Apr 122011
 

For the uninitiated, Patch is an AOL media company which hires local journalists and editors to write about local news.  They concentrate on small cities with relatively high household incomes (“relatively” being the key word here), offering web-only hyper-local stories.  Each city’s Patch is run by a professional journalist (albeit one not very far along in their career, as city editor’s salaries are said to be about $45K a year), who hires a stream of freelancers to write these stories.  In addition to its own stories, each Patch publishes stories of regional interest.  They plan to generate revenue by selling advertising space.

While the Patch is a great concept, and one that I was very hopeful about, it fails in its execution.  For one, it eschews news stories about what’s happening in town in favor of fluffy human interest stories.  For another, it undervalues the role of  comments in attracting readership and fails to create positive user experiences.  The core problem seems to be that Patch doesn’t understand its model or its audience, hires people without the appropriate skills for each position and doesn’t provide them with the support or infrastructure to grow the site organically.  The results are a site that attracts far fewer readers that it needs to survive financially.

In order to make money, the Patch needs to attract readership that will visit its site and look at the ads.  In order to do that, it needs to publish interesting content. It can do so in two ways: by publishing interesting stories or by publishing stories that incite comments that people will want to read.  Ideally, it will do both, right now it fails at the former and is starting to fail at the latter.

Low-quality Reporting

The San Leandro Patch (SLP) started on a good note.  One of its first articles was about the shooting of an unarmed driver by San Leandro police and included statements by witnesses that contradicted the police account of what had happened.  Since then, however, SLP has not produced one single article of investigative journalism.   Instead, it mostly publishes cute “human interest” stories with no news value.  There are articles on frugal livingparental struggles, smart kids and lots of feel good stories – but if you want to find out about what’s behind the wave of arrests of armed men transporting marijuana through the city,  who has the Mayor’s ear or why the City spends so much money on attorney’s fees , the Patch is not for you.  Don’t get me wrong, they will report on what goes on at City Council and School Board meetings and will copy city press releases and police blotters, and if something big happens in town they’ll cover it.  What they won’t do is ask questions or even dig a little.   If you want to know what’s really happening in town you have to hope that San Leandro Bytes will cover it, come here or investigate it yourself.

Truth be told, I don’t know whether the Patch’s lack of interest in “real” local news is deliberate or accidental.  When I’ve brought up the issue directly with San Leandro Patch’s editor Jill Replogle, she blamed it on her lack of time. Indeed, huge workloads are a common complaint among local Patch editors.  They are expected to research and write stories, attend community meetings, hire and manage their team of freelancers, edit their work and manage the local websites.  Regional editor Kari Hulac also mentioned Replogle’s newness to San Leandro. While Replogle has an MA in Journalism from UC Berkeley, she has no ties to San Leandro and started her job without  an understanding of the town, its issues, undercurrents and players.  Without ample time at her disposal, Replogle has been unable to develop the basic understanding of San Leandro necessary to contextualize her stories and to underline which questions need to be asked and which leads followed.

I’m not convinced, however, that the focus on human interest stories at the expense of real news is not deliberate.  While both Replogle and Hulac have suggested that those of us who want serious content generate those stories for the Patch ourselves (and this blog is, in part, a response to that suggestion), they haven’t done the logical thing of assigning one of their existing freelancers to cover serious stories.  Several of these freelancers are from San Leandro and should be able to follow a lead (and I have given her plenty); and if they can’t, nothing is stopping Replogle from hiring someone who does know the city.

My suspicion is that the Patch actually has a hidden policy against reporting on potentially “sensitive” issues.  They may be afraid of repercussions.  When the San Leandro Times displeased City Hall with its coverage, the city responded by passing an ordinance prohibiting its newspaper racks on public streets.  The former mayor is also said to have repeatedly called the SLT’s editors into his office to complain about stories or even published letters to the editor.  Retaliation may also as subtle as a wall of silence.  Replogle complained at some point about the Police not talking to her reporters.  AOL may also be concerned about advertisers, though so far it doesn’t have any to speak of.  A final possibility is that AOL/Patch believe that local readers are only interested in fluffy stories.  They don’t disclose their visitors numbers (nationwide, the average Patch post is said to attract 100 page views, which seems a bit high for SLP), but more “newsy” stories do elicit many more comments than fluffy stories – which suggests interest in the latter is limited.

Community Generated Content: A Wasted Opportunity

While the SLP may not generate high quality content, it is well-positioned to serve as a public forum, a place where local San Leandrans can discuss issues of common interest.  The need for such a forum in San Leandro has been latent for a while, but it became clear with the appearance of San Leandro Rumours during the 2010 campaign.  SLR was a Facebook page offering silly rumors about local political candidates, but it quickly amassed 500 “friends” and spurred a type of debate on the issues that had not previously found a place in the city.  However, SLR’s tendentiousness and Facebook’s closed system made it less than an ideal forum for serious discussion of local issues.  An open website like Patch seems better positioned to fulfill that role.  And it is a profitable role, while readers may not bother with the Patch’s less than compelling stories, they are still curious to find out what Leah, David, Thomas or I (I’m a frequent Patch contributor) have to say about them.  They may disagree with us to death but that’s what makes reading us fun.  Even more importantly, the content commenters provide is completely free to the Patch.  For that reason alone, keeping commenters happy and engaged should be a priority for any news site.

Unfortunately, Patch is proving to be a disappointment as a public forum.  While the stories each allow for comments from registered users, and these comments show up on the local Patch’s homepage, Patch did not create the website infrastructure to adequately deal with comments.  Comments are not threaded and therefore new comments on popular posts are difficult to locate, you can only comment on an existing stories (there is no way, for example, to use Patch to bring up a news issue to the attention of other readers), and comments are frequently disabled when a comment thread proves too popular or controversial – creating frustration among readers.

Just as problematic, is the Patch’s editors arbitrary treatment of comments and commenters.  While the Patch has Terms of Use that commenters agree to abide by, editors admit that the policy is there just to give them the ability to kick off users they don’t like; they have no intention to enforce it uniformly. Indeed, when a user created the name of “Jim Faqu” to post anonymous and offensive comments on the Patch (several against me), in violation of the rules against anonymous postings and disguised profanity, Replogle’s response was to delete my comment calling him on his alias.  Replogle, admittedly, doesn’t know what she’s doing – not surprising given that she was trained as a journalist, not as a website moderator.  The same can be said about her supervisor, Hulac, who has repeatedly threatened to ban me from the Patch if I don’t “cooperate” (i.e. if I criticize her), but is unable to articulate coherently how any of my comments in any way violated the TOS.  The problem with arbitrary censorship and banning of participants is that the lack of definite rules and expectations creates a less than pleasant community and discourage people from participating. Less participation = fewer hits.

AOL could potentially solve these two issues by having web professionals in charge of each Patch – people with experience in creating positive online experiences, moderating comments and even managing freelancers – and putting the professional journalists like Replogle and Hulac back in the field.  You would think that by now, AOL would have realized that the existing model is not working.  One thing that SLP has definitely not generated is Buzz.  People in San Leandro are not talking about it and few seem to be reading it.  With the right content and the right attitude, that could change.

  25 Responses to “San Leandro Patch: How AOL is dooming a good idea”

  1. Just two things, lest rumors begin to fly.

    One: Of course Patch has no such policy of staying away from controversial issues. I can’t imagine ever working for a news group that had such a policy.

    Two: San Leandro Patch had 17,000 unique visitors last month. Most readers do not post comments.

    If you want any other questions answered, or just to chat, come over and say hi next time you see me at Zocalo, Marga.

    • Thanks for the comments, Jill. I’m glad to hear there is no formal policy against serious reporting. What is the issue at play, then, and how do you believe AOL can address it?

      I know that as a web neophyte 17,000 unique visitors a month seems like a very large number to you – but it’s actually a very unimpressive number. My personal website, marga.org, gets about 45,000 unique visitors a month – and that’s your run-of-the-mill vanity site containing little more than recipes and local restaurant reviews.

      I didn’t discuss Patch’s financial issues on my article, but they’ve been covered at length elsewhere. Nobody basically can figure out how the Patch will be able to make money. Eyeballs are very cheap on the internet, 17,000 unique visitors are probably worth $150 as far as ad impressions go – that will just pay for one of your stories. Micro-targeted advertising, on the other hand, can be more lucrative. That means coupons, like Groupon, though we still have to see if that model will work in small towns. It would also mean selling local advertisers on the /quality/ of the eyeballs. That means locals and in particular local trend setters. YOu probably have some idea of how many of these visitors you have: how many Patch subscribers live in San Leandro and how many people have subscribed to the SLP newsletter. Those numbers will be more indicative of how well you are doing locally. But the sales job will be difficult until the Patch generates some buzz. People are just not talking about the Patch (and people do talk about East Bay Citizen and did talk about San Leandro Rumours, so I’m confident buzz could be generated with appropriate content). You need to get to a point that when your salesmen approach merchants to sell them ad, they don’t have to explain to them what the Patch is. But I think you need better content to get there.

      • 45,000 UVs? Prove it. I am positive you don’t know the difference from page views and unique visits because I know your site marga.org does not hit anywhere near that UV number. When you begin to fib to form your point, that’s when I say Goodbye. Prove it. Show us the traffic.

        • My stats are not publicly accessible, for privacy reasons, but you can easily look at the estimates that commercial sites do vis a vis traffic to my site, e.g.: http://www.mustat.com/marga.org

          • That site is not measuring unique visitors.

          • Well, it says “unique visitors”. My own stats program doesn’t analyze unique visitors as such, but it tells me I get about 1500 visits a day or about 3300 page views. Clearly a number of those are likely to be returning visitors, but I don’t have an easy way of figuring out what percentage that will be.
            Now, I’ll grant you that a lot of that traffic is bogus – robots & spammers, people who’ve linked to a photo on my site (but when someone visits their site and loads that picture it counts as hit/visit for me) and the like, but that’s true of pretty much any count of unique visitors. That’s why I don’t give such measures any weight.

  2. Marga, your comments are on point. Kari, Sonja and Jill have all reached out to me to advise me that if I continue to comment in a manner that they deem to be offensive, then I will be banned. That is OK with me. Censorship is the first stage of the collapse of the democracy and those who believe that keeping the people from speaking out will eventually fall from power and suffer the consequences of their actions.

    The San Leandro Times is not much better than a reali estate add or listing of the failing Chamber of Commerce. The electronic version of the SLT is proof positive that no prescient being would ever pay for their take on news, which is closer to snooze.

    Your own SLBytes is hardly representative or non-partisan. That comments are not allowed shows that the forum is merely you and your husband’s media outreach to the community. That is OK.

    Pronoucing the death of Patch is just one more fallen warrior and wailing Valkyrie in the Gotterdammerung of AOL and Hutchinson. I hope Patch sticks around and begins to work at doing some things that no one else has managed to do.

    I would love to see the actual San Leandro Police, Hayward Police and Alameda County Police Blotters published intact on a monthly basis, as they are in Concord.

    Not likely that will happen in our lifetimes. Long term residents, I have lived here for more than twenty years and there has never been a time that the police and sheriff were about to publish the current public record on the blotter.

    Chief Spagnoli has said no, as did her predecessors. Chief Ace has said no. Sheriff Ahearn h as said no. They will all try to explain that they want to protect the victims. Right. Believe that. Live here a long time.

    The police are many things, but forthcoming with requests for information are not part of their interest.

    both reached out to me to let me know that if I , though far from objective.

    • Thomas, comments are allowed on San Leandro Bytes and some people do manage to post them. The problem is the same than for Vox Publica, my personal blog, it’s hosted on our personal server and we can’t afford to pay for a security certificate – that means that some browsers will report the site as malicious and not let you leave a comment. But it’s your browser doing it, not the site. I am planning on moving all our sites to a commercial server to stop that issue from happening.
      BTW, I sincerely believe that Mike is as non-partisan as possible on his coverage. Overly so, I think. But if you do find bias on his reporting, do e-mail him (you can ask him to post your comment as well).

  3. The last sentence should have read that Kari reached out and said that if I did not back off then I would be banned. I understand her message and that of Patch and while I do not agree and find the behavior on the part of the editors to be as repellent as you do, it is their website and they can kill it if they want to.

    You can too, as can I. The great thing about life is that we can all sleep under the trestle. I know it is an obscure and not well connected aside to Andre Malraux, but I had to do it.

  4. I actually don’t see much difference between the SL times and Patch. Not to say I don’t enjoy them both and they are better than nothing. Of course I wish there were more investigative pieces. It’s a shame more citizens don’t demand more information and knowledge. This is AOL, and their motives with this Patch initiative are a mystery to me.

  5. Fran, Patch/AOL’s motives are simply to make money. AOL is in its nth reinvent moment and Patch is the effort to create a social network in communities where there is a way to make money.

    AOL/Patch has agreed to purchase The Huffington Post for $315 million, approximately $300 million of which will be paid in cash funded from cash on hand.

    The transaction will create a premier global, national, local, and hyper-local content group for the digital age – leveraged across online, mobile, tablet, and video platforms. The combination of AOL’s infrastructure and scale with The Huffington Post’s pioneering approach to news and innovative community building among a broad and sophisticated audience will mark a seminal moment in the evolution of digital journalism and online engagement.

    The new group will have a combined base of 117 million unique visitors a month in the United States and 270 million around the world**. Following the close of this transaction, AOL will accelerate its strategy to deliver a scaled and differentiated array of premium news, analysis, and entertainment produced by thousands of writers, editors, reporters, and videographers around the globe.

    As part of the transaction, Arianna Huffington, The Huffington Post’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, will be named president and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Media Group, which will include all Huffington Post and AOL content, including Engadget, TechCrunch, Moviefone, MapQuest, Black Voices, PopEater, AOL Music, AOL Latino, AutoBlog, Patch, StyleList, and more.

    “The acquisition of The Huffington Post will create a next-generation American media company with global reach that combines content, community, and social experiences for consumers,” said Tim Armstrong, Chairman and CEO of AOL. “Together, our companies will embrace the digital future and become a digital destination that delivers unmatched experiences for both consumers and advertisers.”

    AOL/Patch/Huffington are well known for not paying for content, even after agreeing to do so. Patch has continued that effort and is presently being sued by folks who were promised payment.

    Today, Patch announced that it would be hiring a lot of paid contributors. We will see, of course if Patch will survive. As electronic media it is tough to use it for the bottom of the bird cage.

    • I looked up the reference to the unpaid bill and came up with this article. One point it makes is that under the new Huffington model, Patch will hire a full-time writer per local site. That will be a welcomed change. I hope that new hire is not Jennifer Courtney, however. She seems like a lovely young woman, but very, very “green”. Even if she decided to do a real news story (most of what she’s done has been very fluffy), I have a feeling she could be pushed around with a feather.

      • Let me first say that as with just about everything you write, you make some valid points. I don’t agree with it all, but I’m with you on the whole commenting thing. Comments are integral to the success of any hyperlocal news site, and effectively managing a site’s community is really important. From the start company heads at Patch should have found a way to enforce its TOS on sites or else change it. And I largely see no problem with any comment unless it contains a personal attack on someone instead of disagreeing with said person’s ideas.

        In any case, I hate to burst your bubble but I was indeed hired on a more full-time basis with SL Patch, though I’m also working for Union City Patch. Honestly it’s the hard news and public interest/ investigative journalism that is the most satisfying for me. I wouldn’t describe myself as seasoned, certainly, but it’s what I like about reporting, after all — the ability to uncover the truth, inform, and have an impact. I actually appreciate your feedback that I haven’t come across that way on Patch.

        I will say Jill’s right — that kind of journalism does take a lot of resources and time and historically Patch hasn’t really been set up to foster it. Not an excuse, but part of the equation when you’re worried about filling content today, not when an investigation may/may not pay off two weeks from now.

        And while lots of investigative journalism is the result of just being enterprising, news tips can help too to get the ball rolling. So if you ever have any, I’m all ears.

        • Well, Jennifer, congratulations on being hired. I guess the fact that it was you, and not somebody with any seasoning, does support my belief that Patch has no interest in serious journalism. Now set out to prove me wrong! I have given Jill/Kari a series of story ideas, not news tips per se, but serious stories that beg to be written. I’ll share them to you as well:

          – What’s the “inside” story about the Faith Fellowship church? How does a church go from 65 members to 1700 in 15 years? Who do they appeal to? What is their message? One of Patch’s reporters is a member, so you have an “in” – but the article should expose both the good and bad about the church.

          – What’s the story with the city’s lawyers? They are the premier city lawfirm, and yet they consistently give the city horrible and very costly advice. How much do we spend on legal costs annually (both attorney’s fees and settlements) and how does that compare to other cities?

          – In that same vein, why not take a look at the open lawsuits against the city /and/ the school district? You can find many of them online (remember to look both at the websites for CA and federal courts). Are there any juicy lawsuits that we should know about? One is by a former cop whose son murdered a student, the cop was fired from SLPD for sexually harassing women? What’s the story with this guy?

          – Police Chiefs in San Leandro retire at 50 with mega pensions. HOw about a story about what has bee of our former police chiefs, what are they doing now?

          – Why did City Manager Hollister resign?. Obviously he thought he was going to get fired, but why did the City Council finally made that decision? People are not talking, so this is the perfect story to learn how to cultivate confidential sources.

          – SLPD has a history of racial harassment, has it cleaned its act or is this still a problem? What changes were instituted to make sure sexual harassment won’t be an issue any longer?

          A GREAT place to look for tips is the comments following Patch articles. Some that come to mind:

          -Red light camera contracts. Why are we paying the red light camera provider so much more money than other cities? Is this true of all our other contracts, are we just overpaying everyone?

          -What’s the story with the woman who killed her disabled daughter? Several of her friends/neighbors have commented. How about an article about her and what’s brought her to this point?

          -What’s happened with the investigations into the police shooting of the car thief?

          -This not from the comments but from the San Leandro Times: San Leandro kids hang out in Oakland because SLPD harasses them. What’s that story, specially in the light of the killings of SL students in Oakland?

          As you see, there are tons and tons and tons of stories that need to be written about this town. Yes, these are stories that will take some time to develop, but as I said in my article, if you don’t start providing compelling context, you’ll never be able to attract a significant readership.

          • Thanks for the ideas. Re: the investigation into the police shooting. Authorities tell us the report hasn’t been completed yet. That’s been on our radar.

      • Marga, why so mean spirited to Jennifer? I have not met her, though I have read what she writes. She is not probative but she fits the model of what AOL/Patch wants which is a trained journalist. The only way you get better is by doing it, contrary to what is taught in school. I applaud her success. If you want to read the real facts in the East Bay, just close your eyes, imagine the worst and the best and it is probably happening somewhere.

        Your defense of your home server and all that is well and good. That this is the only comment forum that is unexpurgated and not censored is good.

        Your leads are mostly correct, I suspect. It is naive however to assume that an electronic newspaper will triumph over the legacy of boss politics, racism and segregation which is the legacy of San Leandro, San Lorenzo, Ashland and Cherryland.

        The real change will not happen until the diversity of the community is represented in the elected representatives and the media. That means that your comments and mine and Fran’s and the balance of the commenters here are superflous and without meaning.

        However, we can still bugger on.

        • I wasn’t trying to be mean to Jennifer (whom I haven’t met either), but she is very young and has seemed pretty naive in some of her comments/reporting. But hey, if Jill is smart she’ll assign Jennifer to do all the stories that Jill has been doing (covering meetings, for example), and will use her own journalistic skills to produce some quality content.

  6. Oakland Local, a local news site is a fantastic example of journalism and civic engagement done right. Started by three visionaries, who felt that the real stories of Oakland never made their way to the mainstream media, and/or the reporting about Oakland in the mainstream media often did not give the full picture, their business model is very different from that of the regular news org – this independent media organization “promotes civic engagement and discourse on local issues that matter.” Oakland Local came into existence following the killing of Oscar Grant, and provided the most comprehensive, on-the-ground coverage during the Meserle trial. Their community of journalists research, report, write, compile and distribute Oakland-specific news and information. Oakland Local also provides free hands-on media trainings, and mentoring, and presents events for the community to get together converse on issues. They are a small but mighty organization, and within a year of coming into being, garnered recognition from Columbia Journalism for their terrific grassroots coverage. Kwan Booth, one of the Founders, is such a visionary, passionate about engaging and empowering the community, and making sure their voices are heard. I love reading their content, because they demonstrate how to do quality journalism and foster local voices.
    http://oaklandlocal.com/about

  7. I must make a small correction to my statement above about SLP not having any advertisers to speak of. I disabled my AdBlock Plus utility today and realized that I was wrong. SLP has been able to recruit 2 local advertisers (Alphin Jeweler’s, who really need some help designing their ad)and the local Curves franchise. Way to go!

    • Patch produced a beautifully designed ad for me, which I promptly rejected in favor of my aesthetically-challenged, black and white “simple statement” ad. It is ugly, but very efficient.

      • Larry, can you tell us something about your advertising experience with Patch? Have you seen results from your ad? People you know came because they saw it on the Patch? Do you find Patch as being a cost effective place to advertise? Thanks!

        • Advertising is a long term, repetitive process. I have an ad in the San Leandro Times every week, and my SL Times ad ran for almost a year before I started getting direct feedback from clients coming in to my shop. I like the Patch concept, and I like the Patch people. My ad is affordable enough for micro-businesses such as mine. The lower priced ads are placed on the bottom of the page, so I can only hope people will be compelled to read through all the comments and end up at my spot. Results take time.

          • Thanks for the response, Larry. I actually think the location of the ad may work in your favor. Even without AdBlock Plus on, my brain just ignores all the stuff on the margin of the article as I know it’s useless. But I’m not expecting to see the ad at the bottom, so I may end up noticing it even if I’m not looking for it.

            Another question, though, not related to the Patch. How come you advertise only your watch battery services in the ad and say nothing about the custom jewelry you create?

          • I find that the watch battery ad brings a greater customer traffic to my business. A watch battery replacement takes a few minutes, and while I’m working gives the client an opportunity to browse my new jewelery, estate and consignment jewelery, and watches. It also provides me an opportunity to indulge in some shameless self-promotion, and talk about custom work.

  8. To be honest, if I have to register to comment, I say “f••k it”. Most of the time I see things on the net, I’m on my phone. Of it’s worth coming back, ppl shouldn’t have to register.

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