Patch.com 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 Patch.com 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 Patch.com 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 Patch.com 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 Patch.com 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 Patch.com 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.
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?
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 Patch.com 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.
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.
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.