out some audience questions from #wjchat … I’d like to ask you a couple of them here. The first one is from Saleem Khan (@saleemkhan): If you were launching a news startup today [@TBD-scale and bootstrapped] what would you do differently?

First one is obviously [to] pick a niche. (Although we did that at TBD as well, though it was a big niche called “local”). As for what I’d do differently, I think the first part is to have a sales force with deep digital backgrounds. That was the original plan at TBD, and we hired some talented people with digital chops. But the company changed the structure before launch, and all those folks were put under the TV sales structure, and all soon left. I think that was a mistake. The TV sales forces did a pretty good job of selling the site once it launched, but we struggled to get traction in any sales area outside straight CPM-based display, and I don’t think that’s enough to support the site long term. That’s why we had the blog network and wanted to focus on selling geo-targeted ads and maybe even get into providing some self-serve tools for smaller local advertisers. But we didn’t get anywhere with those, and do think some other revenue streams will be needed. So my biggest piece of advice is to hire people who know the medium in which you’re living.

The next question comes from Sarah Fidelibus (@verbalcupcake): What startups have particularly impressed you? What have they’ve gotten “right”? Who has a biz model that you think is working well? Examples? What are they doing right, and how so? (These were two separate tweets from Sarah.)

I think there are different types of startups that have impressed me, and in different niches. On the news side, I do like what many of the non-profits are doing. I think ProPublica does phenomenal work on the investigative and data sides, and it’s been interesting to track local startups like MinnPost, Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego and Bay Citizen. I also find myself fascinated by location-based services like Twitter and Gowalla. I am not quite sure how they tie into local journalism yet, but there’s an answer there, which [is] why I check in just about everywhere on FourSquare. I think that’s the only way to really learn about these things. I am also really interested in what SB Nation is doing here in DC. They’ve done a great job of aggregating strong voices throughout the world of sports, telling stories in a more fun and more open way than most sports sites, and they seemed to have managed to tap into the community nature of sports that even an amazing site like ESPN can’t quite go at as hard, because they have so much stuff from their various platforms to promote.

As for the business models, I think we’d all agree there [isn’t] a massive list of new news sites that are making a ton of profit at this point. Honestly, that’s part of the reason the TBD idea seemed so interesting for me to pursue: I think, even if we figure out how we best evolve journalistically to the web, it won’t much matter if we don’t get the business side figured out. And as someone pointed out during the wjchat the other night, I think the business side is farther behind in figuring out the web than the newsrooms are. But neither side is where it needs to be yet.

Agreed. The last crowdsoured question comes from Andy Boyle (@andymboyle): I heard you very much dislike the “web producer” title of people. Or so you said at Nebraska. Tell us more?

Yeah, not a big fan of that title, but only because I don’t think a lot of people in legacy newsrooms know what the hell it means. As a result, I think sometimes web producers are treated like technical people and not the journalists that they almost always are. So you hear stories where a web producer is handed a headline and blurb to post by a newspaper staffer because that person doesn’t realize the producer actually can do that task as well. There are a lot of titles on web teams that don’t always explain what someone actually does. Sad that issue still exists, but I do expect that, over time, titles will flatten out and everyone will understand what everyone else does. But, sadly, we don’t seem to be there yet. I think, what it really comes down to is that, as long as people understand your skillset and what you do, you can give them the title of the “king of the universe” if you want. Understanding who someone is ends up being far more important than what they’re called.

Titles certainly have been somewhat of a joke in the Web journalism world. I was feeling good about my “Director” title until I met a “Senior Director.” But putting those labels aside, how do you describe your skills… how do you describe what you do in journalism? Meaning, I’m a journalist… more specifically a Web journalist. But, I’ve been describing what I do as being more like a Mad Scientist for journalism. A guy that bridges tech and journalism for the advancement of storytelling/journalism. How would you/do you describe what you do?

I am a journalist who speaks multiple “languages,” if you will. I understand the differences between platforms. I am a journalist who advocates assessing a story first, and then determining the best tools to tell it effectively, as opposed to going into a story knowing it’ll be text or video or photos, etc. But it’s a good question. I’ve never really boiled it down to a sentence. I guess I’d call myself a journalist who has found his true home in digital, but still rents a house in other media.

Ha! Well said, sir. I have so many more questions to ask… but we are running out of time. Let me ask you one final question that I’ve been asking journos for the last few months. In your career, you’ve had your ups and your downs… not to sound to negative, but as Web journos we get frustrated… but any way you look at it, we’re still here trying. Why? Why do you stay in this business? What keeps you going and fighting and evolving? Why are you a journalist?

Well, as to the question of why, I saw “All the President’s Men” in the theater with my parents when I was seven, and am probably still one of the only kids who always thought it was a cooler movie than “Star Wars.” So I fell in love with journalism at that point. But in the early years of my career, I started getting really interested in technology as well, and damn near almost quit the business in 1992 to go get a computer science degree. So the last 15 years of my life have been wonderful, as I’ve gotten the chance to mix two real passions. As for why it’s important to keep pushing, it’s trite and simple: The journalism business — and I use the word business intentionally — is in trouble, and journalism remains a crucial piece of our democracy and I fear for its future. Even though the money isn’t where it needs to be on the digital side, I find it thrilling to be aboard the ship that [is] going to eventually be the rescue ship. So that, to me, is where I find the excitement and desire to charge on. Having said that, I’m at a point now where I’d rather go off and build a whole new digital ship and leave the evangelizing to others. I’m starting to believe the future of journalism may well be a whole host of shiny brand-new ships as opposed to the repainted ships of old. I expect the major media companies of today to be around going forward, but they’re going to have to survive against a whole host of new competitors.

Well, I never thought I’d see a sentence that [would compare] both “All the President’s Men” and “Star Wars” … perhaps one can argue that Woodward and Bernstein were the Luke and Han for newspapers in their day.

I always said that the character of Darth Vader had nothing on Ben Bradlee in that movie. He was a much cooler cat, if you ask me.

Ha! Well, thank you Jim for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

My pleasure. Thanks for the great questions, and for hosting wjchat the other night. Fun times.

I’m glad you enjoyed it!

17 Nov

Patch EIC answers all questions, evil or otherwise

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NOTE: Originally ran on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201011/1909/

When it comes to Patch, there have been a lot of opinions and questions about AOL’s hyperlocal venture … besides the “evil” one. In previous posts, I’ve crowdsourced journos’ thoughts on Patch to try to capture the conversations many of us have been having.

Patch's EIC Brian FarnhamFor this week’s post, I took those concerns – and newly crowdsourced questions – to the man overseeing the direction and growth of Patch: Editor-in-chief Brian Farnham.

I had a long list of questions and asked most of them. Of course, even though we went thirty minutes over our scheduled one-hour interview, there wasn’t enough time to ask them all.

But, overall, Farnham addressed the most common questions and criticisms toward Patch, and also expressed his vision for the network.

NOTE: The interview was done using the collaborative document, typewith.me, and you can play back and read the raw, unedited conversation here: http://typewith.me/ep/pad/view/ojrqa02-bfarnham/latest

Let’s start with some background and context. Can you tell me a brief history of Patch, how it came about… and then a little about your background.

Sure. Patch came right [out] of the brain of Tim Armstrong actually. He’s the CEO of AOL now, but a couple of years ago he was the head of North American ad sales for Google. His big brainstorm, which I won’t go into all the details of (he actually addressed this at ONA), was that small communities were really missing out on the kind of comprehensive news and information experience online that people in big cities tend to take for granted.

Can you tell me the current state/size of Patch and the general goal for the hyperlocal venture? How many employees?

Patch is right now 351 live sites strong, with plans to open another couple hundred by the end of the year (which is not far off!) Employee-wise, we have…several hundred. I have to check the actual number. I’m going to say 600+ safely right now, with about 80% of those being editors out in the field. So it’s a pretty big organization already, which makes it feel funny to call it a startup, but we call it that because we’re truly evolving and growing the idea every day, the way startups do. The goal is to become nothing short of the most useful source of news and information for small communities online. And, I hasten to add, that does NOT mean the ONLY source of information there. We see local media as an ecosystem, and we want to be an active part of it.

Is there target size you are growing toward, in terms of the communities you are branching into?

Yep. The stated goal is 500+ by end of year, and I think it’s safe to say we want to keep growing beyond that, but we haven’t nailed down any goals beyond that.

Can you talk about the strategy behind the locations you have chosen? Are they calculated, organic, etc? Also, there have been some criticisms about choosing locations that tend to be more affluent.

It’s a mix of art and science. We start with a pretty detailed methodology of a lot of kinds of data you’d expect. Census data mostly, just to give us a sense of certain variables in a community we think are important to build a business. But the most important factors are around community engagement. For example, we use a list of the top ranked high schools in the country as a proxy for community cohesiveness, figuring that any community that cares about its school must be pretty engaged. But then we do a lot of actual research via conversations with people who live in those communities, and through that we sort out whether it feels like a place that Patch might do well. As for the criticism about choosing affluent markets, that’s by no means a strategy of the concept. It’s more where the methodology tends to point you because of the variables you’re looking at from the business perspective. We’re not a charity, we’re trying to make money doing this, so that means identifying markets that we think can support an ad-driven business. But that’s not the only kind of market we’re interested in. The idea was, let’s establish the business in the places that will give us the best chance for success and the shortest runways to profitability, but then add on to those the kinds of communities that may be less high-ranking along those market-based considerations, but are equally deserving for every other reason.

Can you talk about how the local media ecosystem also factors in to your decision for a Patch location. In communities where there is no media coverage, Patch is an amazing addition. But one of the criticisms is when a Patch moves into a community that has a thriving hyperlocal scene, smaller news outlets or even regional newspapers … The concern I hear is that by a company as large as AOL coming to these communities where indie, hyperlocals are working… well, it could kill them off. What is your take, your reaction to that concern?

I totally get those concerns. I understand how someone running a hyperlocal site mostly as a labor of love would be concerned when Patch opened in their community, but we are truly not trying to be the Deathstar of hyperlocal. What we see ourselves as is a platform for local community. So it’s more than just a news site. We talk about wanting to digitize small towns and have the sites reflect the community the way its residents would recognize. That’s a long term, constantly evolving process, but we wanted to establish it on a foundation of professional, unbiased journalism. ONLINE journalism, I should add — the distinction being that with online journalism, news is more of a conversation. Not just between the news provider/publisher and the users, but between other news and information providers as well. Ironically, if a community we go into already has online media in it, that tends to be good for us, because the community members are already used to looking for their information online. And when we open a Patch, we’re obviously trying to do the best, most comprehensive job we can covering what’s going on, but we know we won’t get everything and we’re quite happy to link to other sources in town who may have gotten stories, angles or other kinds of content we don’t have or don’t think is in our mission.

We can go in different directions here, but let’s explore this a little more. One of the concerns, mind you fears, that I got from people is… Patch is coming to so many communities, taking on so many new employees, evolving… in a hyperlocal concept that, to some people, hasn’t proven itself… committing $50 million to expand… but what if it fails. And in the process whips out the local, indie media scene? There is a great responsibility here… a great weight that is, for some reason, put on Patch… even though it is not the first, nor probably the last, to try hyperlocal at a large scale. What’s your take on that concern?

You know, it’s funny: people often criticize companies in media for not being imaginative enough, innovative enough, or taking enough risks. Patch is a bold move, and I’m not bragging by saying that. There’s a lot of risk and we take that seriously. But we also believe — really passionately believe — that communities deserve and can use the kind of platform we’re trying to build. And I think that if it were to fail (which we have no intention of letting it do!), that won’t kind of suck out all the air from local. If anything, it will give people a lot of lessons on how to do it better, as most failures do. So I think it’s got to be considered a positive no matter how you look at it: if it succeeds, it was a big bet on giving communities an incredible online source to understand and navigate themselves; if it fails, it’s giving everyone else a lot of insight into what works and what is truly needed by these communities online. But I don’t think it will destroy all those other sources in town either by succeeding or failing.

Like I mentioned, Patch isn’t the first in going hyperlocal at this scale… what do you think makes it different from the others? I believe you worked at sidewalk.com. What’s the difference here?

Ah, Sidewalk. You know, I was just talking to someone who worked there when I did, and we were lamenting the loss (as vets of sidewalk often do). We were also remarking that Patch now feels an awful lot like Sidewalk did then (late nineties): full of energy and passion for an idea that really seemed like it could change people’s lives by giving them something they need and didn’t have before. I actually don’t think Sidewalk failed at all — it just wasn’t something that Microsoft ultimately had the confidence to continue because it felt at odds with their real “core competencies,” as they say. But the difference between Sidewalk and Patch is really nothing more than altitude — Sidewalk flew at the pretty-big-city level; we’re much closer to the ground. And even then, Sidewalk was competing with a lot of other kinds of media serving that altitude. While there are obviously newspapers and blogs and bulletin boards and other kinds of media serving our communities, we don’t think anyone is trying to create the comprehensive platform that we are, either because they don’t have the resources or don’t think it’s their mission.

This is a good time to mention our Directory: not sure how much you know about it, but it’s this whole pillar of our business. It’s really our own, hand built local Yellow Pages. We thought it was important, if we were going to do this, that our site represent as much of the community as it could, and that meant all the businesses and organizations that exist there. We could’ve just gone out and bought one of the many directories that exist for the country, but in doing research we realized that even the best of these lists aren’t better than 35% wrong. That’s not news to anyone who has searched for local businesses on online yellow pages sites, but its’ still pretty staggering. So rather than resort to this, we made the decision to invest in a team that, before we launch, goes to every business, org, government agency, public park etc and records as much tailored info into structured data fields as we can, and then takes at least 10 quality photos. That creates a crucial basis for the news operation as well — news happens at places, and by having a detailed listing for those places, we have a head start on anything that occurs there and can geolocate the story instantly. That’s just one small example of the usefulness of this. The bigger point is that we see businesses as a part of the community as much as any resident, and their lives, so to speak, should be reflected on Patch.

For better or for worse, one of the biggest criticism or concerns about Patch is that it is coming into communities under the journalism flag. When I think of citysearch, Yelp, other places that have a directory… journalism doesn’t come to mind. That said, you have made a commitment to journalism by hiring some great journalists… what is your vision for the type of journalism Patch is producing/trying to produce? And, Patch is huge… how do hope to maintain that level of quality. Does it get sacrificed for quantity? What do you have in place to maintain the quality of content that matches your vision?

Nothing excites me more than the opportunity we have in front of us regarding journalism. An early dream was the day when we had enough sites that a coordinated effort on a small local story would lead to something much, much bigger when taken together. The example I always give is municipal salaries: imagine every Patch editor digging into this locally at the same time. They produce a story about what local pols are making, and that’s interesting and a service to the local taxpayers. But then we take all those stories from what are hundreds of Patches and we suddenly have a snapshot of municipal salaries in the United States. That’s kind of the classic AP approach, but at an even more granular level. We aspire to be a new kind of AP.

As for the quality, that’s always a challenge for any site doing content online, because the 24-7 nature of things is an abiding pressure. (At least for those doing news). We take quality very seriously, and we’ve tried to build a structure that can attend to it. That includes having Regional Editors overseeing the Local Editors, and it includes making budget available to hire things like copyeditors locally. We leave those decisions largely up to the local Patches because we firmly believe a one-size fits all model doesn’t make sense. Some regions may have different issues around quality than others. But before any of that, we spend a LOT of time hiring carefully — the Local Editors are absolutely the heart and soul of this operation and we trust them to do an awful lot. Maintaining a high level of quality is job #1.

Can you quickly outline the structure of Patch … from the bottom to the top.

Sure. It starts with one Local Editor for every Patch. (In some rare cases, there are even two, if the market is big enough to demand that. Naperville Patch in Illinois is an example of that.) Then we organize our sites into regions of 12 sites that [are] run by a Regional Editor. Finally, every region of twelve [has] a “13th editor.” This could be a more junior editor who is writing stories and supporting Local Editors sort of on the ground, or it could be junior Regional Editor who is more helping manage the region as well as supporting LEs. The point of the 13th editor either way is to take as much pressure off LEs as possible, by covering vacations etc.

Continuing the structure, regions roll up into “super regions,” and super regions roll up into zones. There are four zones right now, and each one is headed by an Editorial Director, who is kind of a mini EIC for their zone (which can be hundreds of sites at the end of the day). Then there’s, well, me. Plus a small centralized team at HQ. While I head the editorial organization, I see myself as back-office support for the field. That’s how we all feel at HQ — we’re there to support the real operation out there in all the communities we serve.

Well, let me ask one of the questions/concerns that people have thrown around and have had strong opinions about… I’m sure you have heard the term “sweatshop” used when describing certain elements… I gather, though, it comes from those who work below the local editor? Is that accurate? Those who are going to actual locations and interviewing managers for directory information… I was a given a description about the tasks outlined by HQ, and the person felt that it was near impossible — asking the questionnaire, taking photos, writing a general description/review — to do with the perceived amount of time. What is your response to this reaction… and is there anything being discussed/changed to address these concerns, if you find them valid?

Yeah, the particular description you’re referring to came from one of the freelance Community Listings Collectors we hire to do the listings, in the way I described above. While those jobs are challenging, certainly, the Directory team has created an incredibly efficient and intelligent system, and the CLCs who get the system can often do quite well financially. I honestly haven’t heard that many problems, and we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of CLCs work for us. It’s not for everyone and a lot of people quit — but that’s fine. It’s not easy going door to door all day talking to people who need to have this new concept described to them. But that’s kind of the point — it’s totally freelance and those people can opt out. If the tasks we assign were really impossible, we could not have come nearly this far. We’ve launched over 350 [sites], and all of those have complete directories, so something must work about it!

One more note on the sweatshop thing: the LE job is really, really hard. I’m the first to admit it. We spend a lot of time at HQ and at the Editorial Director and Regional Editor level talking about how to relieve the pressures and how to change and evolve the job to make it more manageable. But some of the challenges are not due to any decisions we’ve made in building this operation — journalism, at any level, is hard. It’s not 9 to 5, and it’s not for everyone. That doesn’t excuse us from continuing to work on making the job of LE better in every way, but it is a central fact that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Is there a Patch you can point to that you think exemplifies your vision? The ideal quality and engagement you hope other Patches can aspire to be? And, on the flip side, are there Patches you are working on improving…. don’t name them, but are you aware of some problem Patches, and what are you doing to improve them?

Ok, this is going to sound like a really political answer, but there are so many good Patches I hate to single anyone out. What’s great to me is how all of them end up with their own personality in one way or another. That might be because the LE has a particular interest in and skill with video, or because they bring some savvy about local politics to the table. It’s just always different.

And are there Patches that can be doing better? Of course. But it’s not always clear if performance issues are [due] to something the LE is or isn’t doing or if there’s some inherent reason the market isn’t responding to the site. But so far there are no failed sites — it’s early days, and by and large we have seen phenomenal acceptance and audience growth in our Patches.

In terms of quality, the other negative criticism has been in the quality of journalism… which is subjective… but the concerns and allegations about plagiarism are valid… at least in two cases, [correct]? How do you address those concerns? Perhaps not failed Patches, but those are some significant issues, [are they not]?

Absolutely — for any self-respecting journalism operation, plagiarism a serious concern. But we are really not alone in hiring human beings who make mistakes, which is often where a lot of instances of plagiarism happen, especially online. I’m not excusing the incidents you cite, but in one case the plagiarism was in copying a photo-collaged image of public-domain police mugshots without crediting the blogger who made the collage. Again — flat out wrong, no excuses. But the editor was working hard and going too fast and got sloppy. In the other incident, the plagiarism was by a freelancer, not a fulltime editor. When we found out about it, we immediately apologized, corrected the record, and ended our relationship with the freelancer. That’s about as much as anyone can be expected to do: what really matters to me is how we respond to any mistakes we make, and what we do from that point forward to learn from the mistakes and try not to repeat them. Following the incidents, we created a new online training module about issues of plagiarism and we’re making it a requirement for all editors, old and new, to take the module. That’s rolling out within a couple of weeks.

One final note on the allegations of plagiarism: we’ve been plagiarized ourselves. I’m not throwing that out there as an “everyone does it” thing, I’m more making the point that there is a lot of this kind of thing happening on the web, but we’ve been called out I think because we’re a convenient target. Have to add once more: there’s no excuse for plagiarism and we shouldn’t do it!

Do you want to elaborate on the plagiarism or just let your statement stand?

Yeah, I won’t elaborate because I don’t want to make too big a deal about it. Stuff happens and you deal with it, on both ends of the issue.

At ONA10, Tim talked about exploring the possibility of Patch partnering with other hyperlocal sites. What do you think the ideal relationship would be between Patch and the indies? There have been some folks who have been offered jobs, rather than partnerships. There have been folks, who in essence, were “warned” Patch is coming… what is the ideal ecosystem for Patch in these communities that have multiple sources trying to serve the community?

I’m glad you asked that question! Partnerships are going to be a big area of concentration for us in the coming year. This past year has been mostly about just establishing ourselves — just putting out the shingle and getting our legs beneath us. But now we want to explore all the opportunities in the various ecosystems we’ve joined. I don’t think you can identify one ideal relationship — it’s really going to depend on what’s in the market. Maybe it’s something around sports coverage in one community; maybe it’s just cross-linking in a formalized way in another. We’re open to all these conversations.

As for the comment/criticism or whatever it is about people being offered jobs, I kind of have to laugh. Think of it from our perspective: we identify a community we’d like to launch Patch in. The first thing we do is try to find the most talented, qualified person to run that site. Very often that leads us to the person who has already demonstrated they know how to run an online news or information site in that community! So it’s only natural we’d talk to them. We’re not trying to get anyone to shut down their site or buy anyone out — we’re trying to find the best person for the job. I could see us being criticized for NOT contacting those kinds of people: “If Patch is serious about local why wouldn’t it try to hire one of the established local experts online! They’re clearly not serious about this…” You kind of can’t win with certain critics.

And on the “people being warned’ thing — I hope to hell that’s not happening. If it is, and I find out about it, I’m going to have a conversation with those editors. But I really find it hard to believe that’s a widespread thing. The editors we’ve hired are incredibly smart, passionate people, and I’d like to believe that in a lot of those instances it might have been more of the nature of a friendly competitive wink. But on the other side of that, it might not feel that friendly, and I understand that, so I would advise our people that they not even joke. We want them to be competitive in positive ways — I think that’s good for everyone. We don’t’ want to be antagonistic.

There are many more questions I can ask… and we’re passed our time. Let me ask you two final questions.

First, the question that sparked this conversation about Patch, which was on the mind of many, many ONA attendees: Is Patch evil. (I had to ask)

Ha! You know, I was at ONA and I LOVED your question. I [meant] to tweet you afterward but you were too busy being mobbed by groupies. ;-)

I don’t think I could give a better answer than the one Tim Armstrong gave: the only people who should really be asked that question are our users. If they decide we’re evil or unnecessary, they will vote with their feet and the problem will solve itself. But if we’re doing our jobs, I don’t think people would argue with what we’re trying to do.

But thanks for getting that question out there — I think it totally captured and summed up a kind of general angst about what we’re doing and we were glad to have the opportunity to address it. I think these kinds of discussions are really healthy. We respect the concerns that are out there, so we welcome the chances to talk about them. In fact, we’re about to launch a corporate blog (I almost erased that because I hate calling it “corporate”) — but an official Patch blog to try to proactively describe the things we’re doing and the reasons why. And I’m sure we’ll get a few “you’re evil” type comments on the posts here and there, but that’s ok! We can have that convo there too.

Lastly, is there anything you’d like to add as we wrap up?

Not really. My fingers hurt. ;-) But I’ve actually really enjoyed this. Cool way of doing things.

Thank you so much… you have been gracious with your time!

My pleasure, Robert. Any time!

Categories: CrowdSource, Journalism, OJR, ONA Tags: ,
03 Nov

Is Patch evil? Someone had to ask, so I did

NOTE: Originally ran on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201011/1903/

Hi, I’m “Evil Man.”

Well, that’s according to All Things Digital‘s Kara Swisher, who moderated a keynote presentation with America Online‘s Tim Armstrong and National Public Radio‘s Vivian Schiller at the Online News Association conference in D.C.

She dubbed me that after I asked a question that, to me, was clearly the elephant in the room.

For months before the conference, there has been a buzz in the journalism industry with people trying to understand AOL’s Patch.com, a venture in hyperlocal news.

According to its Web site, the Patch network is in 14 states, but expects to expand into three more. It’s already in more than 300 cities (63 of them in California alone), and plans to add nearly 200 more.

The ISP-turned-content network is putting its money where its virtual mouth is by committing an investment of up to $50 million to this project.

They have hired a ton of people, among them laid off journalists and recent j-school graduates. It has even partnered up with several universities, including USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

I know a few of their folks and they rave about their new, exciting job.

But, there are reports painting a less-than-positive side to this network. From claims of plagiarism to descriptions of “sweatshop” like hours, these reported issues have raised concern.

At a recent Hacks/Hackers meetup in Los Angeles, the topic of Patch came up and there was concern that local, independent bloggers would be killed off. That said, it was also admitted that not enough was known about the venture, but the group would like to explore the concerns.

Still, even while I was at the conference, people were asking each other what they thought of Patch. In fact, there was an unconference session (an impromptu session proposed and voted upon by the conference attendees) that wanted to explore this question.

But by 45 minutes into the talk, it looked like no one was going to ask the question. So I tweeted this out:
Ugh... I think I'm going to ask the Q on people's mind: Is Patch evil? @ONA10 #Ona10

And, once I was handed the mic, I did.

You can see the exchange, which aired on C-SPAN live (jump to: 00:45:58). It was also written up by Lost Remote. You can tell that the attendees were the shocked that I asked, but applauded the question.

One person told me she literally spit out her coffee when she heard my question while watching the live video stream.

For the record, I was not trying to say Patch is evil with my question, but merely ask the question that people were thinking. Prior to the conference, I had been on the fence about Patch and engaged other folks about this topic.

The reaction to my question has been overwhelming positive, but what has been interesting to me has been how a few folks thought I was either too soft or too hard on Patch. To me though, that averages out to the spot that I had intended: straight down the middle.

As you may have heard, the ONA10 attendees took to Twitter making me a local trending topic. Here are some of the reactions:

Maureen Linke
Vadim Lavrusik
Ken Sands
Heather Billings
Dave Stanton
Amy Webb
Bob Payne
Mel Taylor

A search of Twitter will show you a ton more, but Dani Fankhauser also compiled a list of her favorite tweets.

Outside of the comments, the two questions I got asked most were: What did I think of his answer? And, do I think Patch is evil?

Personally, I was mixed on his answer… I was surprised that he seemed like he didn’t know this vibe was toward Patch. While he talked in general terms about pay and pace, I did like his idea of partnering with local bloggers.

After all that, is Patch evil? From what I can tell, no. It’s hiring journalists. It’s trying to be a service to many communities. It’s investing in informing the public, while other media companies have just stopped cutting budgets.

But, I also don’t think it is all a giant Patch of roses. To me, it seems to be a move to become one of the largest ad networks in the country, going after local advertisers. Under the umbrella of “we care about the community,” this is a business venture. That’s not evil, that’s capitalism.

The bottom-line in this story isn’t my personal opinion. That alone doesn’t really matter. What mattered was that someone asked the question on everyone’s mind. What I did was not brave… it was journalism.

Not sure it merited being called “Evil Man,” but glad that the act of asking was applauded. I also like that the questioned spurred a dialogue about the project.

So, in keeping with that ongoing dialogue, what is your take on Patch? Are you a supporter or a hater? Email, comment or @reply me with your thoughts. I’ll publish the crowdsource response soon.

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail (r.hernandez@usc.edu) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

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