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.