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Rough Patch
The hyper-local website trims staff while upping the prominence of reader-generated content.



In its first year, Patch was probably
most notable as that rare quantity, a journalism outlet hiring a large number of new employees.

 

For more than a year now, claims of the imminent demise of the hyperlocal news site run by aol.com have been persistently floated and just as persistently denied by Patch executives and managers. And even after a national restructuring (first reported at All Things D) that shed about 40 jobs nationally last month, the company’s stance is never say die.

 

Although, when it comes to hard information about the downsizing, it’s more like never say much at all.

 

Referred by local Patch to a national spokesman, Joe Wiggins, I shot a few questions over to him: How many people in Southeastern Wisconsin’s Patch operations were let go in the downsizing announced May 17? Which sites did they work for? And, would coverage be trimmed back in light of the smaller staff? I also asked about other impacts to the operation and projections as to when Patch might become profitable.

 

Wiggins emailed me back not with answers but rather a story pitch:

 

What about doing a story about how much news is created by our surrounding Milwaukee Patch sites not at a news desk? You can give your audience an insider's view of how Patch is go-to community hub of information and conversation for residents and businesses alike.

 

Nice try, I told him, but I’ve already done stories on Patch, and would he please answer the question. He replied then with the same statement that aol.com put out originally:

 

Patch is streamlining its regional editorial structure across the country by moving from 20 to nine teams. We are implementing this team approach based on the success of our field tests earlier this year. The team approach allows for flexibility based on the unique needs of each community and the strengths of our editors. We are not reducing our number of sites or our coverage area as a result of this change.

 

Making these important changes came with the difficult decision to eliminate some positions. We recognize these changes are painful for individuals and for our organization – and we are committed to handling the people impacted with care and sensitivity.


Eric Wemple at the Washington Post, quoting the Wall Street Journal, suggests that a lot of the motivation for the retrenching is to ward off a dissident shareholder who complains that the operation costs too much.

 

That would not surprise me, but it’s also a pretty chilling assessment. Here’s an organization whose staff, as far as I can tell, works just about 24/7, pretty much from their homes or cars (that’s what Wiggins means when he brags they’re “not at a news desk”), and who do it all – writing stories, taking pictures, shooting some video, tweeting headlines, and churning out reams and reams (well, can we call it that, when it’s electronic?) of copy day in and day out. And yet someone thinks it’s too expensive?

 

Last week, in the second chapter, Patch rolled out a new look and a revised format. And its cost-cutting strategy became clear: Ramping up the reader participation.

 

Patch has always had local bloggers and contributors, but the new design emphasizes the reader contributions a lot more. Its announcement last week promoting the new design emphasized that the news was “easier to comment on,” that there were “more local voices to keep you in the loop,” and that the sites now feature “Boards” allowing readers to “instantly broadcast anything to the community ... Keep each other informed with announcements, talk about big issues, or even find a lost cat – all in just a few clicks.”

 

I was still musing about this change when, over the weekend, Frank Bruni at The New York Times lamented that a bigger threat to journalism than prosecuting leakers or fishing through reporters’ phone records is the way sources can now commandeer their own media channels to reach audiences directly. Among Bruni’s cases in point were Michele Bachmann’s YouTube announcement that she would not seek a fifth term in Congress and Hillary Clinton’s endorsement of same-sex marriage in a video for the gay rights organization Human Rights Campaign.

 

As politicians, emulating corporate America, take control of their own messages this way, Bruni writes, they further escalate “the effort to marginalize naysaying reporters and neutralize skeptical reporting.” And he worries, not unreasonably, that

 

that kind of extreme control feeds a vicious cycle. A suspicious, scandal-primed press corps yields wary politicians, whose reticence and guardedness foster greater suspicion still.

 

Picking up on Bruni’s column this week, Mathew Ingram at GigaOm acknowledges the peril, but also points to the opportunity for journalism.

 

“Sources going direct” (the phrase was coined by blogger David Winer) “has the potential to make journalists — or at least journalism of a certain kind — both less necessary and more necessary at the same time,” Ingram writes.

 

What it makes less necessary is the kind of stenographic journalism that consists of simply showing up to a news conference and writing down what a politician says, or rewriting a press release that has been handed out.

 

Yet, as the press conference gives way to the Tweet or the carefully scripted online video as the means by which a politician will tell the world what he or she has to say, Ingram continues,

 

... it should free up a whole class of reporters to do more value-added journalism that explains what things mean, or questions the statements of politicians. All they have to do ... is choose what to amplify and what not to amplify. And won’t we all be better off if that happens?

 

The key, of course, is whether news organizations will field enough journalists, and with enough of the skill, wisdom and seasoning needed, to take that path ... or whether they’ll simply make room for more unpaid reader blogs and comments.

 

*

Comment below, or write Pressroom at pressroom@milwaukeemagazine.com.


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1 Comments
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Jay_Warner Posted: 6/5/2013 10:16:56 PM
 0   0    

Patch (aol.com) appears to be a one-company illustration of all the trends & pressures on "journalism," at one time. It seems today that when anyone in authority complains something "costs too much" they really mean they didn't like the publicity & fallout of that something. My concern is that the trend toward more 'reader contributions' also suggests a decline in rigor, to say nothing of even hints of objectivity. Real 'value added' to serious reporting _must_ cost – the people with education, training & experience to do it must be paid. And frankly, I'd rather listen to them than to a bunch of amateurs, too many of whom need serious editing. Maybe the 'free' bloggers pull in less advertising revenue, too. Or maybe people interested in real news reporting don't click through to ads, and Patch (and 'news' sites like them) can go off in its own corner without them.
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