San Leandro Patch

May 132013

dead PatchA new design puts the final nail in AOL Patch’s coffin

It was a love-hate relationship, but it’s coming to an end.  This week, the San Leandro Patch and its siblings across the country are changing formats yet again, in a last-ditched effort to find a profitable model.  Patch executives finally got the memo that social media is what currently drives online advertising.   They don’t seem too sure about what social media is, however, and they’ve decided to turn their site into a hybrid between a blog and an old-fashioned rudimentary bulletin board. Their nostalgia is not surprising: fifteen years ago they were almost printing their own money.

From a user’s point of view, however, the new format (as previewed on the Stonington-Mystic Patch) is a mess.  The site divides the screen into three columns. The main one mixes “stories” and blog postings from community members.  Of course a “story” for the Patch is now synonymous with “posting”.  Actual news, much less “hyperlocal news”, are rare.  More frequent are polls, how-to’s, real estate listings and other low-information postings.

Patch’s hopes are lying on the second column (the third one merely carries advertising).  This is where “board” postings are placed.  Board postings include announcements and events, long available to Patch users, as well as “anything goes” postings.  Their hope is that people will use it to bring up random topics that will get other readers interested.  It seems like a long shot, and it definitely is not working on their model Patch site.   Their “board” currently includes a yard sale announcement, followed by a rant about the whether, followed by an ad for a car for sale and then some announcements.   Even if someone tried to post something of interest, it’s unlikely that anyone could read it as the format does not allow for multiple paragraphs.  Apparently, the Patch’s nostalgia goes back to antiquity, before these were developed (fortunately, they have not done away with punctuation or spaces between words, another rather modern invention).

In order to add these random postings, the Patch’s format eliminates the one element that makes the website work: the area which highlights the latest comments left by users..  I know that there are many stories I do not bother to read until someone has something to say about it – and I also know that readership on a story goes up right after I leave a comment on it.  The new format forces you to seek out comments, which I cannot imagine many readers will do.

This change, however, only accelerates the inevitable death of the Patch.  In reality, the Patch was never a financially viable project.   While AOL had loads of money to throw at it, even those resources are finite.  Perhaps, if they’d brought in the right people with the right understanding of the market, it could have worked – but even that is highly questionable.  It’s been a good ride, and I think we can anticipate the website will stay up until next year, but my prediction is that with the new format the San Leandro Patch will become what the Stonington-Mystic Patch already is: a digital ghost town.

Note: This article has been rewritten for readability.

Feb 232012
San Leandro Mayor Stephen Cassidy

San Leandro Mayor Stephen Cassidy

It would appear that Mayor Stephen Cassidy wrote to San Leandro Patch editor Tom Abate complaining about an article Abate wrote about the last City Council meeting. In the article, Abate characterized the City Council’s move to change the Zoning Code to help in the legal battle with the Faith Fellow Church as a “CYA* strategy”.

While Abate mentioned the complaint he received, he didn’t say who made it.  Still, Abate didn’t deny that it was Cassidy when I so suggested.  And Cassidy has a tendency of trying to influence the press  On several occasions he’s written to me complaining about specific things I’ve written either on this blog or on Facebook.   He actually e-mailed me to complain that the title of the article I wrote on the same  meeting, “City Council Moves to Ban Entertainment in Most of San Leandro,” was misleading.   It’s difficult to understand how that was so when the agenda for that meeting included a motion to approve an ordinance doing exactly that.

Cassidy is not the only Mayor who has wanted to assert his influence on the press. I’ve heard that the San Leandro Time’s editor had been called to City Hall under the previous administration – Santos objected to the publication of letters critical of the City’s actions.

Still, is it proper for a Mayor to try to influence the press? Is he just doing his job as the self-appointed head of PR for the City, or is he violating the first amendment guarantee to freedom of the press? What do you think?


*CYA = “Cover Your Ass”

Jul 142011

For the last couple of years local news junkies in San Leandro – and confess, you are one of them – have seen their choices for San Leandro coverage multiply.  In addition to the trusty San Leandro Times,  San Leandro now counts with its own daily news website, the San Leandro Patch, as well as three newsy blogs: San Leandro Bytes, East Bay Citizen and yours truly, San Leandro Talk.  If something is happening in town, chances are you’ll hear about it.

As bright as things may be looking for local media currently, there are signs that San Leandro’s news renaissance may be coming to an end.  Already, we’ve lost a print news source as the Daily Review no longer has a reporter assigned to San Leandro.  While they cover the occasional story, they do so days late and with little insight as to what’s actually going on.

I’ve written before about the shortcomings of the San Leandro Patch, which have become even more pronounced lately as they’re shifting from local to regional coverage.  Ad sales continue to be dismal – the SLP currently only shows 3 local ads.  AOL just debuted a Huffington Post San Francisco edition, and if it’s as successful as other local HPs have been, it won’t be long before AOL replaces its Bay Area Patches with one general HP Bay Area.

Things look no better in the blogosphere.   After a plea for financial support went unanswered, Steve Tavares, the blogger behind East Bay Citizen, auctioned off its domain name.  While the blog is still accessible at its blogspot address, it hasn’t been updated since July 1st.  Tavares is tweeting and he’ll likely go back to blogging, but already his San Leandro coverage had become poorer since his one contact as City Hall lost his post.

While San Leandro Bytes and San Leandro Talk will likely continue, neither of these blogs are run by actual journalists and they tend to cover issues of particular interests to the bloggers. In any case, they are not comprehensive.

The future doesn’t have to be as hopeless as I fear, however.  While the Patch may change from its present form, chances are its replacement will continue covering San Leandro is some manner, at least in the short term.  If they concentrate on the most important news stories rather than fluff pieces, it may actually be an improvement over what’s there now.  There is also the possibility that someone will start an independent online news site for San Leandro, in the model of the Berkeleyside.  It could take advantage of the content available in the existing blogs, and interface with Facebook and other social media sites to make it easy for San Leandrans to add their own news content.  If well marketed to both the public and local businesses, this model could be financially successful (at least in the sense of paying a modest salary to the person in charge).  And indeed, as new technologies are created every day, there may be something in the horizon that I can’t foresee.

Jun 302011

Americans generally believe in open government.  We give our democratically-elected federal, state and local governments enormous authority over our lives and pay for the privilege with a substantial percentage of our earnings, the least we want in return is to know what the government is up to.  To that end, both the federal and state governments have passed “open government” laws that require open meetings and the release of public information.    In California, the Brown Act regulates how government meetings can be held, while the California Public Records Act (CPRA) provides for access to public records.

Local politicians and city employees are not particularly fond of these laws.  They limit the deals they can do behind the scenes and make them more accountable to the public – at least in communities where there is a functioning press keeping tabs on local government.  While San Leandro is not one of those communities – the Daily Review doesn’t even have a journalist assign to our city, and neither the San Leandro Times or San Leandro Patch do any investigative journalism -, it does have a few independent bloggers as well as concerned citizens that once in a while organize around a particular issue.  City officials, therefore, have an interest in trying to circumvent these open government laws that might expose their doings.

I have written before about how recently the City Council moved to pass a policy that would automatically destroy all their e-mails and how they have gotten rid of narrative minutes of city meetings.  Just as egregious, however, is a little known City Council policy of approving items without properly agendizing them – thus hiding their actions from the public.

According to the Brown Act, before any meeting the government body must  “post an agenda containing a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed at the meeting.”  The City Council, however, does not need to either discuss any item on the agenda or vote individually on those items.  Indeed, most meeting agendas include a “Consent Calendar” of items that the City Council will approve altogether and without discussion.  Any member of the City Council can “pull” an item from the consent calendar, for individual consideration, but members of the public cannot do so.  Members of the public can speak about any of the items in the Consent Calendar, but in order to do so, they must know what those items are.

The San Leandro City Council operates both as a full body and through standing committees.  These committees are usually composed of 3 City Council members are usually deal with concrete issues: rules, finance, facilities, relationship with the school district, etc.  In addition to the standing committees, the City Council occasionally creates ad-hoc committees to handle issues that come up, such as the hiring of a new city manager.  These committees are supposed to do the nitty-gritty work of the Council, read staff reports, discuss issues and decide upon them.  While these committees must publish agendas for their meetings and their meetings are open to the public, they mostly meet during the day when most people are at work and unable to attend, and therefore they seldom see any public participation.  City Council Committee members are therefore free to discuss and decide on issues without any public input.

The recommendations made by City Council Committees are supposed to be discussed and approved by the whole City Council before they become “law”.  They should be listed in the agenda as such, as required by the Brown Act.   They are not in San Leandro.  Rather, the City Council is asked to approve the minutes of the different committee meetings within the consent calendar, and by doing so, they approve their recommendation.   For example, let’s say that the Business & Housing Development Committee recommends increasing business fees by 1,000%, the agenda for the next City Council meeting should say: “Action: Approve increase of business fees by 1000%”.  What it would actually say  is: “Accept Business & Housing Development Committee minutes”.   When the City Council approves the minutes, it also approves the tax increase.  The public would have no clue as to what had just happened.

It’s not only the public that gets blindsided – new City Council members do as well, as they’re often not told of this policy until something comes up.   Indeed, due to complaints by a City Council member, more recent City Council agendas have been a bit more clear as to what the Council is voting to approve, actually listing the committees’ recommendations, but they still don’t make it clear that the Council is approving those recommendations when they approve the minutes.

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.