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Posts Tagged ‘Patch’
20 Oct

J/i Conf: Three CEOs, a president and me

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[Posting this late]

I played moderator for an impressive CEO panel during the inaugural Journalism Interactive Conference. It was a cool, informal conversation with Burt Herman CEO of Storify, founder of Hacks/Hackers; Edouard Lambelet CEO and Co-Founder of Paper.li; Evan Ratliff Co-founder, editor of The Atavist; Warren Webster President of Patch Media.

Here’s the video:

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: ,
10 Nov

Journalists “cautiously pessimistic” about Patch

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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.

NOTE: I’ve be in talks with Patch since last week’s blog post trying to figure out the best way to express its point of view. Rather than craft a statement or respond to one or two of these reactions, and due to my deadline, we’ve opted to do a separate, follow-up post that will be a Q&A with Editor-in-Chief Brian Farnham.

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.

I think there's lots of potential there, but I haven't heard much about their business model and that makes me nervous. (1/2)
That said, some Patch sites I've seen feel a little too

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.

I wonder what is the point of Patch coming to Redondo Beach, which has 3 local newspapers already. What is it "patching" here

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?

Im curious to see how it will do in detroit, which seems to be a target area. Lots of smaller papers aren't succeeding there.@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.

I have a former coworker that just went To work for Patch. He said it was kind of a risk but seemed pretty excited.
The guy I know (a former Chicago Tribune guy) says he loves it. He manages 12-13 sites I think. Says they're very flexible.

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.

If you look at their jobs page, they're hiring like crazy. Way too many open positions for something deemed a "startup."
Plus, who throws that much support behind an idea like hyperlocalized news websites? The concept is still too new.
It just seems strange. Why would a company throw so much support and money behind a market that hasn't proven viable?

But there is the counter perspective.

I feel you with your skepticism but I'm also happy someone is trying to build something.
Does that mean Patch will work? No. I give them a fighting chance in the current climate. Time will tell.

“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:

A nice one :) I've been to a few conferences recently where local site operators reported Patch swiping advertisers :(

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.

key to #onlinejournalism if ur going 2 give me ANOTHER thing to read. Gotta give a reason to switch to new content. outreach!

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.

Categories: CrowdSource, Journalism, OJR 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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