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?