Hard times working the Patch

Boston Globe reporter Johnny Diaz today writes about Patch.com, the AOL-owned network of hyperlocal news sites that is (excuse me) sprouting up around the country.

As I noted earlier, Diaz writes that Patch is up against considerable competition in Greater Boston, principally from GateHouse Media’s Wicked Local websites and the Boston Globe’s Your Town sites — both of which, unlike Patch, are tied to established newspapers.

There are already 13 Patch sites in Massachusetts, with more to come.

After I posted my earlier Patch item, I heard from a Patch local editor (LE, in Patch-speak) who described working conditions that sound pretty challenging. Granted, community journalists in general work very hard for not much money. But the LE who wrote to me suggested that Patch takes it to another level.

The LE who contacted me asked that her name not be used, but gave me permission to publish her e-mail. I have verified that she is who she says she is. I don’t consider this to be the last word, and I would welcome a response from Patch. The e-mail:

The working conditions for local editors at Patch sites raise the question of whether this model is sustainable or about whether this is the reality for journalists working in this new media age.

Basically, the job is 24/7 with so far little support in getting any kind of time off — nights, weekends, vacation days guaranteed under our AOL contract. (Some regional editors do try to help; others don’t.) This time-off issue has become a major concern among local editors. You might hear about the 70-hour work weeks. Yes, 70 hours and more. It’s a start-up and all that, and I knew it would be hard work going in. But what is becoming distressing is this sense that I can’t get a break. I’ve worked in journalism for more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter, online editor, magazine editor, and I’ve never worked so much in my life.

Patch has a policy that it the local editor’s responsibility to find our nights/weekend/vacation replacements. And we must pay that person out of our freelance budgets. I’m just three months into this job, and I’ve heard from LEs around the country that this task of finding your replacement can be daunting, because it is hard to find qualified journalists who have that sort of time to do a vacation fill-in — who who will do it for what Patch pays its freelancers. I’ve been hearing that LEs who have been around longer, up to a year, are starting to question whether the job is worth it.

And, it’s not just being a reporter, but it’s also being a city editor/assignment editor/managing editor/copy editor, and it’s handling freelance payments (and freelance payment troubleshooting), doing videos, monitoring calender and event listings, doing some of our own marketing, and even HR. It seems the business model of this organization is to add tasks, traditionally handled by others in other organizations, to the plate of the local editors. More recently, I’ve been wondering if it would be possible, time-wise, to do the kind of enterprise journalism I would like.

Maybe I should be grateful I have a job and stop griping.

Follow-up: “A few more thoughts on Patch.com.”

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20 thoughts on “Hard times working the Patch

  1. Georgy Cohen

    One thing the Globe story doesn’t mention — not that it necessarily should — is that the Boston Regional Editor for Patch is a former news editor for the Globe’s Boston.com

  2. Randall Bennett

    This just in: It’s hard to be a blogger. A lot harder than “just write whatever you damn well feel like.” I think that’s the common misconception among old skool journos and new school bloggers. They look at each other like each other’s job is so easy, and realistically, it’s an extremely real example of “grass is greener” syndrome.

    Starting your own stuff is difficult, and you have to work a lot. But, if the structure is proper, AOL should provide some sort of boost, and the equity that should result in the end should be worth the initial ridic-u-schedule.

  3. J.M. Lawrence

    I hear echoes of my own early journalism experience in community news in this editor’s frustrations. We killed ourselves for the dream of moving up to the big dailies with their big budgets for important news projects and their nationwide impact. That world does not really exist anymore as a place young talent can aspire.

    The folks in the Patch world are paying dues for something that may never come in their professional lifetime — the shift from print to sustainable publishing on the web.

    Meanwhile, corporate start-ups will squeeze every drop they can out of them, just like the old TAB newspapers did 20 years ago, paying reporters $250 a week (Yes, $250 per week for 70-hour work weeks). We all learned immense lessons about newsgathering and growing up. But the personal sacrifices made for an industry that imploded, well, let’s just admit it, the joke is on us.

    The Patch slaves will have to decide for themselves individually if it’s worth it.

  4. Sue O'Connell

    The early buzz (back in the old ’90s) about websites was “It’s great! No space restrictions! We can put up as much as we want!” But now we know we have to pay for the 24/7 content somehow.

    My experience publishing web versions of print, and as a partner in http://www.edgeonthenet.com, has taught me that news websites have more in common with broadcast media than print. Users expect you to have news up as it happens. That takes staff.

    The cost per thousand rate (how much it costs for your ad to reach a thousand readers) on websites is dramatically lower than it is in print. That results in a lower stream of revenue from sites than publications. The expenses associated to print publications–printing, distribution–is mirrored on the web side by lower revenue and higher staff expenses.

  5. Kristen Nyberg

    I had the experience of reading a Patch article and finding one of my own photographs, which had been previously published on my blog, as part of the article and attributed to the writer.

    The editor immediately responded to my email and took the photo down, promising to “address this with the freelancer who covered the story.”

    While I was happy with the quick response, it left me feeling that the site is under-managed and produced in a slap-dash manner.

  6. Mary Mann

    Dan,
    I’m 10 months into the job as a local editor for Maplewood [NJ] Patch. I have to write to say that I love my job. I do work hard, but I seem to be having a different experience than the LE whose email you posted—and in no way am I disparaging her accounting of her experience. If you want to do a follow up story, you can reach me at mary@patch.com.
    Mary Mann

  7. John Reynolds

    I’ve tried to read Patch sites, and was initially enthused about them. But I echo what some other commenters have said: it’s all too slap-dash for me. The stories all seem hurried and thrown together and not very in-depth.

  8. J.M. Lawrence

    When words like “sweatshop” are being thrown around, we need some real facts to have a meaningful discussion here.

    Dan, please find out how much Patch is paying its editors to put out a 24-hour local news service? This information was not in the Globe story.

    One post here suggests Patch reporters should get “equity” for building this outlet. Do I hear an AOL executive laughing, or can that be possible in this media environment?

    Hey, it worked for Bloomberg. People worked insane hours in the 1990s to build that company and received lucrative longevity bonuses after 10 years of service.

  9. Brad Deltan

    Wow, $45k in Los Angeles (Manhattan Beach) is pretty slave-wage alright. Especially if you’re working 70 hour weeks…that works out to approximately $12/hr. You can make more at Home Depot, probably…except I’m not sure they employ homeless people, since I’m not sure you could afford a place to live at that salary. :-/

  10. Lisa Horowitz

    Seems to me a big organization like AOL could at least centralize the HR functions of these Patch editors… since most journalists have little or no managerial or HR training.

  11. Robert Bender

    Patch is just another company trying to stand out in an uncontrollable Internet that is too loaded with distraction and comprised of parts and pieces that are highly forgettable (Patch included). No matter who’s doing what on the ‘Net, there’s always somebody doing it better and bigger. So how to compete? Do like Patch does and try to generate share-of-voice by having 20 or more writers per Patch site (talk about overkill) who grind themselves to death for $35-$40K per year, all in an environemt that has zero credibility. Upon reading the bios of the writers on a local Patch site, one can’t help but think that these people are victims of the current media-industry meltdown who took a gig with Patch just to survive the times.

    If a site that delivers news isn’t tied to an established and credible “real” news organization then no one’s listening. That goes for Patch, too.

  12. Joe Jones

    @ Mary: Perhaps you guys have a different operating structure in New Jersey? I’ve heard a VERY similar account from another Patch editor in Massachusetts. I don’t know too much about the inner workings of the company, but it seems to me the regional editors could shoulder more of the workload — at least the tedious tasks, like checking listings and paying freelancers.

    @ J.M. Lawrence: I’m sure there are echoes of your time as a hard-working community journalist in the Patch experience, but I think there’s something fundamentally different about managing a 24/7 news website. The hours may be the same, but the demands are psychologically pervasive. With a newspaper, you can hang your hat at the end of the day and retool for the next edition, but there’s no publishing schedule online — it’s just an endless quest for new content. Imagine what that’s like if you can’t take a day off.

    NPR’s On the Media program recently did a segment on the future of newspapers, and the deputy editor at the NYT, who’s running their hyperlocal experiment, estimated that the average burn-out time for someone managing a hyperlocal site is about one year.

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  14. Carol Hale

    Patch.com is recruiting journalists in the Cincinnati area in order to set up an operation here. Should I get involved or not? They’re looking for people to gather info/pix for Directory. I realize the money is not great, but I can deal with that. Undecided

  15. mike green

    The core issue isn’t the need for hyperlocal sites nor the AOL approach, which is a business model that mitigates the risks of employee attrition and site failures by digging deep and rushing to brand a crop of Patch.com sites across the nation. AOL can clean up the dirty stuff later. But getting to market, establishing a recognized brand and capitalizing upon local advertising appears to be the approach.

    The problem is AOL is hiring experienced media professionals with virtually no experience running a business. And this is indeed an entrepreneurial venture by each local editor. Since Path isn’t telling them that and isn’t facilitating any training in running an online startup, these local editors spend all their time producing content while ignoring the bigger business picture.

    I can see the business model from the 1,000 foot level, but what does it look like on the ground floor in podunk tinytown?

    Every region cannot financially facilitate a Path operation. In areas where Path is targeting, what are the responsibilities of the local editor to grow the business?

    Can they really be CEO of their target region as well as chief content producer? Is the marriage of the business side of journalism and the editorial side complete in one Patch Local Editor?

    AOL is making a big bet that it can find sustainable people and business models in a fraction of the overall areas it is targeting. That bet pays off is certain sectors succeed. But that’s bad news for all those local editors in all those sectors where lack of training, lack of insight and lack of proper support failed the region as much as the lack of ad revenue.

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