Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Life After A Newspaper Editor Returns To Newsprint

Actual newsroom of The Whitehaven News, to show you snot-nosed kids what a newsroom looks like in was launched in 2007 when Tim Armstrong, the man who turned Google into an advertising company, noticed his very wealthy Connecticut bedroom community lacked a local paper with an events calendar. When Armstrong became head of AOL in 2009 with the mission of transforming the company from a fading dial-up service to a media brand, he sold Patch to his new employers. There are 850 Patch sites, supposedly hyperlocal news operations run by modestly paid newspaper journalists and supposedly supported by neighborhood advertising.

Because the Internet is mostly a garbage factory and AOL produces a great deal of Internet content, it stands to reason that much of AOL's content is garbage, especially since Armstrong brought the Huffington Post to America Online. But the quality of sites has been particularly criticized, in part because newspaper reporters love to complain about the decline of journalism and partly because Armstrong promised a lot more than the reality of Patch could deliver. "You'd think we were creating toxic waste," departing editor in chief Brian Farnham said in his goodbye post, "instead of, you know, free useful information."

Information is a more accurate word than journalism now, as Armstrong announced last year that he's turning into a listings and classifieds network—more Craigslist than small-town weekly. Those who watch the sites say they're still not good at reliable listings—you don't get a New Yorker listings section from one underpaid editor working from home. The time-consuming work of attending public meetings, flipping through the crime reports at the police station or just meeting people face to face is what makes a local newspaper worthwhile to its readers and advertisers, and Patch has apparently stopped trying.

"Sammy Sturgeon" (not his real name) has worked since the late 1990s as a reporter and editor for newspapers and news services in California's wealthier coastal regions. After an unhappy couple of years running a in the San Francisco Bay area, he took a big pay cut from Patch's already low salary to again work for a print newspaper, this time in a small town in Northern California. I spoke to him last week about AOL's grand experiment in local journalism.

Ken Layne: So you are a newspaper reporter and editor, and at some point you decided to "go digital" and get a job with the hyperlocal sites run by AOL. How and when did this happen?

Sammy Sturgeon: ‪Well, I'd been laid off and was desperate. I had enough connections that I was able to get an audience with the Patch people, and somebody kind of shooed me in.‬ This was about three years ago.

Ken: Patch was expanding at that point, right.

Sammy: Wildly. The news from New York—where all the MBAs who run Patch live—was that everything was "really exciting," all the time. "Oh my god, gang, we have some really exciting news. We have launched 11 more sites this past week! We're super excited."‬

Ken: And for people who haven't come across a site, how would you describe these local sites?‬

Sammy: They're just glorified blogs. You'll see some "local news," sort of—you're just as likely to see a dumb "Top 5" list designed to woo local advertisers, as in "Top 5 flavors of Baskin-Robbins ice cream."‬ There's also a half-completed business directory, and in fact the first thing people do when they're hired (and launching a site, I guess they've all been launched by now) is run around town taking pictures and typing in addresses and phone numbers of the local hair salons, etc.

Ken: But the concept was that local reporters would cover local news, like high-school sports and planning commission meetings and neighborhood police blotters, right?

Sammy: That was the concept, originally. Then the MBAs realized that that actually takes more manpower than they were able to afford. I guess they thought all that copy and content just sort of wrote itself!‬

Ken: ‪It does, as long as you just blockquote it from another website, which took it from another website, etc. But the expensive part is that starting point, where a low-paid but still compensated young journalist goes to the Town Council meeting or stops by the police station, etc.‬

Sammy: Yeah, I tried to do a back of the envelope estimate once on what Patch was paying to exist. Consider a 23-year-old aspiring journo makes maybe $24K a year. But then there are full benefits—so bring it up to $50K a year. Then there are expenses—all the freelancers, etc.—which will tack on another $50K or so per site. So maybe $100K per site, per year. At the high point there were 850 sites. That is not even close to the full yearly expense.‬

Ken: ‪So the idea was two editorial staffers per town site?‬ Or one, plus freelancers without benefits?

Sammy: Just the one "editor" per site. This was the "local editor," who did/does the lion's share of the work. That person had, at first, a stable of freelancers they could tap into for help, but that budget was quickly slashed—not the required five pieces of original content per day, mind you! Just the help to do it.‬ The local editors, or LEs, are grouped into 12 per "region," and above them is a "regional editor," or RE. That person is really more of a middle manager than an editor. In my experience anyway. They spend all their time filling out paperwork and sitting in on conference calls, and their abilities vary widely. Above the I-don't-know-how-many REs are four regional directors. Just four, countrywide. Then above them is the boss, the so-called "editor in chief," who doesn't do anything resembling editing.

Ken: That sounds like a standard "editor in chief" at any newspaper or magazine.

Sammy: Yes, but usually they are at least journalists, in some way, shape or form. In the case of Patch, they are MBAs. All of them. Sitting in a high rise in New York, kissing Arianna's ass. [Brian Farnham, former Patch EIC, comments below that he does not have an MBA.]

Ken: ‪But Arianna and AOL had yet to synergistically merge when you worked at a Patch site, right? I remember when you started this job, and Patch was hiring everywhere.‬ And this, it should be noted, was a kind of realization of this "hyperlocal" approach that various new media blowhards were talking about all the time, a decade ago. We are both veterans of small-town newspapers, and to me it seemed like Patch didn't understand the primary function of a local newspaper office, which is having a couple of sales reps who could pull money out of these local shops and businesses, year after year. Did you have local sales reps in your office, and did they function anything like advertising staff at a functional local paper?

Sammy: We did have sales reps, which is another major per-site expense I didn't mention above. They actually made higher salaries and even made commission… but, haha, they couldn't sell shit! Turns out the hair salon wasn't interested, at all. I'm not even sure why, but they just couldn't sell it. National sales did make a few multimillion deals for Patch nationwide—I think Jeep and Pepsi both bought such campaigns.‬ But yes, the Arianna merge happened near the end of my tenure there. Things got really weird when I started plugging into the mandatory Patch-wide phone conference each Friday morning and her tinny voice came out of my Patch-issued iPhone. I felt like I'd gone down the rabbit hole.

Ken: ‪‪Local papers, which are often chains of regional weeklies along with shoppers and real estate pictorials, depended upon larger agencies to sell and package these color inserts for groceries, movies, fast food and pizza chains, that kind of thing. So having a central sales department for big stuff always made sense to me for Patch, but it sounds like the local salespeople you worked with just couldn't turn those neighborhood merchants into digital advertising buyers.

Sammy: Right.

Ken: This makes sense to me when looking at rural towns, agricultural towns, resort or vacation towns, all the kinds of places I've worked as a newspaper reporter. People are about 10 years behind, once they're outside the biggest cities. But you were in the San Francisco Bay area, supposedly the heart of the Internet and computer industry.‬ Were the merchants clueless about digital or did they just not see any reason to go that route with Patch?

The MBAs realized that that actually takes more manpower than they were able to afford. I guess they thought all that copy and content just sort of wrote itself!‬

Sammy: This is the central question. I wish I knew why the local merchants weren't interested. We're not just talking SF Bay Area, we're talking SILICON VALLEY here. This is the place where dry cleaners know all about the CEO of Apple or whatever. And they just didn't want to partake—I think they tried it here and there, and found no traction (although honestly I don't remember seeing a single local ad on my own site). It would appear that digital advertising lacks the oomph of print, for some reason. ‪Meanwhile, the centralized organization you speak of was/is, in Patch's case, not useful, because they weren't actually producing any content or selling many ads centrally (except the Jeep and Pepsi stuff I mentioned). They were just handing down diktats and collecting six-figure salaries.‬

Ken: Yelp seems like the answer to "how to make local work," for restaurants and shops and bars and all that kind of very neighborhoody stuff. It's just divorcing it entirely from local news content, and when you think about it, why should local news content be paired with restaurant reviews and directions and hours?‬

Sammy: Right. Craigslist charted this course, obviously. The only reason news and all that other stuff was packaged together in the past was logistical: print was the cheapest, easiest way to disseminate a lot of information quickly. Then one day the Internet was born…

Ken: But for a very long time, local and the Internet didn't work even for restaurants. If not for Yelp, it would still be useless. How many restaurants in New York City or San Francisco or Los Angeles still have websites with no menus, no hours, nothing but a phone number and some crappy pictures and terrible GoDaddy web templates?‬

Anyway, you've got local merchants now divorced from hyperlocal news, at least online. How will these very localized news gathering operations exist?

Sammy: I fear that they won't, eventually. Or anyway, not from the pure-digital direction—to date the most successful (financially) hyperlocal news online remains the websites of 100-year-old local newspapers, like the one I'm working for now. They make a few pennies online, but the bulk of their income continues to come from print. The revenue stream just isn't shifting over quickly, for them—I wish it were, but it's not. The only pure-digital news entities that seem to make money are the sideboob/aggregator sites like HuffPo.‬

Ken: A lot of people reading this, even if they're "in the media," have never worked for or even seen a small-town newsroom. What's it like, what do people do?‬

‪‪Sammy: Personally, I look around at this huge, huge room and imagine what it was like when it was full of smoke and typewriters clacking and people shouting and old-timey telephones ringing. Now there are four of us, plus two photogs, on the editorial side. We talk politics (local and national), joke around a bit, but mostly work like crazy trying to generate enough content to fill a daily paper (AP fills out the rest).‬ But the scanner buzzes all day and night, and occasionally we hear something—a fire, stabbing, etc—and run out to cover it. There is also a large dry-erase calendar on the wall where we fill in our meetings and court appearances and such that we're covering.

Ken: Do people still walk in off the street with their stories and problems? I loved that about ag-town papers.‬ A guy would bring in a pumpkin that looked like Mickey Mouse, somebody would drop off 50 pages of typewritten pages about the Vatican poisoning the fluoride or whatever, an old lady would bring in the obit for her husband and spend two hours telling funny stories about World War II, etc. And the angry people would come in, and we'd always send them straight to the publisher's office: "Oh yes, he looks FORWARD to talking to you about why the paper backed your lifelong enemy for the town manager vacancy."

Sammy: Oh yes, and that remains the best part for sure. The face-to-face interaction, no matter how weird, is endlessly diverse and entertaining. It almost—but not really—makes up for the horrible pay.‬ Recently I had a woman come in—a Mexican immigrant—whose son was being put away for a gangland shooting. The kid was a full-on gangster, but his poor mother refused to see it, being a mom! So she decried the unfair treatment by the DA's Office, in Spanish, and our receptionist translated and I wrote a rather wrenching story about it.

Ken: Let's talk about money, this horrible pay you speak of.‬

Sammy: It's horrible.

Ken: How did pay compare to the newspaper money you've seen at small-town papers, and what are we talking about? I remember topping out at $25,000 at a smaller California daily 20 years ago, and thinking "Well it's not going to ever get much better than this." I didn't mind, because it was so much fun and I was just at legal drinking age and I didn't have kids or a mortgage. (And I also didn't have a degree, and was working alongside people who just spent four or five years at a fancy college to earn the same money as me, while also being four or five years older.)

Sammy: Both Patch and other news outlets work it out based on cost of living in this or that area. So in the Bay Area, Patch paid me $48,000, which was higher than normal based on my experience (most of my colleagues were in their 20s). But the newspaper I was at before that paid me just $50,000 for an editorship. Five years later, I had actually taken a slight pay cut at that place!‬ ‪Compare that to the Central Valley, where I work now: the giant newspaper conglomerate which owns this small local daily sees fit to pay me about $23,000 a year—a real low point for me, at my age. I'm working on a next step.‬

Ken: Good god.‬

Sammy: I know.‬

Ken: ‪Luckily, you are independently upper-middle class.‬

Sammy: Yeah, sort of. Downwardly mobile, at this point.‬ I didn't even mention that they take about HALF of my salary for benefits for my family. At this point the paycheck is literally less than minimum wage.

Ken: Literally! ‪But you get fancy "health insurance" and all that, which is completely unaffordable for a freelancer.

Sammy: It is. I pay and pay and pay for it. Anybody who has a problem with attempts to correct our health care system is an ignorant asshole.‬

Ken: ‪How about retirement, do they do anything?‬

Sammy: Uh, not really.‬

Ken: The newsprint/digital transition thing is obviously very real and lots of people are obviously losing their jobs, so I don't want to kick anyone when they're down. But it has been true all my working life that most newspaper work was low paid, and that people with any financial ambition would "sell out" and go to work for a local PR agency when they had a kid or wanted a house.‬

Sammy: Yep!‬

Ken: A handful of journalists and editors and columnists are talked about, in media circles, but for the vast majority, it was never a good living, right?‬

Sammy: It was never a good living, although I think half a century ago it was at least a living wage. Now it's not even that.‬

Compare that to the Central Valley, where I work now: the giant newspaper conglomerate which owns this small local daily sees fit to pay me about $23,000 a year—a real low point for me, at my age.‬

Ken: ‪And the old-timers (guys in their 30s, imagine that) had embraced this kind of ramshackle Columbo/Rockford life, and there was something very romantic about it, although it's true that their personal lives tended to be melodramatic wrecks: alcoholism, frequent marriages and divorces, repo men, etc.‬

Sammy: Totally. I started as a copy editor for MediaNews, and remember seeing these guys with their smokers' coughs and torn shirts and plastic bags. They lived alone, or in one-bedroom apartments with their wives. They were clarion calls for me to get out of journalism.

Ken: And yet you have not gotten out of local newspaper journalism! And as fun as it is, and for all the very real public services performed by reporters who sit through these insufferable meetings and go through stacks of reports and investigations that nobody else would otherwise crack, I do think the old-school reporter's intentional ignorance about newspaper finances was something that really needed to go.

Sammy: I agree. I don't know why they/we allowed ourselves to be so low paid for so many decades, while the businesses themselves had insanely high profit margins. This was the case right up to 1990, when the internet pit appeared.‬

Ken: Editorial wouldn't even talk to advertising people, except maybe at the Christmas party when some poorly dressed, slurring reporters would try to hit on some relatively hot new advertising rep. It was a kind of aggressive anti-business feeling, and all the newsrooms I used to work for had this attitude. And now a lot of 50 year olds are realizing, whoops, it takes money to run these things.‬

Sammy: Yeah, haha‬.

Ken: And the industry collapse began way before the Web content appeared, but there just wasn't an outside bogeyman to blame. The afternoon papers mostly disappeared by the 80s, and those Joint Operating Agreements were handling the cities where the PM papers survived a bit longer, and of course people were getting most of their local news on the television from the 1960s onward. ‪But, because monopoly newspapers could bundle so much good stuff that so many people wanted—horoscopes, TV listings, crosswords, comics, sports scores, stocks, classifieds, celebrity news, national columnists like Dear Abby and Ann Landers—it was hugely profitable. Newspaper corporate boards would complain about 20% profit margins, while supermarkets get by with what, 1%?‬


Ken: ‪So, despite your advanced age, you still enjoy this reporting business. And yet, this money is not something a grown-up can live on. What is your plan?‬

Sammy: Is it too late to go into growing pot?‬

Ken: Oh, hell no. There is your growth industry.

Sammy: My wife and I have had a number of schemes over the years—then circumstance overwhelms them very quickly. For example, we actually thought of starting (or buying) a local newspaper in the early 2000s! Then we thought we'd start a digital news site! Hahahahahah!‬

Ken: ‪Did you know there are big fat free magazines in California completely supported by medical marijuana advertising? They are THICK, like the restaurant issues of alt-weeklies a dozen years ago.‬

Sammy: Yeah, see… that's one scheme I'm having trouble convincing my wife about.‬

Ken: These marijuana newspapers are mostly full of amazing medical news that proves marijuana cures everything (including death) and those blurbs go alongside movie reviews, record reviews, Wikipedia printouts of "famous potheads" and a ton of very lucrative display advertising from the pot doctors and Rx pot shops. This seems easier than growing actual marijuana and getting killed by international drug gangs who already have all the national forests claimed.

Sammy: Ready to go in on something?‬

Ken: Will email you later re: that.‬ So I know you're at work and need to go earn your pay (haha), but before you go, give me two scenarios for local journalism in 10 years—one utopian, one grim.

Sammy: It seems the whole thing turns on the success/failure of local online advertising. (There are a few semi-successful attempts to go nonprofit with it, but that idea sticks in my craw, personally.)‬ So let's say that, for some reason, local advertising comes around to the wonderful world of online. In that scenario, local news is saved! You will still need brick and mortar, of course—I can't emphasize that enough—because local news in particular is about people, and for people to connect properly they need to have a place to do that. That goes for the journos and the people they cover.

Ken: That's vaguely optimistic enough for any boardroom to approve your scenario. Now the bad version…

Sammy: That bad version is, there really isn't any more local coverage, except by do-gooder types who are retired or something and able to dedicate all their free time to it. These characters are out there, and sometimes they're even good. But it'd be a shame to rely on them. And otherwise you've got crickets chirping. Just no sense of local community, cohesion, governance, etc. It's the direction suburbia takes our society anyway, this would just be the icing on the cake. And to me, it seems the more likely course.‬

Ken: Because day to day, if nobody covers the planning meetings, the school board, the zoning and the Caltrans and all this stuff that is covered without much notice until the rip-off or outrage is revealed, then you end up with a place like San Diego, which is basically a Mexican Mafia town but run by Republican white people.

Sammy: Haha, yeah… or what was that funny little town down there where they were all paying themselves six figures while the city itself went broke?‬

Ken: The industrial towns around Los Angeles with no human residents, only factories and slaughterhouses…‬

Sammy: Bell! Type "city, corruption, California" into Google and it comes up. Thanks, Internet!‬

Ken: Also, Southgate and some other scammy towns in LA's ridiculous patchwork of municipalities.

Sammy: So the funny thing is—and these cities are all perfect examples of it—the value of local journalism is not really disputed. Everybody seems to agree. But when it comes to paying for it? People pay way more for their coffee each day than for their local news—indeed, it's considered an outrage to actually pay for news these days.‬

Ken: Well, we never paid much up front for it. We "paid for news" by going to the local department store and buying a mattress.‬

Sammy: You are right.‬

Ken: Or, in the case of the late Herb Caen, it was paid for by that beautiful girl in a lacy bra right next to his column, day after day. Of course we would go to Macy's when it was time for a suit or a lacy bra!‬ But today's people are gladly paying for so much content: Netflix streaming, Hulu, iPad apps, ebooks. The thing is, all that stuff is fun.

Sammy: And news about corruption is not, mostly!‬

Ken: Well… news about nothing in particular, which is most local news ("Council approves parks maintenance plan," etc.)‬. It's just that you don't get the corruption unless somebody's paying attention to the banal day to day. This is why liberals are so excited about Obama's plan to fund local and regional news with a special gun tax.

Sammy: I wonder if Obama's gun tax would fund our pot magazine??‬

Ken: Probably! I heard from talk radio that Obama is arming the Mexican Islamists to invade our mall churches.‬ I need to make up a name for you. Don't you have a secret reporter name you use when calling people? Mine was "Johnny Friendly."

Sammy: ‪Oh right. I think everybody was a J. Friendly of some sort. How about N.M., for news man.‬

Ken: ‪"Nanker Phelge."‬

Sammy: ‪Clyde Longsdale‬.

Ken: ‪Sammy Sturgeon‬.

Sammy: ‪Good!‬ ‪My coworkers call me Sam.‬

Related: The Tiny Newspaper In North Carolina That Scooped Up Journalism's Big Prizes

Photo of a modern-day newsroom by Adam Cleaver.

27 Comments / Post A Comment

hershmire (#233,671)

Two years ago I wrote to our local Patch editor about a string of identity theft crimes in our neighborhood and how there might be a story behind it. I also mentioned I happened to be one of the victims. She wrote back and said "yes, that sounds terrible! Good luck!"

I realized then Patch was not a real news agency and would never survive.

sharilyn (#4,599)

This was such a joy to read! I'm a print journalism veteran and good god, the pay really is terrible. As are the ridiculous tabloid contortions that the remaining print outlets are twisting themselves into to retain their shrinking audience.
The newspapers I worked for actually helped to dig that digital pit, by being actively hostile to the Internet until it was much, much too late. Another death blow was dealt when moguls started buying up and gutting newsrooms all over the country in the mid 90s (seriously, the New York Post was much farther to the left before Murdoch got his hands on it.)

I guess I don't really understand where the local ad money went. Are hair salons and pizza joints just not advertising anymore?

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@sharilyn I wish I could say something useful but I'm stumped too, aside from the loss of classifieds to Craiglist and maybe more direct mail for stuff like pizza flyers and grocery store circulars. My mom used to sell ads for the local paper and spent a lot of time with car dealers, who presumably are still selling cars the same way as always. Mainly commenting so I'll be notified if someone more knowledgeable chimes in. (Also, as someone who briefly attempted a career in print newspaper journalism, this was a great read, thanks Ken.)

stuffisthings (#1,352)

It's sad to see the death of local journalism in America's small towns because I think whatever happens to big papers our larger cities are still fairly well served by a combination of local bloggers, free weeklies, and neighborhood papers/newsletters. In DC the bankrupt Washington Post is utterly useless for local coverage, but we have bloggers who really love their neighborhoods reporting on development/growth issues (Greater Greater Washington, Prince of Petworth, etc.), single-issue bloggers agitating for better city services (Unsuck DC Metro), and a new corruption scandal every week in our free weekly, plus decent listings, local arts coverage, and reports on ludicrous foodie trends. There's even a Dupont-area neighborhood paper that somebody shoves through my mail slot every week which seems to go really in-depth on local issues (I spotted something similar with a focus on Anacostia once, leading me to believe it's not just a gentrifier's game. Though now that I think of it… $50,000 for a 1 bedroom condo? No Metro stop could be that scary.)

LondonLee (#922)

This old print guy loved every word of this.

Now, excuse me while I go kern a headline.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@LondonLee Yo where's that option on the CMS? Also what's a lede and a phone booth and a health insurance?

The somewhat juvenile Internet-bashing in this piece aside (HuffPo's been awarded a Pulitzer; it's hardly all sideboob shots), it doesn't get at the reasons for Patch's failures.

What's working in local news is the same formula that's always been successful: local reporters working for local news outlets run by local news publishers with a stake in the community.

The nearly 100 members of Local Independent Online News Publishers are doing just that: reporting quality local news while innovating online.

Patch is just the opposite: a top-down templated play designed to produce profits on a large scale. But no matter how well a site concept might work in one market, such cookie-cutter moves can't be widely replicated. Central planning works even less well for the news industry than it did for Soviet agriculture.

Every community deserves a healthy source of news – the sort increasingly provided by local independent publishers.

An enjoyable read, certainly, but it doesn't rise above the level of anecdote.

I'm a co-founder of Berkeleyside, a local news site in Berkeley, CA, and we manage to cover the city council, planning commission, school board, local crime, etc, and get a more-than-decent amount of local advertising. We pay our employees Bay Area Patch-level salaries (no benefits yet, admittedly).

There are people making a business of local online news, without any ties to print newspapers. But the business absolutely doesn't scale and it demands hard work and a deep commitment to a local community on both the journalism and the ad sales side. It also helps, admittedly, that Berkeley doesn't have a print competitor.

Hi Ken — an interesting convo, thanks for posting. As the former EIC of Patch mentioned above, I just wanted to add a couple of quick clarifications and thoughts.

First off: Sammy asserts that as editor-in-chief, I didn't do too much actual editing. That's basically true. But he also claims I'm not a journalist, but rather (cue scary organ music) an MBA. Not true! While my mother at times probably wishes I did have an MBA, my background is in journalism — print and digital.

Mr. Sturgeon also states that we in the NY HQ eventually realized that covering real local news properly "actually takes more manpower than they were able to afford. I guess they thought all that copy and content just sort of wrote itself!" Well, no, we didn't think that. We actually knew how hard it was going to be, and were very up front with everyone we hired that this was going to be a tough job. But our pitch was that we were all going to find out what worked and what didn't together. That's what made it a startup. At no point did we guarantee it would all work exactly as planned and never need adjustments or evolution.

I left Patch after four years because I was itching for the startup experience again, but my time there trying to solve these problems with the hundreds of passionate, smart journos we hired was incredible. And yes, Patch now appears to be evolving and adapting as both a journalistic enterprise (yes, it is one), and a business, but that's a good thing, in my mind.

I don't know if it will ultimately succeed or not, but I remain puzzled as to why journalists specifically like to hate on Patch so much. Sammy even knocks me and other HQers for frequent excited exclamations as we launched sites during our expansion. Guilty! We were the biggest hirer of journalists in the country at the time (a time of historic economic contraction, don't forget) and every launch meant another full-time journalist was on the ground and on the job. So yeah, I got kind of charged up about that.

I'm sorry Mr. Sturgeon didn't seem to dig his time at Patch, but again, I don't get the overall dismissiveness. Maybe Patch will never be what local news was in its heyday, but if I'm reading this right, Sammy is now making $23K a year working hard for a resource-depleted local paper owned by a "giant conglomerate" while looking back critically at the digital startup that was paying him more than twice as much to help find the new way forward for local news.

What am I missing here?

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@Brian Farnham@facebook It sounds like the problem is you didn't find the new way forward for local news at Patch. It failed to do that. At the local paper, he is making less money than at Patch and has fewer resources than journalists past, but gets to actually produce the sort of local news he feels his community wants/needs.

@Brian Farnham@facebook Like Dylan and other LIONs, I too am no fan of Patch and their top-down, cookie-cutter, land grab approach to building local online news properties. That said, I have to side with Brian on this one. Patch tried to build a future where there were decent-paying jobs reporting actual news in actual local communities. While the quality of individual Patches was hit-and-miss, it was certainly better than nothing, which is what some of these communities had before Patch. That Patch is transitioning to become more of a community message board is great news for me, since I'm a competitor and I'm convinced it will fail, but it should be pretty sad for anybody who wants to cover local news and make a decent wage while doing so.

Bottom line: you can't fault Patch for at least trying to make a go of it.

Of course, if any former Patch editors want to branch out and launch their own local news site, that's great! Look us up and get in touch.

Tim Windsor@twitter (#241,857)

I worked with Brian as one of his four Editorial Directors. My zone was the south. I, too, am not an MBA.

The best local editors got it totally: A Patch job was entrepreneurship with a salary and benefits. Yes we tended to drop out of the sky on those weekly calls with some untested ideas and the occasional truly bad approach, but we also gave editors in the field a lot of flexibility to build their sites in whatever way they thought would work to reflect the needs and interests of their communities.

We had towns all across the country where Patch was (and probably still is, though my firsthand knowledge ended last May) connecting deeply with their communities and, not coincidentally, beating the pants off the more traditional news sources. And not just in readership but in engagement. And you know who deserves the credit in every single one of those successful towns? The local editors. Successful local editors — the best of them — did exactly what Sturgeon seems to be looking for: they figured out what makes their communities tick, and put it out there in pixels every single day.

Patch wasn't for everyone, but as Brian points out, it wasn't for lack of trying. Patch paid better-than-average salaries, had great benefits, twice-yearly BONUS PAYMENTS (in journalism!) and even set aside budget to allow the editors to kick back at least once a month with some pizza or bowling or a night at the movies. Oh yeah, and tuition reimbursement. Expensive, yes, but putting editors on the ground in local communities is always going to cost money (and be worth it).

I had a lot of great days with Patch and, if I'm being honest, just about as many head-shaking, desk-pounding days as well. Because figuring out a sustainable model for local news and information is messy and experimental and damned hard. But the people who are still there are working their asses off, rushing headlong into the fourth quarter of this year when Tim Armstrong's famous promise of run-rate profitability comes due. Whether they will make it remains to be seen, but at least they're trying to build a business, instead of sitting on the sidelines carping about they always knew it was a stupid idea all along.

I work for one of those 100-year-old papers (actually, 110 years old) that is so amazingly resilient, despite Patch's best efforts. Competing against two of them has actually brought us more paid subscribers and more ad revenue. Sales people? Heck, no. People call us up and tell us they want to advertise, so we send someone out to talk to them. We knew Patch was doomed from the get-go. Why couldn't the NY guys see it?

My question is why the guy didn't have the stones to use his real name.

Tim Windsor@twitter (#241,857)

@Charlie Bermant@facebook Exactly. It's not like MBAs are killer ninjas.

I have to second what both Brian and Tim say: I was on board with Patch in its early days, after 25 years in a combination of print, online and teaching jobs. It was exciting to be part of a fast-moving train where very, very smart people (and some of the best journalists I've ever worked with, by the way) were not afraid to try new things and not just sit around and wring their hands over the state of journalism today.

I see so many "woe is me" columns and comments, and Patch was about NOT doing that. Not everything worked, and I, like Tim, had many desk-pounding moments. But I had a lot more times when I loved building something new. As a regional editor, I had the fortune of helping launch 17 of the sites in my state. Several local print journalists here have told me that because of the Patch sites there and the elevated attention on local news, they became better. And how can that be a bad thing?

I have moved on, as Brian and Tim have, but I won't ever forget the people and the work done in those early days. Yes, making a site relevant, every day, with one editor, is not easy, but I've seen some great local editors do it very successfully. Many have reported news that no other publication was around to break anymore. The elevated attention on local news forced local governments and police departments to revisit policies on open records at a time when access to public records was becoming dangerously difficult. There just hadn't been pressure on them in so long, some local entities had become aggressively opposed to sharing the information every citizen has a right to. Again, this is a win for all journalists.

If there's one thing I DO know: A lot of people really do love their local Patch. The number of core site visitors — I'm not talking about the Google tag-alongs — to many sites clearly shows this. Yes, there are the "photo of the day" and local contests and "soft" stories that so-called "real journalists" (and I, in turn, hate that closed-minded view of what makes a journalist) love to hate, but many editors find the balance between that and making sure residents know why there is a power outage, how long it will affect their businesses or homes, and how they can cope in the meantime. They bring into their reporting the voice of the community, and make it relevant. It's about community, and so much of the "community" journalism I saw before coming to Patch was not about community. It had become about survival. And frankly, there are a whole lot of journalists for whom listening to sources or talking to residents has been put on a back burner, replaced by demands for constant production to fill holes with fewer people. Patch editors still make the community the core of their job, and those who do it well have a connection I saw rarely in recent years before coming to Patch.

It's the business part of Patch that continues to challenge. What other media company can't say that these days? I can't remember a day in the past decade in this business where that wasn't a challenge. In Michigan, 844 jobs with several local publications hang in the balance as the Journal Register Co. goes through bankruptcy. That organization is likely to downsize dramatically, go mostly online, and change its own model. Why is Patch's attempt to also find a business model that works an invitation for bashing every other element of the Patch organization? Why not look at the lessons learned through this very ambitious and still on-going experiment and use them to take other efforts forward?

I now watch from the outside as a lot of the journalists I came to know, trust and admire continue to try to make Patch successful. Many still in the fray are tired and have been through a war of changes, but still believe in taking chances and in the end goal: profitability, sustainability, stability. And most of them have a ton more passion, entrepreneurial spirit and vision for this business than a lot of the people I know in traditional pubs.

I love all forms of journalism, but I know that what we do will continue to evolve. Those who continue to bash Patch are not about evolution and helping journalism thrive. If they were, they'd be right there cheering on this still-young attempt at melding digital media with a viable business, and knowing a success for Patch is a success for all of us who care about the future of digital media in all its forms.

Alan Stamm@facebook (#241,910)

@Nancy Hanus@facebook I'm a metro daily vet who contributed to Nancy's sites for nearly two years until the budget pool evaporated.

We broke some news, tried imaginative ideas, worked to make public policy topics accessible, introduced teen "Whiz Kids" who are absolutely inspiring and had rewarding fun. Getting feedback, ideas and compliments from neighbors reminded me of campus journalism — the last time I felt that close to readers.

I learned about my community, interviewed and worked with stimulating people, became a better photojournalist and was treated fairly by a team that values ethical, accurate, timely journalism.

Sure, I derided the fluff and still do. But my community has a vibrant (well, now semi-vibrant) daily news site edited by a smart, committed local editor. I read it regularly and occasionally link to it from a different type of digital news site with a regional and statewide focus.

It'll be hard to embrace an approach based mainly on reader-generated content, but I'm still a Patch partisan for now. It serves up self-parody from time to time (OK, every day in some areas), and provides a go-to target for cheap shots, but the essential question remains:
Patch isn't as good as . . . what thriving hyperlocal news alternative?

nwzPaper@twitter (#241,880)

Newspapers lost local auto dealers to and Between minimal auto dealer partcipation and Craigslist/eBay absorbing the classifieds business, the print newspapers' traditional business model is broken beyond repair.

I don't want to comment on specifics, but the nwzPaper news platform can localize and personalize content for over three million markets without an $85 million annual fixed cost structure. It's still in public beta as we evaluate the core content management and administration systems, but we have something that can already scale. The payment system will come, but if you stop to consider the complexity of a local-global legal and financial burden, it needs to be approached with caution and as deep of an understanding as possible because all of the big houses want us to fail.

I encourage everyone to setup a profile and let me know what your thoughts are on the industry and how we can serve journalists and your readers. Those that do will get a direct email from me, so the communication is real and direct.

We are moving at a pace to preserve the financial security of the platform as I believe it's a battle of attrition and scalability.

Daniel McReavy

nwzPaper@twitter (#241,880)

These are the values we want to be held to, btw.

Jeff Burdick (#241,907)

I was an editor at a local paper for years. Was there passion? Yes. Was there solid reporting? Yes. However, my paper failed to take a pro-active approach and accept that online journalism had arrived, mostly because of out-of-touch management. Craigslist cost the paper almost $100K a year. Paper and ink costs, gasoline costs all added to the bottom line misery.

We went from being the "only kid in town" to appearing out of touch when an online news source — not Patch — opened. At the time we had minimal online presence. Salary cuts began. Our younger reporters who were making $23,000 a year had their pay slashed to under $20k. These are people with college degrees. Passion will not pay the water bill.

Here's what I see as one of the big problems for any news source, online or in paper. The advertisers are leaving BECAUSE THEY DON'T NEED THE NEWS SOURCES ANYMORE. With free ad places, like a facebook business page, twitter or some savvy marketing of their own website, businesses are getting their sales and products out there.

The entire news industry needs to find a better model than being advertising dependent. What is that? I have no idea.

Rick Ellis@twitter (#241,909)

I've been a journalist for more than twenty years, starting in print but for the last 15 or so on the digital side. I ran a TV station website that won a Regional Murrow, I worked as a national news editor for a company that ran 70 local web sites. I only mention this to illustrate that I'm not some kid just out of college without any sense of how journalism works.

I was a local editor at Patch for awhile and there were a lot of things I liked about the experience. I was thrilled to be covering local news on such a micro level and as a guy who's also worked at start-ups I loved the idea of combining my ideas with the Patch infrastructure. I don't have complaints about the support from Patch HQ and my salary was in the mid 40's, which was fine given the situation.

But working at Patch was probably the worst day-to-day experience of my working life. Not because of the work but because of the direct management. I remember getting raked over the coals for posting a YouTube video from a local band or because I spent too much time on a story and didn't post my seven stories that day. It was terrible and the irony of it all is that when I look at my old site now I'm just sad. After two more LE's (in less than a year), they combined it with a nearby Patch and that combined Patch has been without an editor for at least six months.

I love local news and in different circumstances I might have loved working at Patch. But every day as I work on my own successful start-up, I'm reminded that in the end Patch lost out more when I left than I did.

Carol Joy@facebook (#241,952)

I think one reason that Patch didn't work – I am on the internet far too much of my time, and this is the first I have ever heard of it! And apparently it's too late, the enterprise sounds like it is already done and over with.

Sounds like the days of making money off community news are long gone. Doesn't the small, non-profit/community service model make more sense? Also, this piece reads like it was written by the Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn characters from the Larry Sanders Show.

For some reason my previous post from a few days ago isn’t here anymore (or at least appearing), so let me try to recreate what I wrote.

I’m a former Patch editor and I’m proud to say that I was with Patch in its heyday back in 2010 (I left this past summer). When Patch first started it was great. Editors had total control over what was on their sites and they had a great freelance budget, which I enjoyed using. Not only does it make me extremely happy to put people to work (even if it is to give freelancers some stories or videos to do), but it means more stories and different bylines appearing on the site. And it allowed me to focus on the bigger stories.

But then came Double Down and Moms Content, which along with other editors, I knew it wasn’t going to work in my town that I was covering. I knew what the readers wanted: Original, local news. And when DD and MC didn’t work out there was some other new plan that would roll out month after month. Eventually the Chinese fire drill simply wasn’t fun anymore.

If the folks in New York simply listened to the editors on the ground on what would work and not work in our towns things would have been different. But you have to give credit where credit is due: Patch allowed you to try new things on your own and that was great.

But for most of us we knew the writing was on the wall when management decided to slash our freelance budgets and telling us it was great because it would allow the community to contribute more. And say what you will about the lowing-paying jobs at the local paper, but at least there the management respected the staff enough to be honest: “We’re not making money and something has to be cut.” And most of us who have been in the business long enough knew why Patch was cutting the budget.

Now I could mention Ms. Huffington, but I never saw her as a threat to what I was doing. I still (at that time) had control over what I was publishing. What bothered many of us though was when Rachel Feddersen, who came from a parenting blog, came along last year. Now had Patch been a real news network I probably would have placed her as head of blogging for soft news. She would have been good there. Most likely great.

But for the life of me (not counting the rumors that I heard), I could never figure out why Patch simply didn’t hire the Patch editors or regional editors who were on the ground and had 20-plus years operating newsrooms for papers and stations. Just hire in house or hire one of the thousands of laid off journalists. Sure, many didn’t want to go near Patch from what I heard, but I’m sure others would have. But what Patch needed was someone with a real daily news background in charge of “content.”

Rachel would have been great at head of soft news blogging, but as content chief she simply didn’t know what we were doing or really cared. During a conference call this past summer she actually told us that we should follow the ice cream man and tweet to our readers what street he was turning on. Never mind the fact that we had real news stories that take time: Council meetings, breaking news and investigative pieces. (Yes, a lot of Patch websites did real stories.)

Now many will probably think I would like nothing more than to see Patch go away and those people would be wrong. I have always praised Patch for doing digital journalism better than most established news places and I would hate to see the hundreds of journalists laid off.

Yet it is a shame that a lot of Patches now simply don’t cover the towns anymore and just copy and paste either press releases and from the competition. But from what I heard, this is not the fault of most of the editors, but a management decision that many readers and business owners have been unhappy with.

But what I think Brian Farnham (whom I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking to him when he visited my area once) and others fail to realize about Sammy is that he wants to simply go back to reporting real local news. Now I’m not sure what his area in California is like now, but I can tell you that the changes made to my former Patch site and the surrounding ones have a lot of current and former readers and editors upset. As the vice president of the township that I covered told me during the holidays (four months after I quit), he said no one covers the meetings anymore.

So I’ll say this: Sometimes the passion for doing quality, real journalism is more important than a generous paycheck.

One very key thing the two journalists missed is that AOL/Patch blew it from the get-go by not selling advertising from the beginning. They waited a year — it was 100% content with no revenue — before beginning to try to sell ads. By that time, no prospective ad buyer could see value because it seemed like the product "should" be free. That business model went against what most every start-up media outlet has done that I've ever known of.

nwzPaper@twitter (#241,880)

@Steve Handwerker@facebook Individuals have succeeded with pay walls on the Internet. We just call them newsletters and private subscription blogs. This is the direction nwzPaper aims to assist the industry in.

Response rates are very low on Internet advertising, at a fraction of even direct mail, so it's no surprise that a low traffic local site has trouble monetizing ad space with local advertisers. National and international brands names can at least support brand recognition with their online campaigns, so that's why they still step up for online.

The local advertising opportunity is better approached from a geospatially driven deal/coupon site, but not structured like Grupon/Living Social. Those models are too expensive for the advertiser, IMO.

Tim Windsor@twitter (#241,857)

@Steve Handwerker@facebook Not true. Ad sales was a part of the mix from Day One (well at least Day One for all of the sites that launched after July 2010, more than 800 sites in all).

Post a Comment