Culture Clash: AOL Patch Editors Despair Over Diluted News Mission

Patch_logoBetween 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.”

Editor Overboard

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.

 

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Culture Clash: AOL Patch Editors Despair Over Diluted News Mission

13 thoughts on “Culture Clash: AOL Patch Editors Despair Over Diluted News Mission

  1. Patch is evil. I found that they used a story that a political machine had written about me. The story is defamatory and AOL PATCH has the story with HUNDREDS of SPAMMY BACKLINKS and has the site registered with CSC GLOBAL. The spammed sites are to facebook and other sites that are irrrelevent. PATCH REFUSES TO REMOVE THE DEFAMATORY STORY

    The story is being page ranked to the top of google and paid to remain there by this POLITICAL Boss who just lost a newspaper. His daughter was fired for CLICKBAITING the stories and using AOL PATCH as a vehicle to page rank on google. This entire thing is a violation of google, but Tim ARMSTRONG has people on the inside who are doing a lot of scamming to keep this story ranked on google. The story is being paid to stay there by a political boss who is seeking political retribution from NJ. It is so damn evil and patch should be under a federal investigation.

    LEXIE Norcross has faced criticism for her leadership of the website and background, varying from being hired right after graduating college and possessing zero journalism experience to criticism over news judgment and for directing the website to highlight trashy gossip stories and clickbait over real, local news.

    1. Mel says:

      Patch has no integrity in journalism. It’s obvious that they are using black hat techniques to page rank stories. Wouldn’t be surprised if Lexie was the one who is back linking to buzz feeds and facebook. You can do a check and find the back links. If she is behind it, file charges for cyber harassment against her. This will expose how low Patch and their investors are. As far as the editors, they got fired because they didn’t properly research stories. Armstrong was being sued for their Reckless Reporting that he expected of them. He made them sign a paper that releases him from being sued. I don’t feel sorry for any of the editors, they didn’t care whose feeling they hurt. Patch don’t care about them and they didn’t care about writing reckless stories that were misleading. They all fell by their own greed and ignorance. They still do bad things today by page ranking these garbage stories.

  2. New Jersey Political Boss Loses Control Of Newspaper
    George Norcross, the most powerful politico in New Jersey, lost control of the Philadelphia Inquirer Tuesday to his estranged business partner.
    The most powerful man in New Jersey became a lot less powerful Tuesday—and it’s not Chris Christie.

    George Norcross III, white-haired like a cartoon villain, is South Jersey’s Democratic boss. If Norcross’s press is to be believed, he is to Jersey politics what Voldemort was to Hogwarts. But Tuesday, he lost control of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadephia Daily News, the two major newspapers in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, which includes almost all of South Jersey.

    In April 2012, the well-respected Inquirer and its more tabloid-ey sister, the Daily News—were sold for the fifth time in six years, for $55 million, to a group of influential locals, led by Norcross and Lew Katz, himself a successful businessman with ties to the Democratic Party (he was an early supporter of Bill Clinton and Ed Rendell). The relationship between the partners soured and devolved into ugly squabbling and litigation. Tuesday morning Katz finally wrestled control of Interstate General Media, the parent company of the papers (and Philly.com), out of Norcross’s hands with an $88 million bid.

    Norcross and Gov. Christie’s relationship has been vital to Christie getting things done with the support of Democrats (which allows him to perpetuate the image of a leader capable of working in a bipartisan fashion). At an event after Bridgegate, Norcross joked in Christie’s presence that he was the only one who could close a bridge in New Jersey.

    The son of a union boss, Norcross dropped out of college and “started his [insurance] business with a fold-up card table and a phone,” New Jersey Senate President and Norcross ally Stephen Sweeney told me in a recent interview. Norcross’s business became a success and turned him into a millionaire.

    Beginning in the early 1990s, Norcross began financing campaigns and installing candidates in local and state office. He became so powerful that, in his own words—according to secret recordings released after Norcross was investigated for corruption (he’s never been found guilty of a crime)—”in the end, the McGreeveys, the Corzines, they’re all going to be with me…Not that they like me, but because they have no choice.” Norcross was also recorded recalling a threat he made, “If I catch you one more time doing it, you’re going to get your fucking balls cut off.”

    As the U.S. Attorney, Christie chose not to indict Norcross, saying that the attorney general had screwed up his investigation—which Democrats have long considered a political move by Christie. Whether or not it was, it no doubt helped him when he moved onto his next job: governor.

    The scope of Norcross’s power extends even beyond South Jersey, making the power of Democratic bosses in North Jersey seem feeble in comparison. A relationship with Norcross would be vital to any governor, and Christie is no exception. The legislators from Norcross’s territory—Sen. Sweeney among them—allowed Christie to pass things like pension and property tax reform in his first term.

    In 2012, before Norcross and Katz partnered to buy the papers, Daily News reporter Wendy Ruderman told NPR that she thought the proposed deal was “about buying access. I can’t imagine that someone like George Norcross is being philanthropic…He absolutely despises the media.”

    Some sources maintain that it was Norcross’s attempt to have editorial control that created friction between him and Katz—it has been charged that Norcross’s 26-year-old daughter, Lexie, wielded editorial control over Philly.com, which some worried she was trying to turn “into BuzzFeed.”

  3. Is Norcross going to continue dictating page rank of patch and have it monitored with CSC Global. Did he have anything to do with this story? What will patch do if clickbait shows up in federal lawsuit. Is lexie involved.

    Jun 1, 2014, 10:07am EDT UPDATED: Jun 1, 2014, 11:44am EDT
    Lewis Katz, Philadelphia Inquirer owner, dead in plane crash

  4. Michelle says:

    I worked for Patch as an intern and I hate to say that the comments I just read above seem pretty accurate. Patch played politics and got money from politicians to get bad editors to write stories that were not always true. I couldn’t wait to get out of that environment. It was very toxic and Patch was not responsible journalism. It was worse than the National Inquire.

  5. Mel says:

    Patch lost it’s way and got greedy and political. It paid off editors to become unethical and heartless. They failed because they failed the community and the editors failed the people. What the Patch editors should do is write about the wrong that AOL and Hale Global does then report then to the FCC and FTC for a federal investigation. They didn’t care when they Fired the editors.

  6. Mike says:

    The worst part is George and Lexie Norcross paying off scumbag editors to write defaming stories and expliot them all over the internet for political retribution

    Patch,com are whores for advertising cash, their editors will lie

      1. Mike says:

        They fired them from philly inquire. They saw their dirt. Hope patch is investigated and closes.
        Now hale global and Warren ST John want to expliot these reckless stories nationally

        I hope they get sued and fail miserebly like the past. Serves them right for the pain they caused

  7. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts.
    After all I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

    1. Jess says:

      Patch lost out and shut down because of George E. Norcross who will die soon from Cancer hahaha. His Mama is already dead and in HELL

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