Patch’s plan to reduce staff, change editorial focus

A Patch insider tells Romenesko readers that the AOL-owned hyperlocal news sites plan to cut staff and freelance budgets and start producing “easy, quick-hitting, cookie-cutter copy.” Examples: Best Ofs, and features like “What’s happening to this vacant storefront?”

The Patch source adds: “This morning we just got word of the hiring of Rachel Fishman Feddersen in the newly created position of Chief Content Officer. She was editor in chief of Parenting.com and held leadership posts at Ladies Home Journal, Disney’s Family.com and was, most recently, editorial director of The Parenting Group. Brian Farnham, our Editor In Chief, now reports to her.”

That hire, says the source, “feeds so logically” with the changes described below.

Patch has implemented a new “One Team One Goal” strategy, with a budget that effectively eliminates anywhere from 50 to 100 percent of freelance dollars, depending on the Patch region and how the supervising editor and regional ad director choose to allocate dollars.

The editorial emphasis is now on “easy, quick-hitting, cookie-cutter copy,” including mandatory “Best Of” features (i.e., best coffeeshop, best burgers, etc.) that compel businesses and readers to visit and participate in the Patch directories. (Each Patch has a directory of local businesses, organizations, churches, etc.)

“We’re going so far, in many of our Patches, to host ‘Pizza Playoffs’ — a tournament-style bracket that pits all the pizza parlors in town into showdowns to attract the most comments and star-ratings. Features like this could go on for weeks at a time, and when one ends, another will begin.”

Every Patch is adopting other, similar features. One example: “What’s happening with this vacant storefront?” — a photo-driven feature that asks readers for comments about what they’d like to see in the space.

Also, I’m told that this is in the works: Every Patch employee given a rating of “Developing” on the recent 2011 Employee Annual Review will likely be placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) that begins a 30-day countdown to either improve or lose your job. (“Developing” is the second-lowest on a five-tiered scale; there’s Top Performer; Exceeding Expections; On Track; Developing; and Off Track.) Managers have been asked to write a three-page letter supporting why this employee should stay; otherwise, the employee will be placed on a PIP. The Patch insider estimates this will affect anywhere from 100-150 employees Patch-wide, and people will be let go by the end of March.

“My guess is this is a way for Patch leadership to enact layoffs without saying it’s laying anyone off — it’s merely ridding itself of employees who ‘aren’t working out’ — while also showing AOL’s board it can shave a lot of overhead while building toward profitability.”

I asked the Patch insider about AOL’s commitment to the sites. “I think AOL is committed to Patch at least through this calendar year,” the source says. “Arianna Huffington will make sure we’re all charging up to having a big impact on coverage of the elections in November. But if we haven’t shown real moves toward profitability by then, I can’t imagine AOL will put another penny into Patch in 2013.”

I’ve invited Patch to comment and will post the response when/if it comes in.

Comments

comments

35 comments
  1. The head’s first four words aren’t supported by what the anonymous source says.

    Low-rated employees “will likely be placed on a Performance Improvement Plan” that the insider estimates could affect 100 to 150 editors — some of whom may be booted at the end of March. “My guess is this is a way for Patch leadership to enacting [sic] layoffs,” she or he says.

    Intriguing, plausible, worth reporting . . . but seems a shaky foundation for Patch To Reduce Staff.

  2. Dave Barnes said:

    This is a death notice.
    You can’t do local with generic.
    The whole point of local is that is local and feels local.
    AOL sucks.

  3. Wise Woman 1 said:

    And thus again, another large group of earnest employees gets the AOL Wedgie.

  4. What hyper local news sites need to survive is to have local advertising agencies take them under their wing. Agencies with some guts and commitment to their communities. Make commissions higher than the regular 15% since rates are not likely to be substantial for a while. But here again, it doesn’t take much to fund a reporter who is committed and motivated.

  5. Noyo said:

    so basically:

    “Big Company to Possibly Get Rid of Bad Employees, Make Some Content More Engaging”

    ? I can’t tell what the sentiment is of this blog post?

    Of course every company eventually tries to either increase the performance of their underperforming employees, or let them go if this can’t be done. Is this news?

    And it sounds to me that the “cookie cutter” part just seems like they looked at what has worked for some of their sites and are, at least for now, trying to introduce some core ideas, such as competition and asking questions, into some of the content for all of their sites for the sake of increasing user engagement. These all sound like good ideas.. were there any other examples?

  6. charlie madigan said:

    What a surprise! At some point, someone will prepare a genuine assessment of ms. huffington and her efforts and conclude they had nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with her! Still, this is good long term local news for inventive people who like risk. Time for local, local, local sites that actually do news!

  7. swish said:

    So people are angry that bad employees are going on an improvement plan? Doesn’t every news organization and business do this? Do people really expect companies to keep on workers who clearly aren’t pulling their weight based on performance reviews?
    I’m sick of the Patch bashing. What about what Gannett and Tribune did to small local publications 20 years ago? This already happened. Saying Yippee! Hope more journalists get laid off isn’t going to help the situation.

  8. This makes perfect sense. If you read any Patch sites, you know it would be a waste of money to pay freelancers to write stories or take pictures for Patch.

    A better business model: treat each Patch site like an independent business; when its share of revenues allows, the town Editor/Publisher can choose to spend some the money on better content. But don’t spend the money upfront hoping you will create something of value.

    The idea of paying a photographer to take pictures for a Patch site is silly.

  9. Aaron said:

    It’s not about filtering out bad employees. If you’d seen the standards they have for determining ranking you’d understand, it’s ridiculous. They’re trying to get rid of people who won’t buy into the company’s plan to turn hard working journalists into salespeople for local advertisers. People who speak out about the ethics issues involved are slated to get the boot.

  10. Steve Cook said:

    Noyo, this is common practice in most large corporations these days. The problem can never be traced to board rooms or executive suites. No, the problem is always with the front line grunts, and if we can all put them on performance plans and get them to work longer hours for the same paltry sum, then all will be good, the company will be saved, and balance restored to the galaxy.

    The real issue is that it’s a failed marketing idea, and regardless how long or hard people worked to make it work, it can’t work, so they’ll be blamed because they didn’t work hard enough. The day journalism died in this country is the day it succumbed to the same plague that business in general is crippled by—accountants in the executive ranks. It also started about 15 years before the Internet became a force to reckon with.

  11. swish said:

    Aaron, I have seen the guidelines for Patch editors, and of course bosses treat employees differently all across the country, but I’ve found them to be pretty reasonable.

    There are the content requirements and the requirements to market the site.

    IMO though the idea of being a journalist/entrepreneur has its upside, we aren’t all Jim Romensesko with the name recognition to make it happen.

    I don’t want to sell ads, I just want a simple paycheck and health insurance. I don’t care that AOL is ultimately getting the bulk of the success. That’s corporate Americuh for you. Owning my own business would take me too far away from doing actual journalism.

    I do, however, resent all the gleeful comments about Patch “finally” failing like everyone expected.

  12. anon said:

    I also hate seeing people cheer on any kind of journalism layoff.

    Patch has been dying for a while. There is no focus on content, aside from things that can game Google to generate high UVs or promote local businesses. There are a lot of issues with the way Patch has been having us promote local businesses, I’ve heard it going as far as removing a business name from the police blotter because that business was an advertiser. The term “programmed” means fluff that’s meant to grab clicks or drive people to the directory listings page, which, surprise! was Patch’s big secret revenue stream meant to compete with Google local and Yelp.

    I understand they’re hurting for cash, but they’re basically trying to run all the local editors out by piling on work, preventing them from doing journalism, and making them do things that are not kosher. People are already dropping like flies because they’re sick of Patch and don’t want to damage their own reputation by sticking with a brand that is asking them to act as sales people before journalists. Layoffs are definitely coming soon.

  13. swish said:

    Anon, if what you are saying about the police blotter is accurate, then you should take it up with your regional editor or their boss. Hell, take it up with Brian Farnham. That is messed up.

    I will say that it’s not my experience at all. Regions differ in how they manage employees and maybe you had the misfortune of having a really terrible manager. My RE is very respectful of church/state lines and my focus is still on journalism.

    Do I think that there will be layoffs at Patch? Only time will tell. As trumpeting as corporate is speaking about Patch, I’ve seen the same verbiage at previous employers right before the ax fell. So who knows if we will have layoffs or not.

    But what I do know is that if they are going to start layoffs, isn’t it logical to start with those not pulling their weight? I’m not saying those local editors who refuse to cross the line into advertising. I’m talking about editors who go to the movies instead of covering a story, or frequently use stories from other sites instead of hyperlocal content.

    I believe I’m a hard worker (as my recent raise at Patch would suggest) and in the end, if I do have to move onto other jobs, I’m know I’ve learned a lot from the Patch experience about independence and finding your own story ideas. Also, the attitude toward social media and new ideas is much more open then at my previous, traditional newspaper.

  14. Patchy said:

    This story is so inaccurate. I am a Patch local editor, and I can tell you the One Team, One Goal initiative is not the beginning of the end.

    I was a newspaper reporter for 13 years before I signed on with Patch, so I know a thing or two about dying businesses. For years, the newsroom felt like a funeral home, but with Patch there is optimism and actual positive signs.

    For the first time in my journalism career, I received a raise and a bonus. I got the incentive because traffic to my site increases every month. And more and more folks on the street say they love Patch.

    I do my job while working fewer hours than I did at a newspaper, and I enjoy my job more and more every day. I don’t sell ads and have never been asked to do so. I have never violated my journalistic ethics, and my boss has never suggested I do so.

    Patch is not perfect, but our business model is modern and relevant, unlike newspapers, which have the most unsustainable plan in modern business.

  15. swish said:

    Just to clarify on my last point, corporate has assured us that there are not going to be any imminent layoffs.

    In my experience, companies start with buyouts then layoffs. Neither of those have been whispered at the moment.

    Leaks like these pretty much serve to discredit Patch and to make it more difficult to find other jobs IF Patch were to ever go out of business.

  16. Gordon said:

    Patch has a great group of journalists working hard to make it happen. In any sort of evolution, some things grow and some things die. The tough thing is whether it can hang together quickly enough to produce a product that works before someone pulls the plug.

  17. UTMF said:

    I think the media bloggers and all those bashing Patch are bitter print and/or former print journos are clinging to the tree-killer model of journalism. They’re the same ones who stood up at a journalism town hall meeting in Chicago in 2009 and suggested that government and/or philanthropic organizations fund the news media. As a former print journalist working for tyrannical community news publisher assholes that paid in dead carp, for the first time in my career I am not living like a rat. I’m being paid very well and like the other Patchers who’ve commented here, I got a bonus and a great review. I will work my ass off for this company to make Patch a game changer and/or send Patch out in a blaze of glory. At least we’re trying unlike all the rest of you bitter, bitter people. I love community journalism and what I’m doing for Patch I did at all my other community news gigs. A lot of us in the Chicago area who lost our jobs in 2009 landed on our feet at Patch. We should be praising this company for hiring 1,000 journalists. (Memo to Mike Froucher: Are you still borrowing money from your wife’s family?)

  18. Steve Klein said:

    If all this is true, it’s a sad day for all the students who got a whiff of hope from Patch (and AOL) about the future. Patch gave (past tense) my students the opportunity to report and write stories, get published, and even get paid. What a concept, right? Report-write-publish-get paid. My friends in mainstream journalism always say: What are the aggregators going to do when there’s nothing left to aggregate? Good journalism isn’t free. There’s a cost. Apparently, AOL doesn’t want to contribute to that concept of journalism anymore. It was nice while it lasted, and I thank Patch for that. But AOL does not want to help subsidize journalism, just profit off of it. Sorry, but it simply doesn’t work that way.

  19. Not Patchy said:

    While everyone is busy blithely prognosticating about Patch’s future, they fail to see what this means in the present- namely that Farnham is not doing his job. You hire someone between AOL and the EIC if the EIC is proving ineffective or deficient.

    From Day 1, Patch was plagued by one problem: it could never accurately identify what it wanted to/should be (other than “hyperlocal,” which is a catch-all term). At first they were all about journalism (which is how they lured many of their stronger early employees), then it was quicker hits, then it was linking out and aggregating, now it’s turning toward the advertorial and taking UGC and turning that into stories instead of reporting.

    The reason you have such a fragmented model (and a fragmented workforce, which is even showing itself in these comments) is that no clear vision is being implemented from the top. Farnham is brilliant at temporarily spinning anything to make it sound good- he’s a BSer of the highest order. But he has provided no leadership for a company that desperately needs it and that, in turn, is probably because he has no journalistic pedigree himself. His career history is based around working for publications that are themselves advertorially inclined.

  20. poor patch said:

    I guess we have come full circle.

    When the newsroom downsizing game started six or seven years ago, newspapers disguised firing the dead weight by calling the cuts layoffs.

    Now that layoffs look bad, they’re disguising actual layoffs as firings for cause.

  21. swish said:

    Patch just can’t win.

    Those who have criticized Patch have complained about poor quality.

    Patch management wants to fire editors who produce low-quality work.

    Journalism types complain that there are thinly-veiled layoffs.

    The message here to Patch editors trying to do their jobs? Other journalists will look down on Patch no matter what the company does.

  22. swish said:

    I love my job. I love journalism. I want to produce good stories in all different media and connect with the community.

    I’m never going to be a Pulitzer winner, but honestly, the majority of journalists aren’t.

    In all my time in journalist, the snobbery I’ve seen toward Patch is uniquely vicious.

    “Patch is to journalism what Velveeta is to cheese?” as one of the commenter says above? I’d love for you to shadow my work one day and say I’m not a journalist.

  23. Patchiest said:

    So if Patch dies it says newspapers still matter? Show me your revenue and subscription data that justify that claim.

    If Patch fails, it says corporations can’t do local? Well, we’re all in trouble because 95 percent of local news is produced by media corporations.

    So if Patch goes away, all you journos can be confident that your own jobs are safe? No, just like when I worked at newspapers, you’ll pray that your job is around for another 30 days and you’ll panic every time you see the publisher and the editors huddled.

    Our failure (which we aren’t) isn’t your win. Sorry.

    If folks like Romanesko want the real story, get an off the record interview with someone who knows something. Instead, these bloggers find a local editor to talk. Quite frankly, there are 850 local editors across the country, and many of them are straight out of college.

    Getting an off the record interview with us to determine the strength of the entire organization is like getting a Walmart cashier to talk about what’s happening in Bentonville.

  24. Insider said:

    Since the beginning of 2011, a series of forced “initiatives” aimed at juicing traffic and delivering quick profits came fast and furiously from Farnham and company. All were utter failures that succeeded only in distracting good editors from doing the work they wanted and needed to do to build a credible NEWS site. The decision to slash freelance budgets at the end of the year undoubtedly enhanced the bottom line, but it further eroded the news product. If AOL is targeting under-performing employees, Brian and his crew–including some Editorial Directors and Regional Editors–should be among the first to go. I got the impression early on that his highest goal for Patch was a mixture of Time Out New York and the Police Blotter. Once the HuffPo acquisition was complete, it rapidly became clear that Patch was being reinvented as a chain of mini-HuffPos, complete with free bloggers and aggregation. Unfortunately, the masterminds in NYC failed to recognize that there isn’t much good to be mined from either source in a small community. Trust me, it’s hard for the best Patch editors to do good work when management doesn’t understand that hyperlocal success will never be a one-size-fits-all proposition. The hire of a new Chief Content Officer only further demonstrates the company’s utter cluelessness on that score. Once Patch has provided election coverage to HuffPo, I look for big changes to come.

  25. ratf*ck said:

    ultimately patch is going down the same road as newspapers did a few years ago. regardless of content, at the end of the day you still have to turn a profit.

    years back, when newspapers were the only game in town, 25-30% profit margins were the norm, and much higher for some of the chains.

    as they started losing market share (and as the technology changed) owners still expected the same revenue performance. even if it meant w/o wholesale layoffs.

    case in point, the 50K union paper I once worked for had 45 editorial employees. Now it has 8 and subcontracts as much work as it can as cheaply as possible, much of it to the same people who used to work for it. Hey. I’m OK with cutting out the fat, but now they’re just sawing up the bones.

    I didn’t watch Patch that closely, but it sure seemed like it was pissing away a lot of money based on an ill-defined goal of … Traffic? Web based ad revenue? Basically grasping for the same straws as print and online newspapers

    I was kinda hoping they’d succeed, at least there’d be some light at the end of this long dark digital tunnel.

    it’d be nice to know that readers somewhere place real value on good journalism, local or not …. maybe we need better readers. At least ones who can read. I hear Europeans can still do that.

  26. Dave A said:

    No surprise here. The future of hyperlocal is the sole individual who has the time to lovingly craft a site about his or her community or the entrepreneur who can find a few of those people and nurture them to create a passionate local voice that is supported by the community because it ads value by providing a way to connect people. “Journalists” failed because they don’t understand the embedded nature of relevance and legitimacy (Many want to be investigative reporters instead of a community steward.) Big media fails because they think content is just crap to be served to consumers while they are herded into purchasing pens.

  27. News Industry Insider said:

    AOL/Patch has been trying to fill this job for ages. Everyone with any experience in digital news has blown them off because they know its a disaster, and the job will likely entail laying off a lot of people.

    They were desperate to hire someone and so they had to settle for someone with almost no news experience who works at a mid-tier lifestyle site. Really sad.

  28. $8 mil in revenue last year over 850 sites is exceptionally poor. That’s less than $10 K per site. That barely pays for an internet connection, let alone adequately fund a true hyperlocal news operation. Not to criticize those on the front lines, but Patch is simply a bad, unsustainable business model. You can’t run engaging local coverage with an on-the-cheap skeleton crew overseen from a distant corporate office. Locally owned and operated is the only way it works, truly of, for and by the community itself. That whole performance rating scale reeks of typical corporate nonsense that only ends up alienating those you most need to go the wall for you. With media consolidation, the news biz has gone down this road before and it caused epic damage to local newspapers long before the internet even came on the scene.

  29. News Chief said:

    OK, here’s the deal: Some Patch sites are a hit and a miss depending on the editor. But guess what? So is every other newspaper/outlet or any other business in the world.

    But most of the Patch editors come from real news backgrounds, with years of experience in newspapers and TV news. So the Patch haters out there can’t ignore those facts.

    And like other news organizations, Patch will have to do “fluff” pieces from time to time. Trust me, I’ve been in the news biz for a long time and I’ve seen it.

    But I’ve also seen Patch also do real news stories too, from campaign/election coverage, to town/school board meetings and breaking news. These things can’t be denied, just like the impressive backgrounds of many of the Patch editors.

    Does AOL know what it’s doing with Patch? No. And it’s a shame, because Patch, while not the greatest name for a news website, is filling in the hole left behind from newspapers that simply can’t cover areas like they used too.

    Most of the stories read are the hard news stuff. The head people at Patch need to focus on this and aren’t. It’s what the readers want and say they want. But also, you simply can’t print negative news all the time. People want balance, but don’t insult the readers’ intelligence either.

  30. PatchMyHole said:

    What a chuckle to hear more Politburo PatchSpeak from 584 Broadway. HQ still hasn’t figured out how to satisfy local market advertisers or sponsors. More content recipes will not solve their financial losses. The editors in the field should be applauded on their tireless effort for resurrecting community journalism and filling a void that newspapers cannot provide. If the boneheads from inside the green Manhattan bubble would take the time to actually meet and visit with the little people across the country they are supposed to be serving, they might actually learn something. No high priced consultant, advertising agency or marketing firm will offer the silver bullet solution they are so desperately seeking. The concept of Patch is GREAT! The leadership team…not so great.

  31. cathy said:

    I was in community journalism for 15 years in the Chicago burbs. Once the conglomerates starting buying up dozens of papers and putting the name of a town on the front page and the same crap for all areas inside and classifieds from 50 miles away it was no longer local and people quit reading.They did it so they could tell their advertisers how far-reaching their ads were but neglected to tell them someone in Glen Ellyn could care less about an ad from Tinley Park. Patch is going the same direction so if it’s not local it won’t be read. Their first dumb mistake was calling it PATCH. Most people don’t have a clue what that means or who they are. Whoever dreamt up that name sure wasn’t a newspaper person.

  32. Mike Fourcher said:

    UTMF-
    Let’s get some things straight:
    1. If you knew my wife’s family, you’d know they would never lend me or anyone else money. Get your facts right.
    2. I have taken loans and investments from others, however, and I’m proud that people have placed trust in me. As a business owner, I’m on the hook to perform, just like your bosses in NYC are on the hook with their investors.
    3. I don’t have a problem with Patch. I can name two of your colleagues in Chicago with who I have long term friendships with and hope they do well. Just because you’re competitors doesn’t mean you have to be haters.
    4. If you’re going to be in the business of making accusations, you should be a grown up and use your real name. What the hell did you get in journalism for anyway?

  33. I used to work for Patch until I realized that the amount of work I was asked to do equaled less than minimum wage after working 70 hour weeks. The regional editors are simply technologically retarded as are MANY of the local editors. Being able to tweet or post a story on a simple content management system doesn’t count as being internet or computer savvy.I give Patch one more year before they pull the plug. Glad I got out when I did.

  34. wubbly said:

    Let this be a lesson to all you young journos out there. Get out! Journalism is a dead-end waste of time! Shut down the J-schools! If you’re young and have good grades, try to get into a good technical grad school program and GTF away from these @ssholes who don’t give a sh!t about your future.