The Uncertain Future of Patch in Connecticut

Now that AOL has laid off 40 percent of the Patch workforce, those of us concerned about the local news landscape in Connecticut want to know what’s going to happen to the state’s 67 Patch sites.

Which sites will be shut down? Will AOL partner with existing Connecticut news organizations or independent news purveyors to keep sites going? What kind of content will fill Patch sites going forward: journalist-reported news or user-submitted posts and aggregation? How will the remaining Patch editors in Connecticut contribute?

I’d hoped AOL CEO Tim Armstrong would spare Connecticut from Friday’s cuts, since he lives in the Riverside section of Greenwich, CT and the dearth of local news about his own Connecticut community was the inspiration for Patch.

But the first wave of Patch editors summoned to an 11 a.m. ET call on Friday included Connecticut folks, who were tersely informed their jobs had been eliminated. Last day on the payroll: Aug. 23.

The next batch of editors on a 12:30 p.m. ET call heard the unsettling news that their sites would be “transitioning” and their jobs would end on Oct. 15.

At 1 p.m., the remaining editors – not sure yet how many in Connecticut – learned they are safe (for now) and part of the Patch “Go Forward Team.”

Full disclosure: I worked as a Patch regional editor in Connecticut for one year, from July 2010 to July 2011. I helped the company hire nearly two dozen journalists in Connecticut and Minnesota, in a frenzied push for Patch to “scale.”

But, as The Batavian’s Howard Owens explained in his Aug. 9, 2013 NetNewsCheck essay about Patch: “Local doesn’t scale.”

“In the news business, the first story costs just as much as the third or the 30th or the last. Online, it’s possible to get more production out of a single reporter, but time is not elastic. At the end of the day comes the end of the day.”

More than half of the journalists I hired in 2010 are no longer employed by Patch. They either departed on their own for other opportunities (myself included), or are layoff victims. How did it come to this?

Here’s what I know from my one-year Patch experience:

The company hired too many people, too quickly. It wasted a lot of money (Grassroots conventions, Fun Clubs, bonuses). It also wasted a lot of editors’ time and energy on top-down “programming” that changed from month to month and did not always make sense on the local level. Ask a local Patch editor about ‘PatchCast’ or ‘Double Down’ and watch their eyes roll.

The bugs in the Patch content management system (CMS) often made doing the job inefficient and frustrating. When I joined Patch with my newly earned graduate degree in Interactive Communications, I expected the AOL-owned company’s web content tools to be cutting edge, responsive and intuitive. But the technology was restrictive. My personal/free WordPress blog offered more online storytelling capabilities than the Patch system.

In addition, the 67 Patch sites in Connecticut were not dynamically connected, so a statewide story had to be recreated over and over again, wasting editors’ time. I heard the Patch CMS improved after I left, but editors tell me the latest CMS iteration, called Patch 2.0, is wrought with problems again.

Another major frustration for me at Patch involved metrics, or the lack thereof. During most of my time as a regional editor, granular data about visitors and clicks was not provided to editors. We couldn’t tell which stories were the most visited or most shared. We couldn’t tailor any type of coverage because we didn’t know what was resonating with each site’s audience. Because Patch management wouldn’t, or couldn’t, deliver traffic data, we had to guess. I know I wasted valuable freelance money on content that didn’t take hold, because I assumed wrong.

I also think Patch expended too much effort training editors to produce barely watched online videos, while taking too long to capitalize on social media. Many of the original editors hired by Patch in 2010 didn’t know much about Twitter, or even Facebook. Everyone was trained eventually, but in hindsight, an aggressive social media push from day one would have helped boost awareness of Patch and develop relationships and credibility with audiences. Other online-only news start-ups have successfully hooked audiences through social media (see The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, NowThisNews.)

Speaking of The Huffington Post, Patch’s integration with the larger AOL network started to take shape just before I left in 2011. That seemed like a great opportunity for Patch. The “Local Voices” initiative spearheaded by Arianna Huffington in May 2011 brought local blogging to each Patch site, albeit with varied success. Patch also pushed into towns in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina to help The Huffington Post with coverage of the 2012 presidential primary. But by mid-2012, as profitability eluded Patch, Huffington distanced herself from the division, concentrating her efforts on her namesake news organization.

So far, Patch headlines continue to appear on the AOL homepage under the “Local & Weather” heading.

The one bright spot: in towns where there was a strong local editor — someone who enjoyed talking with and responding to people, who saw newsgathering and storytelling as a public service, who had the trust of the audience — there was engagement. Those Patch sites developed real value and a devoted following.

I was never privy to any insider details about the success or failure of advertising on the sites. I don’t know whether the much-talked about Patch local directory ever made any money. I do know my Patch salary and bonuses far exceeded any annual salary I’d made in my journalism career, but I never worked so much either. The same goes for the rest of my Patch team. We worked hard – day, night, at home, at restaurants, in parking lots, on vacation, constantly.

I hope all my former colleagues land on their feet somewhere soon. And I hope AOL figures out a way to keep Connecticut’s 67 Patch sites open, useful and relevant.

This journalism professor believes we need more independent entities covering local news about government, schools, crime and the idiosyncrasies of town life, not less. The civic health of Connecticut’s citizenry depends on it. In 2011, the Secretary of the State’s office issued the first-ever Connecticut Civic Health Index. It showed that citizens with more access to news are more active in their communities: They vote, they participate, they care.

Is there a dearth of news in the places with the worst civic health? What do you think, Tim Armstrong?

12 thoughts on “The Uncertain Future of Patch in Connecticut

  1. Don’t forget Readers’ Choice as an eye roller.
    As an Associate Regional Editor in New Jersey, I cannot tell you how “ingenious” and “captivating” that headquarters initiative was to my local editors.
    One local editor even posted on her Newark, NJ Patch Facebook and Twitter feed, “Since no one in Newark cares about the best florist, there are no winners.”

  2. I worked as a local Patch editor in Massachusetts during the same period Marie was in Connecticut and had a very similar experience. I had a tightly engaged following in the my community for most of that year, but I left in part because the top-down programming was killing what Patch had set out to do: offer quality local news and content tailored for social media and the web.

  3. A great insider’s view on Patch.

    How do we build an engaged audience that feels we are part of their community. Then how can our ad folks monetize that?

    The Patch of 2010 was a leader in Connecticut in presences in their communities. Put a Patch sticker on your laptop and sit in a coffee shop or library. The Courant now encourages reporters to work from their towns much more than we traditionally have.

    I agree with Marie that engagement needs to extend into social media. We need to connect with our community on Facebook and Twitter and encourage discussion.

    I also agree with Marie that Connecticut is among the best petri dishes for hyperlocal journalism anywhere. Connecticut news consumers are ubber town centric. If we can’t make it succeed here, the concept maybe flawed.

    I’m also glad to read a former Patcher discredit the idea that apathy is rampant. See StreetFight article by GoLocal24 founder. http://bit.ly/17IFtkn As Marie writes, the Patch model demands a 24/7 life commitment from its journalists. I fault burnout more than apathy in the Patch model.

    I appreciate all my colleagues who take up the fight of grassroots, hyperlocal journalism for their contribution to the communities they serve. It’s why many of us got into journalism.

    – Jim Welch

  4. Nice read, Marie. What a terrible mess. Some of the mistakes you’ve highlighted seem really kind of elementary for a web news company, although a lot has been learned throughout the industry since 2009. And thanks for linking. 🙂

  5. The local Patch in the SW suburbs of Chicago is mainly a laughing stock known for taking up any cause of the aggravated housewife. They harass local officials and generally report only whatever side of the story they agree with. If there are good Patchs out there this all stinks for them, but at least in my community I hope our Patch is one of the first to go,

  6. Here is what the The Courant reported on what Patch sites are closing:
    “Individual Patch editors who manage sites in Berlin; Enfield and Ellington-Somers; Montville and New London; and Rocky Hill posted to their Patch Facebook pages that they have been let go. Ronni Zimbler Newton, regional editor for West Hartford and some Farmington Valley sites, also posted that she had been laid off. The Darien Patch editor reported he was staying on.”

    http://articles.courant.com/2013-08-16/business/hc-patch-layoffs-0810-20130809_1_sites-warren-webster-aol-ceo-tim-armstrong

  7. I worked for Patch for about two years, and those top-down initiatives Marie mentioned consumed so much time that our local editors had to scale back their local news coverage. Patch handed down those initiatives about the same time it eliminated or severely reduced freelance budgets, so employees on the ground who already worked 60-70 hour weeks were asked to take on even more of the workload. At that point Patch still didn’t have a real protocol or resources for its overworked editors to take vacations. Burnout was a huge problem.

    And because Patch was cracking the whip for more generic content imposed by clueless brainstorming teams at HQ, actual news suffered as a result, and engagement plummeted within those few sites where editors managed to get traction and produce solid reporting. There were some sites that were really tuned in to local issues and had devoted followings, and the important readers (the locals, not the SEO-baited surfers who will never return) abandoned those sites en masse when they found their local content had been replaced by generic columns, badly-written blog posts, and sloppy, unedited regional material.

    You like your local Patch’s coverage of police scandals, school board malfeasance and the local arts scene? Too bad. The powers that be paid a marketing firm to tell them Patch needed mommy blogger content, so the first real news coverage in your town since the local newspaper folded will now be replaced by blogs about gardening. You found your local Patch’s election coverage informative? Sorry, that’s been replaced by a poll where we ask you, dear reader, to provide our content by voting in our Best Local Pizza Contest!

    Regarding the blogs, I can’t agree with you, Marie. It was one of the more revolting moves from the Huffington play book, asking tens of thousands of people for free content. Because Patch was increasingly reliant on its army of unpaid bloggers, it had no control over the quality of that content when it already had a (deserved) reputation for low quality content from its full time staff.

    So many Patch sites were cringe-worthy and embarrassingly terrible because Patch did not respect professional practices. Journalists have a responsibility to the people and the communities they cover, and last time I checked, speaking truth to power did not involve shaming local people or tricking readers with click-bait to increase AOL’s profit margins. Journalism is not about flattering local businesses with fluff in the hopes they’ll buy ads, or parachuting inexperienced reporters into towns to mangle coverage of important local issues. You’re fortunate, Marie, that you left before HQ essentially merged editorial with advertising while insisting they were not crossing any ethical boundaries. Patch had j-profs as “advisors” and board members, did it not? How on earth did they stay silent while Patch ignored and practically mocked journalism ethics?

    I could write an entire post about the damage Patch’s irresponsible reporting has done to local communities, but I’ll spare you. I hope that your journalism students graduate with better options than Patch and its smaller clones.

  8. Great column – and I was on sales side for more than a year (till last week) and can offer a similar analysis. A great idea and much potential flushed down the toilet by (new) upper-sales management who do not understand “local” and who bluntly told the sales team in January “the company that you work for now is not the same one that you started with.”

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