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.