Dear Patch: I was hyperlocal long before you

Dear Patch: I am not your enemy.

I read your Evanston site regularly, and appreciate finding out what’s happened to my favorite places when they suddenly go dark. I even like your “what’s happening with this vacant storefront” idea. I’ve been bugging your competitor, the Evanston Review, to find out if it’s true that the vacant Blockbuster building up the street from me is going to become a Trader Joe’s. (They haven’t published anything about it yet, so the story is all yours!)

I really am a big fan of hyperlocal.

In fact, I was hyperlocal nearly two decades before you launched.

In 1992, I started a biweekly paper in Milwaukee called The Public Record. The concept of the four-page publication was simple: One big feature (or photo-essay), and a list of every burglary and armed robbery on Milwaukee’s “trendy” east side and downtown.

The paper was a hit from the start.

I’d go to coffee houses and hear people talk about burglaries in their neighborhood that they’d read about in The Public Record. I’d get calls from retailers who wanted larger drops because they quickly ran out of the paper and customers were asking for it. (I also got calls from store owners who didn’t want “that crime sheet” anywhere near their establishment.)

Putting the paper together was fairly simple: I went to Milwaukee Police Headquarters a few times a week and picked up the daily crime sheets for police districts #1 and #5, which were my coverage areas. (I believe I paid a dime for each page.) I went home and typed brief summaries on my Mac SE. They’d go something like this:

1400 block of N. Prospect Ave.
Jan. 14, between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. intruder broke kitchen window and stole jewelry, VCR, stereo and purse containing $75. No suspect.

There were over 100 of these agate crime summaries that ran in the margins of every issue, next to “the big feature.” Those stories — some written by friends — ran about 1,500 to 2,000 words. There were pieces about art-school nude models, a huge tattoo convention, a quirky artist colony and a shady mayoral candidate. One of my Public Record writers interviewed four young people about what it’s like to suffer a nervous breakdown. My upstairs tenant heard about the project and told me for the first time about his history of mental illness; he was included in the package.

I thought the stories were interesting, but I knew that people picked the paper up for the crimes. (“Not to scare, but to make aware” was The Public Record slogan.)

The Public Record slogan

Every other Wednesday night I’d take my Mac floppy disk to the Milwaukee Magazine offices (I was a “semi-retired” senior editor at the time) and — with the publisher’s permission — designed the newspaper on a “Super Mac.” I’d usually wrap things up at about 3 or 4 in the morning, then drive the finished pages to the printer in Hartland, about 35 miles away. I’d put the four 11-by-17 pages into a drop-box, then head home and crawl into bed at about 5:30 or 6 a.m. Four hours later the printer’s courier would drop the 5,000 newspapers on my porch, and I’d call my distributor and put him to work.

The distributor — a medical student who dropped out of school after bit too much LSD experimentation — was paid $20 for leaving papers at about 35 outlets. (I met the guy while working on a feature about an apartment building occupied by grave-robbers, witches, prostitutes and, well …. other people like that.) My writers were friends who loved seeing their words in print for the first time and didn’t expect to get paid. What was missing was an ad salesperson; I had some $1 classifieds, but no display ads. I wasn’t in this for the money and the $185 per issue printing bill was manageable.

I ended up folding The Public Record after a few months for a few reasons. My volunteers’ enthusiasm started to wane, and I was getting tired of fetching police reports from MPD headquarters every other day or so. I also caught myself nodding off at the wheel a few times during my 4 or 5 a.m. drives back from the printer. My only regret is not saving some issues for my archives. Only the Wisconsin Historical Society, and my archivist-photographer friend Julie Lindemann still have copies. (She and John Shimon [NSFW photo] scanned the images you see here.)

So, Patch people, I believe in hyperlocal, too — as does my source for yesterday’s story that you’re all attacking. I know that editor-in-chief Brian Farnham sent out an email last night calling this person “a gutless asshole.” I disagree with that assessment; I think the source is merely a concerned employee. So how about knocking off the “witch hunt” that I hear is going on?

Comments

comments

23 comments
  1. swish said:

    And yet you still completely ignore all the comments made by Patch employees that aren’t completely miserable at their jobs.

    I love local news publications. The simple matter of the fact is I don’t have the money nor the business savvy to start one on my own. Hence, Patch.

    My own Patch, btw, has no real competition. So I’m serving and un-served community.

  2. Rock on said:

    Rock on Romenesko! Thank you for putting this out there. Swish, not everyone is degrading what you or other Patch editors are doing (some are, but heck, that is the nature of the biz, so get a thicker skin.) The simple truth of the matter is there are problems at Patch, and frankly no one seems willing to have an honest conversation about it inside the company. They all just want what they want and for everyone to be “patchy.” All of this “decision making is at the local level” is full of bull. It’s at the ED, SRE, RE level and even then, they seem to be so concerned about their jobs that they are left with being yes-men and yes-women. I’ve never met Romenesko and I don’t know who the “insider” is — it’s definitely not me. But if you truly read it, you’ll know that the person not a lowly local editor. It’s definitely someone with more knowledge than your average local editor. Ok, so all of the information may not be true but be reporters people — take it with a grain of salt. Bottom line, problems exist with the company and those problems need to be addressed. For instance, is combining the editorial and sales teams into one really such a great idea in that many of the ideas being pushed are advertorials rather than credible journalism. Also as Romenesko said, the insider is a “concerned employee,” else why even bother leaking this information? The fact that Farnham sent a company wide email calling this person a “gutless asshole” speaks volumes about how Patch leadership deals with problems.

  3. ohkay said:

    I stop reading when anyone writes….it may not be true….it sounds like just one person’s perspective. Big deal. I have my big girl pants on, but stuff still has to be true, no?

  4. Rock on said:

    Ohkay, What I meant is that some of the stuff written by the “insider” was conjecture, which by definition means it may not be true. For instance, the sentence, “My guess is this is a way for Patch leadership to enact layoffs without saying it’s laying anyone off.” That is a guess. But the 100-150 employees who apparently received a “Developing” or “Off Track” rating and will be put on a “PIP” — that would appear to be true. What else was so god-awfully untrue about what was written? This statement? “The editorial emphasis is now on ‘easy, quick-hitting, cookie-cutter copy,’ including mandatory ‘Best Of’ features.” OK, so “cookie-cutter” is editorializing but it isn’t untrue. OK, someone said “Best of” features are not mandatory, how about “strongly suggested” — is that better?

  5. In Google News, enter “Who Has the Best Pizza” (in quotes) and “Patch” (sans quotes) and you’ll plenty of ’em.

    Or click here and you’ll get the search results: http://nctim.es/xV9hC4

  6. ohkay said:

    Well they all came from local editor ideas — oh but that doesn’t fit with “insider”‘s obvious beef. If your company is hiding the fact they know their product causes cancer, leak away. Think you know better than the hundreds upon hundreds of people who show up everyday and kick ass? Put your name on it.

  7. Rock on said:

    You’re right. If you have a beef with the way the company is being operated, you should leave rather than leak information without your name on it. That way, everyone can just go about with their head in the sand and talk about how wonderful things are at Patch. That’s why I think this person leaked the information — I truly think the person cares about the company. Obviously, another reason is this person just wants Patch to look bad. I choose to believe it’s the former, but perhaps I’m naive.

  8. Patchy said:

    People are upset because Patch earns more unfair criticism than any other news publication, online or print. It’s not only unfair to the 1,000 editors, almost all of whom have years of newspaper experience, it’s unfair to all of journalism which desperately needs online journalism to succeed so that accurate news reporting (along with some fluff, admittedly) can still exist.

    No one who read yesterday’s post, despite what you may believe, thinks anything other than Patch is a failure. You put one employee’s grievance on all of us and that’s not fair.

    For what it’s worth, you’ll never find a Patch article published with a single unnamed source and no corroboration.

  9. S said:

    Thanks for the article, Jim. I appreciate your sharing your experiences. Patch editors are frustrated because there are so many other journalists clamoring for our organization to fail. It’s frustrating and vindictive on so many levels. I would NEVER wish unemployment on someone else, yet in this narcissistic media landscape, so many people would be thrilled if we went out of business.

    The community I serve is so happy with Patch, and it just drives me up the wall that some people want us to fail. Even with all the budget cuts, we are still providing much more quality news than anyone else out there. The “local” media only covers my community when there’s a murder! The lone community newspaper does some excellent work—but sometimes doesn’t report events until weeks or even months after they occur.

    I get that there is a bigger public interest in Patch because AOL has invested so much in us, and because we have promised to be the future of community reporting. Other outlets pull so much crap, though, and it doesn’t end up in the news. Other outlets in our region constantly re-report Patch stories without so much as a link or a mention. Some pay their reporters $10,000 less than my starting salary. And still others rewrite police press releases for crimes way out of their coverage area, in a blatant attempt to get more UVs.

    Yes, I do worry about the future, but overall, we’re kicking a** and taking names.

  10. Stephen said:

    Brad Fikes! I read your column on science and tech at the North County Times. It is amazing! BTW I threw some investment money at your parent company when they weny “bankrupt”, read the fine print, and made a bundle. I’ve looked at all the cool tech stuff they are doing company-wide.

    As for Patch, they are going to have trouble so long as online CPMs are as dismal as they are. Fact is that most websites sell the vast majority of their placements at remnant rate CPMs of much less than $1.00. Patch would be wise to consider putting up a very small monthly subscription cost of $1 or $2 with a meter set at 5 or 8. I seriously doubt they sell more than 20% of pageviews. They could lose 80% of pageviews, not lose ad revenue meaningfully, and make way more than that in subscription. Patch is sometimes actually quite good when they are not putting out the cookie cutter garbage. They need to respect their product more and not follow the tech-guru doofuses.

  11. ohkay said:

    Damn you are right “Rock On”! How could I have not seen it?
    I was this moron laboring under some misguided belief my work was valued and I was doing great work at Patch.
    God forbid! “Insider” needed to part the clouds and shine his (or her) light of editorial amazingness upon me so I could adjust my career trajectory accordingly. Yes, that must be it!!!

  12. S, journalists want almost everything to fail. That’s their nature.

  13. Rock on said:

    Ohkay, I hate to say it but if you are waiting for someone in journalism to tell you that you are doing great work, then apply for an SPJ award or wait for some “Patch praise” for your fix. The fact is there are problems with the route Patch is headed toward. People have pointed out what those problems are, with the hope — I believe — of fixing them — that’s the heart of what is being discussed. But hey, you don’t want to hear about those problems or you disagree that they exist. That’s cool.

  14. ohkay said:

    What the heck are you smoking???

  15. Charlie in Patchtown said:

    My best friend is a Patch regional editor and I live in a Patch town and I am friends with the Patch local editor and some the writers who used to freelance for Patch.

    Patch gave up on community journalism in favor of … whatever it is Patch does now … and that is a crying shame.

    It was shocking how fast Patch threw in the towel–until you consider how much Patch was killing AOL’s bottom line. Still, AOL needs Patch to succeed. It was a brave and ballsy bet by Armstrong.Let’s build a 21st century media giant before the dial-up money runs out, save this iconic company, and preserve community journalism in America, and give all these lucky communities a great communication tool.

    But Patch just didn’t catch on fast enough, The company spent all that money on editorial and never figured out how it was going to pay for itself. Patch has never had a good revenue plan. My parents own a business and advertise in the local weekly every edition. They’ve never been approached by anyone from Patch to buy an advertisement. Why? There isn’t an ad rep for the local Patch. They are based out of New York or Chicago and phone in with all the grace of your typical telemarketer.

    How can that even be possible unless it’s your goal to lose money?

    For editors freelance budgets have fallen from $2,500 a month to $0 in 9 months. There are no calendar editors. There are almost no copy editors.

    It’s pretty grim. This great little news team instantly became the best source of information in town and had the local paper on the run. It was dismantled. The money isn’t there. And now the quality of the site is greatly diminished and our town is stuck with a wounded Patch and deathly weekly newspaper.

    Patch executives can be as pissed off as they want about leaks, but they need to sit down and take an honest look at what they expect from a local editor or regional editor.

    My friend thinks that Huffington and Armstrong will push Patch through the November elections. After that, if Patch exists, it will be largely driven by user content.

    If Patch doesn’t change its woeful advertising strategy, user-driven websites might be the only thing the company can afford.

    It’s interesting that one of the driving forces in American politics in the last couple years has been Main Street vs Wall Street. Patch’s execution shows corporate America has no clue when it comes to Main Street.

  16. “S” @ 6 pm – I am glad your community is happy with Patch. The only conscionable thing for you to do, then, is to quit now before they quit you, and set up a site doing exactly what you’ve been doing … without being hostage to a corporation’s whims, stockholders, changing mission, mercurial executives, etc. If you are truly serving the community and making them happy, you should not have ANY trouble selling enough ads to make a living. This is the ONLY way you can guarantee that you will be able to provide community news for years to come – otherwise, you can sit there and report your heart out and trust me, having been in that position with another big corporation a decade ago, it still won’t matter for beans when the memo comes out saying they’re going all aggregation and letting you guys go, thanks for the ride. Good luck. We’re rooting for you. Speaking of which, “clamoring for (your) organization to fail” is NOT what some of us have been doing. We are clamoring for a large corporation to fail at what a large corporation should not have been doing in the first place. It’s not “your” organization. You set up your own site, it’s “your” organization. Otherwise, again, please trust me, I’ve been there with Disney and Tribune … you are but a cog in a wheel, no matter how incredibly wonderful a cog you are. You MUST take your destiny and your community’s destiny into your own hands ASAP to make sure they aren’t left in the lurch. Good luck.

  17. Patch freelancer said:

    Having been with Patch since it began I have seen it go from a huge potential, my town loved it and the contributers were excited, to a joke. Why? Editors abd regionals won’t communicate about anything! It’s like they are the secret service protecting the White House…. I have no love for Patch because of the blatant lack of respect they have for all employees.

  18. Rock on said:

    Amen, Charlie in Patchtown

  19. JohnM92311 said:

    I love the concept of Patch and have worked there since the growth began in early 2011. I think it was a great idea. The members of my community love it and I am stopped by locals everyday who know me from Patch. The mission is SO, SO important to the people in the community…BUT the problem is the business model. The cuts are getting ridiculous and forcing LEs to get rid of real news (and quality freelancere – what ever happened to hiring ALEs?) in the community. I would not be surprised if my job is eliminated in the coming weeks or months. It is sad but true.

  20. Not Patchy said:

    “The simple truth of the matter is there are problems at Patch, and frankly no one seems willing to have an honest conversation about it inside the company. They all just want what they want and for everyone to be ‘patchy’…The fact that Farnham sent a company wide email calling this person a “gutless asshole” speaks volumes about how Patch leadership deals with problems.”

    Ding ding ding! We have a winner!

  21. Dave in DE said:

    Everyone ought to save the pixels and just get to the point – hyperlocal news doesn’t scale. Any Patch editor in their right minds should quit today and start their own site covering the same community. A couple hundred bucks and a modified WordPress theme and you’re in business.

  22. Insider said:

    I have two good friends at Patch who are hanging on by their fingernails. The brains in NYC are killing Patch, as Charlie and others state. If they needed a content guru, why not promote an RE or LE? I’ll tell you why: Because all the smart people are in New York. At least that’s what management seems to think. They’ve been getting in the local editors’ way for the past year. Mom content, reduced budgets, bloggers, Lucky 7, aggregation. One failure after another. My town’s Patch was once a great site, full of news you couldn’t find anywhere else. Now it’s a silly mix of press releases and pet photos. If AOL had any sense it would bring in new management while there’s still time.

  23. Writing for the other hyerlocal HollistonReporter.com, our competitor the Patch arrived a little over a year ago. They’re now on their 3rd L.E. A paid freelancer who was for all intents and purposes the face of the Patch, was told to halve his stories and his pay would do the same, all of this via email. He promptly quit via email. The new L.E. a nice kid (22) just out of j-school is so wet behind the ears that he needs a map to find his way around town. He’s never meet his regional manager. He told me, he’s so happy to have found a job where he can do anything he wants and still have plenty of time to go snowboarding.