Between August 2013 and December 2013, I interviewed more than a dozen current and former employees of AOL Patch. Their stories form the basis of this case study on the hyperlocal online news network and its business failings and successes.
“People above me would correct me and say it’s not a news site, it’s a community hub. They wanted it to be like Craigslist.” –Former AOL Patch network freelancer for multiple sites
Steve was happy to make the leap from a dying community newspaper chain to AOL’s new venture Patch. Patch, he said, offered him a lifeline into a digital first world and an update in skills that he sorely needed.
He’d been in community publishing long enough to know the routines of local journalism. Cover city hall, cover city council, police and fire, school board. Check real estate and development or planning. Tap into local nonprofit networks. And like many Patch editors brought in during the AOL land grab, Steve lived in the community that he covered as local editor for AOL.
He really believed Tim Armstrong, believed that they were the vanguard of a new kind of journalism organization serving the communities like Armstrong’s, that lacked access to fresh, local news.
Now Steve looks at the community site that he built, where people knew who he was, who would say “When will this be up on Patch?” And it’s because of the work he put in to make it what it is. With little marketing assistance from headquarters and long hours, he made Seaside Patch* what it was.
“I was very happy to be a part of it. It had been my dream to start a new newspaper. When I saw what Patch was doing, I was very excited about that. At the time, they were interested in providing news and information.”
Steve was laid off in August 2013. Now the site is 1/8 of the life it was under his watch, he says.
“Patch Editors Lived and Breathed the News”
When Mary started as a regional editor, Patch was a great place to work.
“I learned a lot about digital, social media, etc. Reporters were taught how to edit video. It was an enormous help to someone who came from the print world and it brought them into the digital world.”
Patch training sessions taught editors how to catch a story that is going viral. Some regional groups tried informal mentoring around stories, regional editors touched base daily with local editors.
Job duties for local editor were spelled out in the Patch Cookbook. How to cover local news, council meetings, get the police blotter. Gather school news. Run site, write, handhold bloggers, meetings, changes, write. Be an ambassador in the community. Host booth at festival. Write. Cook chili for cookoff. Write. Attend environmental fair. Meet with local moms. Sit in coffee shop with conversation starter. Take more pictures. Use more video. More lists.
“The Patch editors lived and breathed the news. Some days we thought it was a 9-5 job, but it wasn’t. We had freelancers or another editor to help out with breaking news. But it was 24/7 and always on call. Many towns weren’t like this, but a lot were.”
However, one editor says there definitely was a sense of being part of something bigger.
“There was a sense we were doing what we could do best. Because our names were on it and because we took pride in what we did. We had to care about it because no one else did.”
Changes for Cha-Ching
For that work, Patch editors got starting salaries from $30K to $45K. Regional editors could make $60K. Initially AOL tried to hire editors local to the areas they would cover. As the organization grew, hiring criteria changed. So did editorial budgets for freelancers, which originally started at $2,000 per site per month then it dropped to $200 and then nothing. Some editors found themselves with two sites. Content standards changed from three or four to seven pieces or stories a day.
“I was often working 12-16 hours a day because I would have to go to an event and write four stories. Or get a call at 2 a.m. that there’s a fire. It started to really wear on me,” said one local editor.
In 2010, regional editors began to hear feedback from local editors that they needed help with work/life balance.
“This job is hurting my marriage and my family, they would say,” said one regional editor. “And headquarters didn’t offer any ways to help people. You can’t ask someone who has worked 75 hours a week and say ‘Why did you only have four stories today?’”
Some regional editors instituted a 13th editor – an editor and reporter at large that would help with breaking news or vacation coverage.
“The regional editors and the other local editors helped each other, said one local editor. “When they started slashing freelance budgets that hurt us a lot. Then editors didn’t have control of their budgets anymore and you had to get approval. Or you had a regional editor that was like a dictator and had trouble using the money that was supposed to be ours to begin with.”
Boots on the Ground
Patch editors, they argue, understood the local conditions better than headquarters. They understood that there’s no one size fits all.
“They (HQ) didn’t listen to what we thought would work best in our town.”
Local editors chafed against the lack of local control over content and budgets. They were having to do more with less and less. Meanwhile, New York headquarters continued to try different content mandates.
“Now you must cover high school sports headquarters would say,” said one Patch freelancer who became a local editor. “And that was without help. And most editors were covering two sites, too.”
“We were getting a lot of directives coming down in the form of sponsored posts…or you should now start covering this. There was a very cookie-cutter approach. In my Patch, high school sports would be a huge draw. In other Patches, the residents don’t care.”
This was just one of many “very meddlesome editorial interventions from New York” that were clearly intended game search, game audience to drive up eyeballs and drive up ad revenue sooner. Headquarters and local editors really clashed over Mommy Councils, “our most outrageous request” said one editor.
“We learned we now had to focus on stay-at-home moms because Patch brass had ascertained that this segment of the audience comprised 30-40 percent of the people who read Patch. So they said ‘You’re no longer just a hyperlocal editor, you are now a content creator catering to this audience.’ ”
“We had a council of mothers to talk to us about what was important to mothers. Then explain how they would handle it. They would talk and then the editors would write a story about the mothers’ discussion,” described another editor.
Local editors were to recruit Mommy Bloggers to fill the user-generated content catering to this audience, picking up a tactic from the Huffington Post after its merger with AOL in May 2011.
“All of this on paper doesn’t sound like a terrible idea, but it was terribly time consuming and took away from our ability as Patch sites to be news outlets.”
“Not Interested the Slightest Tiny Bit about News”
With an internal fight going on for control of AOL, Tim Armstrong and the New York team are desperate to drive up revenue numbers by December 2013.
Local editors were told to stop covering school board meetings unless they could get four stories out of it. How would they know? They had to call the superintendent to see what might be story worthy in advance. And make a guess.
“The writing was on the wall. “There was an increasing sense of ‘We don’t care how you make it happen…You can post tons and tons of cat poetry if it gets eyeballs. We don’t care how you do it.’”
Readers came to Patch sites initially because there was a strong writer providing coverage of their area, these editors believe. However, readers also recognized when things changed.
“People picked up on the fact that we had deviated from our editorial mission. It was obvious we weren’t covering the town like we used to. They posted more fluff and people noticed. They didn’t like it,” said one local editor.
“With time, we found this big, huge company was not interested the slightest tiny bit about news. That was lip service. You hire 800 journalists…we are nothing but professional bullshit detectors.”
“The way it manifested in the field was these series of directives that challenged us in being what we were originally asked to be,” he said.
“Readers were angry and it demoralized Patch editors. We were just filling these slots in the content by then and everyone stopped giving a shit.”
The August 2013 layoffs left Patch sites in limbo. According to Business Insider, 350 local and mid-level editors lost their jobs. Headquarters started moving people around and new editors couldn’t match what the other editor had been doing. While a decimated regional structure tried to stitch back together what is left of the hyperlocal network, New York quietly began negotiating an exit for AOL.
The famous Patch maps used to fill the gaps haunted AOL headquarters as they attempted retreat.
“That kind of stuff damaged our credibility in our towns. People were used to seeing the Patch editor around town and call and talk to them. Someone they had access to. And that model started slipping away after August.”
“If Patch had been allowed to grow in an organic way instead of getting more out of the golden goose without trying to jimmy the metrics, I don’ t think we would be having this conversation,” said one local editor.
“I still believe in what they were trying to do. I still think that boots on the ground, community journalism is very viable in towns like mine where the newspaper doesn’t exist.”
But AOL Patch ran out of runway on December 31, 2013. With no time left for one-off negotiations for pieces of the hyperlocal network, AOL Patch sold 60 percent share of what’s left of Patch to Hale Global in January 2014. But Patch had already sold its soul months earlier in a race to bolster profits.
And in the process, it pimped its editors who were being asked to swallow disappointment along with the collapse of their hard work.
“I feel like Patch succeeded in spite of itself for the first two years by milking the professional pride of its employees until there was no more left to give.”
*No real names are published with this story to provide anonymity to the Patch sources who contributed to this case study.
Dr. Michelle Ferrier is associate dean for innovation at the Scripps College of Communication, Ohio University. She has been tracking hyperlocal online news and AOL Patch on two wikis: Hyperlocal Online News and AOLPatch. She is a pioneer in new media, particularly online communities and hyperlocal online news and is the publisher of LocallyGrownNews.com. She can be reached at ferrierm(at)ohio(dot)edu or on Twitter @mediaghosts. This series will preview here weekly at michelleferrier.wordpress.com.