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 She can be reached at ferrierm(at)ohio(dot)edu or on Twitter @mediaghosts. This series will preview here weekly at


Culture Clash: AOL Patch Editors Despair Over Diluted News Mission

Too big to fail? AOL Patch tried ‘land grab’


Between August 2013 and January 2014, I interviewed more than a dozen current and former employees of AOL Patch. Their stories form the basis of this case study on the AOL Patch hyperlocal online news network and its business failings and successes. This is the second in a series of articles that look at multiple aspects of the AOL Patch business model.

Previous Posts: AOL Patch Insiders Know How to Build it Better by Michelle Ferrier

Hundreds of AOL Patch editors were laid off last Wednesday after AOL turned majority control over to Hale Global just two weeks ago. The story of how one of the hyperlocal online news spaces’ most talked about experiments ended in a bloodbath – for editors, for readers and for communities – is a complex one. However, there is one strategy that both editors and AOL insiders agree doomed the mission. I call it the “land grab.”

 “We will be too big to fail.”

After AOL bought Patch in 2009, management decided to ramp up the number of sites.  In a meeting in November 2010, editors were told that AOL wanted a 1,000 Patches by the end of the year. One editor recalled the meeting at headquarters in New York. One of the top execs said “We will be too big to fail.”

Patch squarely landed on the back porch of established New Jersey hyperlocal news sites and, independent online only sites that had grown to serve communities in New Jersey. However, these independents were among many hyperlocal online news sites cropping up all over the country as newspapers retrenched their efforts in the wake of declining ad sales. And AOL noticed.

More than 100 independent hyperlocal news founders gathered for the first Reynolds Journalism Institute Block by Block summit in Chicago in September 2010, to provide support to fledgling organizations, to share business strategies and to find strength in numbers. Some Patch representatives were there. I was there too.

I remember those early days as a hyperlocal publisher of Independent hyperlocal online news publishers warily watched, VillageSoup, BackFence and other experiments cropping up from more established media organizations and startups hoping to capitalize on the local advertising space. And Patch, it seemed, was sprouting in all the same places as some of the more successful independents bringing unwanted competition.

“The competition didn’t take us seriously unless we were beating them to a story,” said one editor. Another editor told me that independent hyperlocals hated Patch with a passion. And to be honest, the feelings were mutual, he said. “Patch thought it was the next big thing and looked down on traditional journalism.”

“I thought launching with 900 sites was absolutely nuts.”

Patch grew to more than 800 by the end of 2010. AOL was feeling pressure from investors to get revenue from Patch and to do that AOL required a large, distributed network of sites to aggregate eyeballs. The sheer number of sites would allow AOL to sell to national advertisers to offset the money they were losing on local advertisers and their main expense — labor costs. But it put them in the position of making bad decisions like launching in places where they shouldn’t have. The logic was seemingly sound: “The bigger our footprint, the better chance we have of attracting national advertisers.” The thought behind the scenes in the New York HQ was to stave off hyperlocal online news competition that was cropping up across the country.

While hyperlocal hasn’t been well defined, one working definition of a hyperlocal is “online news or content services pertaining to a town, village, single postcode or other small, geographically defined community.” However, many Patch editors saw problems, as they saw little rationale to how AOL determined which communities would receive a Patch site. To many editors, it seemed like management in the New York headquarters just randomly selected areas from socioeconomic data without a clear understanding of what makes a community a community. Others believed they launched in areas where they could hire a decent editor, not because the demographics at all.

“They opened far too many sites in towns that couldn’t sustain a site. The towns I initially worked on were not big enough to generate revenue. They opened sites in places where they could versus should,” said one veteran Patch editor.

“They said they were focusing on communities with certain characteristics: strong school district, good socioeconomic status. I don’t know if that was the case everywhere.”

Another Patch editor ran a site for a town of 10,000 residents.

‘They went expansion crazy and a lot of sites were a waste of time. There was this one town where nothing was happening. I would write the same articles – everything the townspeople talked about were parks and sewers. Stories like: The town is looking for land for a park. The town has found land for a park. The town council is looking at the land today. The town is buying the land….the same stories different verb.”

Some Patch sites were given names that were not representative of the communities the site covered. Others were too big, covering multiple towns and large populations of residents, contrary to the model of “hyperlocal”. And AOL went into some markets like Iowa and other swing states for the political season, not because of its viability as a designated market area with potential for advertising revenue.

“They saturated the whole country with Patches and dealt with the avalanche of problems,” said one editor. And that’s pretty much how NY headquarters saw it – they were building the plane and its route to sustainability while it was flying.

“I would have closed 300 sites a year ago.”

One Patch editor believed that if AOL was engaging in a land grab, they made one strategic mistake.

“They shouldn’t have left gaps in places like New Jersey. They should have grown in places where they had a presence. Why push into South Carolina or Milwaukee? There were a lot of areas that were questionable. It spread the organization too thinly.”

One editor thinks staffing cuts should have come much earlier, after the political season was over and before the second round of layoffs in August.

“I would have closed 300 sites a year ago,” she said.

So what would former Patch editors do differently? According to several, a successful Patch is one that has:

  1. A city government
  2. A parks system
  3. A chamber of commerce
  4. Its own school district
  5. A size ranging from 20,000-40,000 residents

They would have selected Patch names that were drawn from community identity more so than a geographic marker. They would have made sure the editorial talent actually lived in the communities they covered.

What also helps, some say, are a few natural disasters thrown in like Hurricane Sandy and Irene or a flood. And an advertising sales team that is as local as its editors. But ultimately, the house of cards collapsed under its own operating weight before AOL could figure out the business model.

Because Patch never had to bootstrap its way to success. It could feed off the largesse of its parent company and it burned through $300 million in the process. I don’t believe what many say that “local doesn’t scale” and the AOL Patch takeover by Hale Global represents a point of evidence in that argument. I believe other models such as the franchise model, the cooperative model and the nonprofit model may still be viable as experiments in the hyperlocal online news space.

So what’s left after the Hale Global takeover? The good news: 125 local editors still have their jobs. They are in local markets that were able to excel in unique visitors, community engagement and local revenues. Hale Global was able to jettison the huge organizational structure it inherited with 60 percent of Patch ownership that was burdening their ability to move forward with a leaner organization, profits out the box…and enough runway to reimagine the network of less viable sites.

But while the business types talk pivot and startup and new editorial strategies, we still see zombie Patch sites lumbering across the local landscape, surviving on aggregated content, Patch maps and whatever user-generated content they can get.

One local editor lamented what was happening to the Patch that he and several others built out of their passion for their community and journalism.

“We have sites in the middle of nowhere that they are probably shutting down. Which is sad for those local people because that is their only source of news. A lot of these towns haven’t had a newspaper in 20 years. They had to rely on the next big newspaper next door. And maybe, once in a while, they would be covered in the newspaper,” he said.

Will AOL and Patch get credit for one of the biggest experiments in community journalism? Probably not. Not unless Hale Global can turn around the negative public relations in communities that have been hardest hit by this latest setback.

“Readers love their local Patch because they were getting news they hadn’t gotten. I feel sorry for the local editors, but also the readers…we really spoiled them a lot.”

CORRECTION: 110 AOL Patch employees remain, including some local editors, sales people, developers and management. February 11, 2014: Source: AOL Patch employee. AOL Patch reached 767 sites by the end of 2010, not 800 as originally reported. Source: Former AOL Patch manager.

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 She can be reached at ferrierm(at)ohio(dot)edu or on Twitter @mediaghosts. This series will preview here weekly at

Too big to fail? AOL Patch tried ‘land grab’

AOL Patch Insiders Know How to Build It Better

Patch_logoThe post mortems have already begun on AOL’s Patch, the hyperlocal online news network that recently announced sale of its majority interest to turnaround firm Hale Global. While the pundits have cited slow ad revenues and awkward implementation as main reason for the experiment’s demise, Patch’s history – and the future of hyperlocal online news – is much more complex than these reasons alone.

What would a retooled Patch look like? It’s easy enough just to call the whole Patch experiment another failure and chalk it up to lack of revenue. But a detailed post mortem will show so many ways $400 million could have been spent differently.

And Patch insiders are in the best position to help us understand whether local online news is dead or whether the implementation was flawed… Or something else entirely.

I’ve been tracking the changes to AOL’s once 800-plus sites since August 2013, when AOL first announced major layoffs and closings of its sites. The wiki is a crowdsourced document, where I solicit leads on changes in Patch status and also work through each site URL to check the current status. I’ve also talked to more than a dozen current and former Patch employees who have graciously given of their time to help answer the question “What the hell happened?”

But the wiki does not help us understand how AOL’s Patch, one of the most funded and highly watched experiments in local journalism, has reached this point of selling off its site as assets and leaving its platform on autopilot.

I have been following AOL since 1991, when they first started selling access through AOL Online. I was part of a nonprofit team that built our first web presence on AOL Online and enrolled our millions of members on the site. I have also developed a regional hyperlocal news network for a daily newspaper, started two independent hyperlocal sites of my own, and received foundation funding to develop a franchised model of hyperlocal news.

As an academic, I’ve researched hyperlocal online news sites to answer the question of whether hyperlocals are serving community news and information needs. What I’m most interested in is how in this changing media ecosystem we can ensure that we have total community coverage…that in the age of newspaper/print retreat, some model of news and information is serving local audiences with fresh news and information.

I’ve also watched as other experiments into the network model have failed – BackFence, EveryBlock (in its prior incarnation), VillageSoup, Neighborlogs (a shared platform model of hyperlocal publishers) for a variety of reasons. So the question of sustainability in this area of media innovation is key. Can we learn from Patch in order to build a better future for localized news and information? Can hyperlocal online news survive? In what forms – as independent sites, chains of related sites or a larger distributed network?

Between August 2013 and December 2013, I conducted a dozen in-depth interviews with former and current Patch employees – from local editors, to regional editors and other AOL insiders.  I’ve compiled my interviews into a series of posts that focus on several key aspects of the Patch business model and its implementation:

  • Structure: Organizational structure, vision and mission, business environment, competitors
  • Talent: People involved, expertise, working conditions
  • Launch Strategy: Town characteristics, growth, marketing
  • Revenue: Local sponsorships, banner advertising, national ad buys, HuffPo influence, investor influence
  • Content: Vision, metrics, categories

What I’ve learned from this case study is that there is a future in hyperlocal online news as part of a diverse media ecosystem of news of different forms. As one former editor said:

“My sense is that the Patch model – retooled significantly — probably needs to be part of a mix of options that would include larger for-profit networks, loosely linked for-profit independents, go-it-alone independents and foundation-funded sites.”

And so we begin with their voices.


Dr. Michelle Ferrier is associate dean for innovation at the Scripps College of Communication, Ohio University. She is a pioneer in new media, particularly online communities and hyperlocal online news. She can be reached at ferrierm(at)ohio(dot)edu or on Twitter @mediaghosts. This series will preview here weekly at

AOL Patch Insiders Know How to Build It Better