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 […]


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.

 

*

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