AOL Patch

Jan 292012

A 15-year old girl was just killed in San Leandro, stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend in front of their 9-months old baby.  The community is shocked, angry and sad.  Emotions are strong, and so are the needs to express them.

“Motherfuckers like that bitch assed cat just need to be put in a room with me, hands only, all I gotta do is think about what he did, its a wrap.” wrote one man, the father of two girls himself.  Unfortunately he did it as a comment on a San Leandro Patch article about the murder.  So it was taken down.

To be fair, the SL Patch’s current editor, Tom Abate* – a respected journalist, with years of experience – understood the context and would have left the comment up.  But David Mills,whose specific job with AOL is unclear but only shows up at the SLP to delete comments**, was quick to take it down.  The language was inappropriate, of course.  Swear words might offend the delicate sensitivities of Patch readers; presumably more than the actual murder they reported on.

It’s not the first time.  Messages using swear words, criticizing the police or the Catholic church have been taken down as well.  Personal attacks done more subtly, sarcasm rather than plain words, is left to stay.

I find the Patch’s censorship policy very sad.  I had great hopes for the Patch when it started, and while they were quickly shot down by superficial reporting, a focus on fluffy issues and, yes, arbitrary censorship of comments – my hopes had been renewed when Tom Abate was hired as editor.  Not only does Tom focus on serious issues and actual news (imagine that!), but he does a great job in steering discussion and calming down the parties when necessary.  Since Tom joined Patch, more people have joined in the discussion, more views are presented.

San Leandro does need a community website where people can come together.  I host a Facebook page for this blog, but its audience is limited to Facebook users who have befriended me (and if you use FB I encourage you to befriend me).  I’m also not a journalist nor want to be one, so the content of that page is by far limited to what is published in other media (mostly the SL Patch, San Leandro Bytes and the Daily Review).  It’s for that reason that I participate very actively on the Patch.

But in order to serve the San Leandro community, its imperative for its editors (and super editors or whatever Mills is) to understand and embrace the community.  And the San Leandro community does not consist merely of William F. Buckley wannabes and ladies who do tea.  Some people are rougher.  Some people swear, in particular when they are angry and distressed.  We should let them.  Even more, we should welcome them.  Our emotions, after all, are what bring us together as a community, what makes us attach to one another – and sometimes we can be uncouth when we express those emotions, and sometimes it’s warranted.  As it was here.

I hope, because I can do little more than hope, that while the SL Patch is still around (and while it survived longer than I thought, its days are pretty much counted), it can really be a place where the community comes together, specially about tragic events like this.  And I hope that after it shuts down, someone will have the initiative to create a news & discussion site that is more inclusive and less censorious.

* Tom, however, must have gotten a “talk” by David. He edited a recent comment by replacing the word “ass”, left by the commenter, with the word “jerk”.

** David Mills responded to my question about his position. He is “an associate regional editor who helps oversee 11 Patch sites, including San Leandro. Among my many duties are editing stories on these sites and checking the comments section.”

May 092011

I’m sorry to announce the death of the San Leandro Patch.  No, you don’t need to rush and click on the link to see if it’s disappeared.  It’s still there.  My guess is it will still be there for a few more months.  Can’t tell you how many, August would not be an unrealistic date for its final demise, but it’ll surely be gone (at least for all intents and purposes) by the end of the year.  My guess is Jill Replogle, the local editor, is already looking for a new job.  Journalism jobs are very hard to find, specially in this economy, but at least three of her Patch editor colleagues from this immediate area have already jumped ship and found work elsewhere.   She’ll find something. She doesn’t have a choice.

I’m sad.  The Patch was (is) great while it lasted: it provided us with a forum where to bitch about what’s wrong in San Leandro, meet new friends and discuss ever more esoteric topics.  My knowledge of Catholic sexual doctrine and the value of various educational degrees has improved dramatically since I googled these topics for Patch discussions.  Yeah, the Patch never was what it promised it’d be: “hyper-local journalism”, but it was something.  Hopefully, something good (perhaps a site like Berkeleyside) will arise from its ashes.  It’ll be up to us.

We knew that the Patch was a failed concept even before it came to town.  The Business Insider did the math, it’s just impossible for a site like Patch to support itself on advertisement alone, even if it actually managed to sell advertisement.   AOL was never very clear on how it planned to monetized the Patch.  Some thought local merchants would be willing to pay premium rates, but it’s not realistic that the Patch would  attract the same quantity of readers that a local rag like the San Leandro Times enjoys.  So far the Patch has only convinced two local merchants (one, part of a chain which I suspect may have a nationwide advertisement agreement) to advertise on the San Leandro Patch.   Ideas like  “groupon“-type coupons were considered, but they haven’t materialized so I imagine there hasn’t been enough local interest either.  Without the readership, they’re hard sells.  At least one writer believes that the Patch’s value is on its business directory, a virtual yellow pages online.  But the directory is badly designed and not user-friendly.  Few local merchants and customers have added their takes on the businesses.

Perhaps, if pursued with enough intensity, some of these “local revenue” ideas would have worked out – but sometime around the end of last year AOL lost faith.  It decided to go in a new direction and buy the Huffington Post.  It paid $315 Million for a site that boasted almost 28 million monthly unique visitors and that had just become profitable.  As part of the deal, Ariana Huffington was put in charge of AOL’s media business, including the Patch.

AOL has been heavily bleeding money on its media investments.  Patch, in particular, has been expensive.  From January 2010 to April 2011, AOL  lost $115 Million on the Patch, and the figure may rise to $175 Million by the end of the year.  Revenue has been too small to make a dent.   AOL and Huffington are getting impatient and they’re  trying to cut the bleeding.  By far, their greatest costs are the salaries of their journalists.  Each Patch’s started with one editor and a number of freelancers who together produced about three local stories a day.  Not great quality stories, but stories.  But at $50-$150 a pop those stories were too expensive.  Around the time the Huffington Post was acquired, AOL started cutting freelance budgets.  While Huffington later announced that Patch would be hiring as many as 800 extra  journalists – about one per Patch -, most of those jobs never materialized.

Instead AOL decided to go in a completely different direction: recruit local bloggers to provide free content, aggregate stories from other sites, and publish stories across multiple Patches.  The hyperlocal angle is going away.  While the San Leandro Patch used to publish about 3 local stories a day, now it’s down to one – and not a particularly good one.  Today’s was on a 4th grade student receiving an award.    Of the other 8 stories on the home page (published in the last 3 days or so), 7 were posted to multiple Patches.  None of the aggregated news concern San Leandro.  The next step, I think, will be to consolidate nearby Patches.  They’ll probably start with smaller communities – but eventually I daresay the San Leandro Patch and the San Lorenzo Patch will share an editor.

AOL seems to have given up on the local-reader/local-revenue model.  Instead, it’s going after anyone’s eyeballs, putting quantity of material ahead of quality.  This model may eventually work for them, but it won’t work for those of us who were looking for a place online where to meet other San Leandrans and talk about issues of common concern.  If we want that it appears we’ll have to create it ourselves.

Apr 262011

To blog or not to blog, that is the question; or more precisely, should you blog for free for AOL Patch?  The San Leandro Patch, like its sister Patch properties all over the country, is out in force today recruiting bloggers.  By one account, each Patch editor is supposed to sign up 5 to 10 bloggers by May 4th.  This is an impressive target for a town like San Leandro, which counts with a total of two non-business blogs run by people not in my household.  But hey, that just means there will be less competition!

The idea of running user blogs is a no brainer for the Patch, which is now run by Ariana Huffington.  Blogs mean free unique content for AOL.  They can place advertisements on these pages and make money (not shared with the blogger) and can also use it to increase their Google ranking if, as suspected, the Patch starts relying more on news aggregation.  But is blogging for the Patch a good deal for a neophyte (or even established) blogger?  It depends on whether you are willing to give up editorial freedom for some help in establishing a readership.

Creating a blog from scratch is pretty easy.  All you have to do is go to a free-blog hosting site such as WordPress or Blogger, sign up, click a few times, enter some information and you are set to go.  With a few more clicks you can link your blog to twitter and facebook (and other social media sites that you may use).  But in order for your blog to be successful, you need to get readers – and that’s where being with Patch may help.  While getting readers to your blog is not difficult, it is time consuming.  You need to advertise yourself, leave comments in other blogs, remind your friends to link to you, etc. etc.  If you blog with Patch, presumably they will post links to your blog postings on their main page and interested people will read you without any work on your part.  This can be particularly valuable if you are not likely to update your blog frequently (more than 2 or 3 times a week) – you don’t have to worry about people forgetting about your blog when you are not posting.  Now, bear in mind that the traffic that Patch is likely to direct to your page is limited, but it will amount to something.

There are, however, some strong reasons why you may want to stay an independent blogger.  For one, by blogging for the Patch, you are basically working for free for a mega-corporation, which will not be inclined to share its profits with you.  Indeed, a number of Huffington Blog bloggers are now suing Huffington for a share of the $315 Million that AOL paid for the Huffington Post.   Working for free is perfectly OK, but there is something distasteful about doing it for someone who can well afford to pay you but just won’t.

More importantly is that by blogging for Patch you are giving up a lot of your editorial control.  Patch has not yet published what their agreement with bloggers will look like, but if you take a look at the Huffington Post user agreement you get an idea of what to expect:  they can terminate your blog or access to the site for any reason at any time without notice and  they can do whatever they want with your material, including re-editing your videos, without sharing any profits with you.  Indeed, I think the threat of editorial control is very real.  Patch editors seem to routinely delete comments they dislike and Kari Hulac, a regional editor for Patch East Bay, privately e-mailed me to threaten to take me off the Patch when I made a comment questioning her truthfulness.  And according to Hulac, an editor will have to approve your post before it’s published in the fist place.

Personally, I’m sticking with WordPress.  At some point I’m hoping that someone will be create a San Leandro news & culture site that will draw postings from the whole community.