[UPDATED] Patch editor: ‘From what I see on the ground, we are on our last legs’

I’ve received a few emails in recent days from Patch people unhappy with Patch 2.0. One was from a former manager who said “I can speak to morale issues, tone deaf management and why the new website could be the final straw for employees here and for the company.” He requested “complete anonymity” before elaborating, which I guaranteed. He apparently got cold feet, though, and didn’t respond.

Today’s Patch email comes from a local editor, who writes:

I love Patch, it’s been a great job and compared to other companies in this industry, it has great pay and great benefits. However, from what I see on the ground, we are on our last legs.
Patch 2.0, the new site design that was supposed to revolutionize what we’re doing somehow has done little more than alienate our readers by decreasing the amount of news we can convey to them and infuriate Local Editors by removing tools we frequently used for our jobs.

They also introduced “Field Editors”, who I was told would be helping us on stories we can’t get to, and “Community Editors”, who apparently are supposed to answer questions on how the site works off our plate.

I can’t speak for everybody, but my Field Editor and Community Editor have not fulfilled these roles (I don’t think my Community Editor has ever been to my community), and when I try to mention this to managers, I’m chastised for “not being a team player.”

Then again, I can’t blame them too much, they’re paralyzed by the lack of organization in this company as well.

Meanwhile, the leadership of this company continues to congratulate itself on what a good job it’s doing while I am left to deal with angry locals, upset at things outside of my control.

This job was once a dream, but I fear the dream is ending. I hope I am wrong and I hope I can write you with positive news in the future.

I invite comment from Patch staffers. Post here or send me an email.


FROM A PATCH EDITOR: I’m not as down on Patch as the other Patch editor is, but it’s definitely true that 2.0 has been a disaster, at least from my perspective. Sure, it looks pretty, but the flaws are legion. I’ve lost bloggers and users (who we’re supposed to be recruiting all the time) because they can’t figure out how to navigate the new CMS, and half my day is now spent trying to deal with site issues. Many old stories and videos haven’t migrated to the new 2.0 after over a month, and I’m getting complaints from parents whose links to the article and photo of their kid winning the spelling bee no longer work, and they can’t find them. Archive stories that can be found are frequently missing imbedded links as well as the linked words, so sentences and stories make no sense, and 2.0 apparently has no clue what an apostrophe is and has replaced them all with HTML garble. Old photo credits have all gone missing, so I frequently have to ask freelance photogs if they shot so-and-so in order to restore their credit. An uncomfortable blending of editorial with “sponsored content” has emerged on most Patch front page news streams, though we’re told this will become more segregated soon, as it should.

Management where I am seems to care more about the feelings of local editors than what the other Patch editor has experienced, but ultimately, they’re all Kool Aid chuggers who are only told great things by their bosses, which they pass on to us. We’re told that the numbers are great and that every month we’re shattering goals, though, so … as long as the checks clear, I’m good, but I am sniffing around to see what else is out there ….

FROM A PATCH EDITOR: Your source is correct that 2.0 has a lot of problems. Readers are complaining about it nonstop, and editors are angry that essentially every tool we had, has now been taken away. Management deployed this new website long before it was ready.

The much bigger problem, in my view, is that our chief executives seem to want a “band-aid” fix that does not involve community journalism. They’re looking for “content,” not a lot of reporting. Rachel Fedderson, our chief content officer, refers to Facebook and Yahoo Groups as our competitors (and 2.0 reflects that philosophy). High-ranking editors have told local editors not to attend meetings unless they can produce at least three stories. Other editors have even gotten scolded by their direct managers for attending long meetings. The view from the top is that community members will fill in the gaps.

Not to mention that there are now many sites that have essentially been abandoned. These sites have very little or no original content, but they continue to stay up to attract advertising dollars. That’s a strategy that’s bound to weaken the brand over time, but no one cares, except local editors.

I could go on and on, but it just makes me sad. Patch was a great place to work for a long time.

FROM BARBARA PHILLIPS LONG: I was amused when I read that Patch executives don’t want local editors spending time at long meetings if they aren’t going to get multiple stories. Journalism executives seem to have no idea how local government works. The most consistent reality is that local politicians want to see reporters at their meetings fairly regularly, otherwise they don’t like to provide information on demand. Local journalism requires a certain amount of seat time at meetings to cultivate sources, even if that time may not generate enough stories to justify it.

There’s been a lot of talk about freeing journalists from meetings so they use reporting time more efficiently. One reason for this is that a lot of stories about meetings are boring because deciding where to spend money or how to rezone a strip mall is boring to a lot of people unless somehow the name Kardashian is involved. I’m not bored by local government, but I know plenty of people who are, even if that means they have no clue about what’s going on locally.

Forward-looking journalists say there’s been too much focus on meeting reporting. That is a fair complaint — it is easier to go to the meeting than to come up with a constant flow of enterprise stories. Then again, some enterprise ideas do come out of meetings.

Local journalists walk a fine line between cultivating and criticizing local officials. Local politicians may not want to hear that the community needs some local government consolidation to be more efficient. Under current journalism standards, reporters can’t sit in on a meeting and wave the agenda when the discussion gets off topic, and a reporter can’t tell the officials that they had this same discussion last month, unless the message comes in a story after the meeting. Readers don’t even want to hear that their township and a neighboring township should merge — they like being able to browbeat someone they know about local issues (should a local issue arise) and they’re justifiably doubtful that promised savings would, in fact, materialize.

Ultimately, I’d like to see more government meetings recorded on video, so reporters could watch and multitask instead of attending all the time, and so anyone else in the community could watch the meeting, too. On nights when a local reporter has three meetings to choose from, at least the reporter could catch up with all of them by watching the videos. Then the news report could include video clips of the more interesting moments. That is, I would like this to happen if it didn’t mean that local governments might spend a fortune on video equipment and computer services they didn’t use efficiently.

Without video of meetings and without some degree of consolidation in states like Pennsylvania where there are many local government bodies, I don’t think hyperlocal news — particularly in the outer suburbs and rural areas — is ever going to be cost efficient if reporters (or community journalists) are paid a living wage. The number of readers isn’t high enough to pay for the reporting time needed. Good local reporting is a lot like successful mass transit — it needs a densely populated area to provide the necessary market for the product, and even then the daily cost for the consumer may be surprisingly high.

On this July Fourth, I remain convinced good coverage of local government is essential to democracy in the United States. The question remains, after a decade or more of turmoil in the newspaper business, what will citizens and residents sacrifice for such journalism and who will carry out the work?

FROM A FORMER PATCH EDITOR: Please withhold name and state as Patch reminds people in exit interviews that after we leave Patch, we still can’t discuss Patch’s operations:

Patch is looking to hire new editors at a significant reduction in salary. Openings that are advertised now, as few do exist, are now paying $30,000 non-negotiable salary. That’s for community, field and local editor jobs.

That is $10,000 less than what the regular Patch editor is paid starting out in the past. A colleague decided to interview for a post recently and relayed to me their interview experience, and when he told me the salary, I was shocked. He didn’t mishear.

What Patch is pitching to prospective new hires is that the Local Editor job’s role is being split out and replaced with a total of three roles, which is why the salary has been reduced. Well, that’s half true. Yes, parts of the job have been sliced out into new roles, but each job is still a 40-hour job, and depending on your coworker’s motivation, or lack thereof, the community editor or field editor could end up doing a lot more than a local editor, or at the very least, work more hours.

In other cases, people do just enough to get by, much like any other work place.

Additionally, we all know that in exchange for having roles split, a larger territory is required, about two to three sites/towns for local editors, or about 10 communities for a field or community editor.

Financially, the move makes sense, having to find ways to reach profitability and the other benefits of the job are still much better than most $30k jobs. The thing is, the technical expertise and knowledge required to do the community and field editor jobs well is not a $30k job, and should be a $40k job. Really, they all should be paid the same–LE, FE and CE.

As for the 2.0 roll-out and having being part of the Great Patch Test of 2013, this is a botched roll-out. Engineers have tested and tweaked the site in test communities for months with the expectation that the product would be as good as can be when released nationwide. Added functionality would be added later as user demand arises.

The thing is, they forgot about functionality altogether. Events, blogs, photos, videos, photo captions have not came over from the old site, and the search function isn’t returning results for a lot of old content. (Good luck former Patchers for preserving a digital portfolio, btw)

Lookit, the biggest issue when news sites transition to a new CMS and back-end, should be redirects coming through for URLs and a design tweak here and there. That usually takes a few days to a week for some of that to be pulled through. This is a complete disregard for an archive and database system to log legacy content in a way that’s preserved on a new platform, killing traffic and turning away faithful users.

Because these issues are taking weeks to fix, Patch is finding themselves in the third quarter with a nationwide product with plenty of problems, not leaving much room to have a system that is humming along for both good user experience and a functional site that advertisers will pay for.

Sure, Patch engineers might be able to resolve the issues, but by that time the fourth quarter will be here, leaving a small window for the sites, model and revenue to catch fire before Tim Armstrong has the make a decision of whether to tell shareholders that Patch will continue, be sold to another company, or end.

Plenty of employees have told leadership about the potential problems during testing of the new sites, but a mixture of Kool-Aid drinking by regional managers, New York’s arrogance and general indifference to listening about the technical issues poisoned this. Patch became too worried about the aesthetics and finding different ways for content to be shared and recycled, and in the end, has a news site that’s not too different from what’s already been on the market by many mainstream news organizations other than the ones that exist now actually function properly.

The best that could come out of this Patch experiment is for another company like Microsoft, Facebook or Google to purchase the company and infuse its technology and knowledge into Patch, saving jobs for the 900-plus journalists. Well, the journalists on the ground. I’m not so sure about keeping most of the staff at HQ.

FROM A PATCH EMPLOYEE: The authors of those submissions are 100% accurate in their assessment and their opinions reflect that of virtually all of my colleagues. While one of your commenters (fairly) asks if your reports should rely on only the statements of a few anonymous, disgruntled employees, I can confirm these are not outlier opinions and are views widely held at the local level.

There are so many features missing from the back-end of the site it would be too numerous to mention here – for example, we can’t even change bylines for example, all of our photo credits were lost in the transition, etc. – but HQ did seem to make sure the site had the ability to automatically post advertorials. Perfectly encapsulates the “content vs. journalism” question raised by your initial submission.