Monday, August 26, 2013

A very rough Patch:
Tim Armstrong’s myopic hyperlocal vision


AT ROUGHLY the same digital time when the mainstream media and the blogosphere had their collective knickers in a breathless twist over Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post, another media story was playing out with a lot less attention, one with a grim short-term impact for Patch’s hyperlocal news model, and many of the professional journalists and citizen writers who’ve tried like hell to make that model work.

Patch, the company-community of hundreds of local news sites covering events in America’s smaller cities and towns, formally announced on Aug. 14 that it would start laying off hundreds of workers effective on Aug. 16. Two days later. We got the dark warnings of the layoffs on Aug. 7, when Tim Armstrong, the irascible CEO of AOL, Patch’s parent company, said what was coming in a conference call. This prime directive figured that about 300 underperforming Patch sites would likely be shuttered, sold, consolidated with other Patches, or made to partner with other existing local-news sites.

It was only some of the latest bad news for a company whose business model has been a stretch from the start, a patchwork of local sites that suffers from a shortage of paid (and therefore incentivized) workers, traffic data, per-site resources, cutting-edge technology and editorial vision from the top.

And bad news got even worse. Armstrong broke that on an Aug. 9 second-quarter earnings call. Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici reported that, out of the 900+ Patch sites now up and running, “only about 500 will remain under the corporate umbrella as owned-and-operated properties.”

The apparent implosion of Patch as a mushrooming community-news venture reveals the frailties of a business model that‘s been, finally, at odds with itself. An aggressive approach to indigenous, hyperlocal news is collapsing under the weight of its own templatized, hypernational ambition, and a willful ignorance of a fact of independent community-based journalism: Local doesn’t scale.

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Patch is the Rashomon experience of modern American local newsgathering, its value and the effectiveness of its strategy dependent on who you’re asking. Its workers either love or hate the Patch business model of hyperlocal news, and react accordingly when new decrees on Patch’s survival come down from HQ. The latest: Patch leadership has decided to thin the herd selectively, with some employees asked to stay on until Oct. 15, and others ... not.

Courtesy of Jim Romenesko’s excellent media site, then, a tale of two Patch experiences:

One Patch editor says:

The arrangement offered by the company is completely one-sided.


The employee is required to stay until Oct. 15 during which time the company can terminate those employees for nearly any reason. If the employee is terminated before Oct. 15 or leaves for any reason, that employee will get nothing.

Make it to Oct. 15 and the employee gets 2 mos severance. They can receive an additional 2 weeks pay if they agree to sign a separation agreement and forgo certain rights that are as yet undefined.
The employees selected were not asked if they wanted to participate in this arrangement.

Another Patch editor says:

I am one of the editors laid off effective Oct. 15. Unless someone in HR has it in for your tipster (doubtful), he is wrong on one point. My severance letter clearly states that I will receive the payout regardless of what date Patch terminates my employment. The exception is unless they decide to retain me, or fire me for poor performance.


While I’m not crazy about them having the right to revoke the benefits and retain me if they want, I actually feel like the severance benefits are pretty generous. In addition to the money, I can also keep my health benefits until the new year, at AOL’s expense.


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WHATEVER THE stated newsgathering or editorial rationale might be for Armstrong, it all comes down to AOL cutting costs. After rejiggering Patch over the past year and tweaking the Patch content management technology, Armstrong looks ready to buy-in to the idea of a leaner bottom line. “[W]e have to get Patch into a place where it’s going to be successful and it’s going to be successful for a long time,” Armstrong said on the Aug. 7 call.

As reported by Newsday, Armstrong said the cost for each Patch edition is now less than the $150,000 figure cited by AOL sometime ago, “and the remaining sites will run at a ‘much, much, much lower’ cost than that.”

EdgeGuy71 senses what’s coming. He commented in Newsday: “OK, so the cost per site will be ‘much, much, much lower’ than $150,000 a year, he said. Sounds like a much, much, much-reduced staff, with much, much, much more work to for remaining employees. This likely means much, much, much more regional content, press releases and aggregated stories. All of which begs the question: He says he expects the hyperlocal network to be profitable by the fourth quarter, but when does he expect them to be hyperlocal?”

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There’s been evidence to suggest that Armstrong’s employee world-view is other than fully in touch with reality. During the Aug. 9 conference call previewing the bloodletting to come — in a moment that should be required listening at business schools on how not to fire people — there was Armstrong’s real morale-building move of firing creative director Abel Lenz during the call, telephonically offing Lenz in front of perhaps 1,000 workers ... for the crime of taking a picture with a cell phone.

Armstrong apologized four days later, in a memo leaked to numerous news outlets. "I am writing you to acknowledge the mistake I made last Friday during the Patch all-hands meeting when I publicly fired Abel Lenz," Armstrong said. "It was an emotional response at the start of a difficult discussion dealing with many people's careers and livelihoods. I am the CEO and leader of the organization, and I take that responsibility seriously."

But there’s no way to undo a revelation. Writing on Aug. 19 in The Guardian, the usually on-point Michael Wolff wrote about what that tantrum revealed about AOL/Armstrong’s real relationship with Patchers, and by extension, the company culture of AOL:

“Digital companies often work with disproportionate numbers of young people, many in their twenties, many credited with much brilliance, and we tend to see them as a lucky group (free food, lax dress codes, etc). But suddenly, in the permanent and viral record of the Armstrong tantrum, it was possible to see the other side of this vaunted status, when the kids are not performing so well: it's an infantilized and demeaning world. These aren't professionals, who, even in extremis, command a certain degree of respect and human-resource ritual; these are children being upbraided and punished.”

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The tale-of-two-Patches narrative was thus renewed. One Patch editor reacted to the Armstrong call like this:

“I now feel somewhat optimistic about Patch’s future for the first time in over a year. Tim Armstrong was spot-on with the observation that Patch needed “capital-L leadership,” and I have no doubt he can provide it. His no-BS, transparent approach is exactly what this company needs. Many of the sites that will be cut should probably have been sold or closed down over a year ago, rather than weakening the brand by filling them up with generic, sponsored and cookie-cutter content. I say this as the founding editor of a site I loved, that will probably close down — and I say it as a Patch employee that will probably lose her job in the next week.”

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ANOTHER PATCH editor with skin in the game took a different view: “This downsizing will not work to save Patch. At its peak, Patch had more than 2,000 employees, while drawing about the same traffic as Examiner.com, which is produced with about 30 employees. Offloading the 300-400 lowest-performing sites may help with overhead in the short term, but traffic will take a significant hit. Lower traffic will result in lower revenue, and so the ‘impacts’ will continue.”

At the Romenesko.com Web site, a Patch intern in Evanston, Ill., gave an insider’s perspective earlier this month, before the axe fell:

Things have rapidly worsened. As an intern, I am expected to write no less than 4 posts a day, plus any breaking-news aggregation, plus pre-writing and scheduling all the content for the weekend. That is no small task, especially for $10 an hour. Other interns on the East Coast seem to have been luckier, but it seems I got a bad "Patch."

Content has rapidly worsened, too. After 2.0, new "programming" came from HQ that mandated many of our daily posts to "ease the workload." Unfortunately, none of these posts were substantial. The sites are now littered with sponsored content and user-written blogs are masqueraded as news. Editors high up in the company write generic, catch-all posts that are edited to seem local and posted on the sites. (This has not gone well, as readers aren't stupid.) Essentially, Patch is just smoke and mirrors.


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Armstrong’s intent to retool Patch as a leaner, faster-moving media outfit has its merits. “Lean and mean” has been a longstanding corporate mantra in America, never more so than during the lean and mean years the U.S. economy has been struggling to survive.

Patch has had its journalistic champions. Denise Lockwood, a former Patch editor in Wisconsin, wrote on Aug. 22 in the Nieman Journalism Lab Web site: “Before Patch came to the thriving metropolis of Caledonia and Mount Pleasant, Wisc., the Racine Journal Times ... RARELY covered any news in 
our communities. Why do they do that now? Because we scooped them a ton and they started losing eyeballs. We've helped solve crimes, found lost children, covered a historic recall election, covered mass shootings, 
and broken a ton of news stories. There's a ton of stuff that wasn't being covered and we did it.”

This hints at one of Patch’s redeeming qualities: The hyperlocal model is one that’s great for training young and relatively untried journalists eager to cut their teeth on something other than the college paper, something in the real world (and however small-town that real world might be). “Hiring more than 900 journalists, to much bloggy uproar and sometimes misplaced rage, it defied the trend of local journalists being laid off by the thousands,” Ken Doctor writes at the Nieman site. “Despite its sometimes unclear purpose, Patch’s role in paying journalists to do journalism has usually been undervalued.”

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THE RUB comes when those young reporters don’t really know the towns they’re writing about.

Virginia Citrano, publisher of MyVeronaNJ.com, touches on this in an Aug. 20 podcast on the NJ News Commons Web site: “There were no other opportunities for young journalists coming out there ... but I think ... they hired wrong from the get-go. ... We’ve been through six different editors, seven different editors [of the Verona, N.J. Patch]. Only one has had any previous experience with Verona, and if you are going to do local, you’ve gotta be local. You’ve gotta know what the backstory is. Look, my family has lived in my town since 1928. There are still things I don’t get about my town.

“I don’t understand how Patch thought it was going to essentially replicate the print news model of ‘let’s take some kids out of school, parachute them in, they’re warm bodies at a desk, we can send them to send them to a school board meeting and a high-school football game, and it’s all gonna work out great.’”

Steve Johnson, the former senior regional editor for Patch, weighed in on the same podcast about his former employer. “This is Tim Armstrong’s failure. It is entirely his failure.”

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Don’t misunderstand. The idea of locally-owned community news Web sites is far from dead; the Brandchannel Web site said on Aug. 19 that such sites are thriving in a $132 billion local advertising market. But Marie K. Shanahan, a Connecticut blogger who worked at a Connecticut Patch for a year, explained Patch’s unforced errors in detail on her own site on Aug. 17:

“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. ...

“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.”

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SHANAHAN CONTINUES: “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.”

Connecticut Patchers got no breaks from Armstrong, who lives in Connecticut. Shanahan reported that “the first wave of Patch editors summoned to an 11 a.m. ET call on [Aug. 16] included Connecticut folks, who were tersely informed their jobs had been eliminated. Last day on the payroll: Aug. 23.”

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Howard Owens has his own take on why Patch’s ad-revenue model was doomed from the jump, and it couldn’t be easier to understand. In a smartly distilling column for NetNews Check.com, this online news pioneer and the publisher of The Batavian, a local news site in upstate New York, observes:

“The typical small business owner is still unsure about all of this online marketing stuff. They are busy tossing dough or ordering a new stock of Broyhill end tables to try and figure out the best way to use Twitter. Then some person they've never met from a company they've never heard of who has no apparent stake in their community comes whistling in the door and tries to sell them ads, throwing around confusing terms such as ‘banner rotation’ and ‘CPM.’ That pitch is going nowhere.”

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ARMSTRONG MAY be just now coming around to an obvious way forward — or what would have been a way forward three years ago: Invest more in what’s already growing. Rather than the brain-stem-boiling effort of building a network of local sites from the ground up, each of them with no conceptual autonomy or independence from Patch HQ, a more practical way into hyperlocal news would have been for Armstrong to sink development money into, say, 200 or 300 existing local sites scattered around the country.

Commit that money to local sites to be used by local editors and managers as they see fit — in exchange for “Patch” branding rights and nominal editorial and IT oversight from Patch management. And instead of building a bespoke common CMS platform — and incurring all the headaches that go with it — bargain with the local sites to develop unifying design elements through an already-existing platform like WordPress or Drupal.

As it is, the community journalists who’ll hang on at Patch until Oct. 15 face an uncertain future amid persistence of a bitter and venerable workplace saying that’s playing itself out. It’s that saying that sometimes applies whether you’re manning the oar of a slave ship or working for a fraction of your worth at a CMS-buggy hyperlocal Web site that trafficks in breathless news of the best public toilets in town or the traffic cones flattened on Main Street, without the traffic data to know who’s reading what, without the local advertisers need to support the business, and sometimes written by writers with a marginal stake in the community.

In the short term, at least, it seems The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves.

Image credits: Patch logo: © 2013 Patch Media. Armstrong: Jim Spellman/WireImage. Broadneck Throneroom Review: © 2013 Broadneck Patch/Patch Media. 

2 comments:

  1. Dear Michael, Thank you for including my perspective in your post about the current state of AOL's Patch news sites. For the record, I am an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut. Also, if you are going to quote so heavily from my blog post, I'd appreciate if you can please add a hyperlink to my original article, as a professional courtesy. http://www.mariekshanahan.com/the-uncertain-future-of-patch-in-connecticut/ Sincerely, Marie

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