The Patch experiment: Don’t drink the Kool-Aid

PatchlaptopI am not a Patch hater. It’s a good thing that Patch launched. It’s a good thing it still exists.

There are things the company has done that are worth emulating (they paid well and they gave us the equipment we needed to do our jobs, for one. Orientation was like Christmas — boxes kept arriving with a new macbook, iPhone, camera, etc.). And no one should doubt the editorial demand in the markets where Patch sites launched. People are hungry for news — any news — about the neighborhoods they live in.

Good journalists still toil at Patch and, frankly, if a resume that included time served there crossed my desk, it would be worth a second look. Patch is an experiment and its editors are learning lessons in real-time, under fire, that few in the industry can match. They will become the better for it. And they will make the industry the better for it.

As good of an idea as Patch may have started out being, however, it is as broken as many of the legacy organizations it hoped to disrupt. And, speaking of those lessons, here are a few I took away that managers in the news biz may find helpful:

* The journalism is not broken. I say, again …. the journalism is not broken.

If you bet on attracting readers in an undercovered, underserved area, you will win. Over and over in my career, I’ve seen the same: readers respond to an outlet and/0r reporter who gives them some insight, useful information about where they live. You don’t need to trick them with SEO-rich headlines and kitty pictures (although sometimes that helps and sometimes, maybe, there is nothing wrong with that). Honest efforts at delivering honest information is a nearly fail-safe strategy.

Don’t worry about the stories. All over, in new and old organizations, you are seeing reporters adapt to new tools and new methods of telling and distributing their information. We’ll get this part right. Your attention is needed elsewhere.

* The sales side of the business is very, very, very broken. 

Display advertising, be it in print or online, is no longer the business. It will continue to play a part in the business, yes. But it is not the revenue stream a news organization should rely on. Where digital display ads work right now is with large corporations who can afford to employ long-range brand campaigns. That’s not where most of the small businesses that Patch and mid-size metros and similarly-scaled news organizations hope to call customers are.

Nor will a simple business listing strategy work. Everyone (and their mother) is competing right now to convince those small shops to do their work for them, to buy into THEIR brand and to update their information on their sites to thus be the most comprehensive listing their readers can find. The business owners are overwhelmed. They don’t see the advantage of one over another. There really isn’t much of an advantage with one over another.

Patch did one thing right here though: It attempted to distinguish itself by hiring writers who visited each and every brick and mortar location in its coverage area before launching each site. Every directory listing on Patch was (initially) verified and created by Patch. Point of interest data is so incredibly dirty that this is big. Talk to any investor in this market right now and you’ll find they are all looking for shortcuts when it comes to getting the data. It’s a big feather in Patch’s cap that they invested in this strategy. And incredibly unfortunate that they failed to design a strategy for maintaining it after each site launched.

An even larger issue is the idea that the sales in small communities are about relationships. I don’t see, in any near future, a way to make a sustainable business selling advertising products to small business owners without feet on the ground. It’s expensive. No doubt. But so are cold calls from New York City sales guys who think a neighborhood in Pittsburgh is outside Philadelphia.

This sales problem is not an easy problem to solve. But while Patch did editorially innovative things, the sales model never truly changed. There has been no real experimenting. And that is disappointing.

If journalism is going to be a for-profit business (and I believe it must be), there has to be an overhaul of sales products. (I have ideas. But that’s another post.)

* The journalism will not fix the sales problem. 

One of the reasons I left Patch is because it started to believe that if only it changed the editorial mix, it could fix the sales problem. Among the consequences of this thinking was the idea that x number of posts (ahem, poorly conceived “Best in the business” posts) about x kind of content would make it easier for the ad staff to close sales.

Commerce-related and themed sales-related content can work well if designed well into the overall editorial product. In fact, it’s arguably that content (the “Best of the City” sections, holiday gift sections, etc., that many reporters do contribute to while moaning about having to contribute to them) that is helping print advertising numbers.

But executed poorly, this creates a world of trouble. First, there’s the branding problem: commerce-related content works best as either all in or complementary content. If your brand is journalism and content that is obviously intended to boost sales interrupts the journalism consistently enough, your readers will notice and they will feel mislead. That directly impacts the credibility of your publication. (Remember what I said earlier about honest efforts at delivering honest information working? Key word = “honest.”) Patch did not provide the resources to employ this effort well.

And interactions with the Powers that Be at Patch increasingly focused on sales numbers and numbers that helped sales. The reporting work was rarely ever mentioned. It was great for PR when great journalism happened accidentally, but that was not Patch’s mission, as communicated to the people it had on the ground. That then became a morale issue. Most journalists do not get in this business to solely make the company they work for money. They want a fair, healthy paycheck. They want long-term security. They understand it’s a business. But if you lose that sense of mission, you suck the life right out of them.

That’s why a recent interview given by Rachel Feddersen to streetfightmag.com got me worked up on Twitter. She was quoted saying, “We don’t go after audience at the expense of excellence,” and talked throughout the interview about not banking on a “flash in the pan” story to tip your numbers. Patch is a big organization. I can’t speak for everyone. But that interview struck me as pretty out of touch.

* Don’t drink the Kool-Aid and don’t expect it of your employees. 

Journalists are a quirky, cynical bunch. The best newsrooms have a mix of extroverts and introverts, cheerleaders and malcontents. That’s GOOD. It leads to a healthy culture for producing the end product that gains the trust of the audience you desire. Don’t expect everyone to don green paint and short skirts and cheer for the team in the dead of winter. Don’t call them “assholes” for disagreeing (at least not publicly and not to their face). (But do let them call you, as their boss, an asshole from time to time.)

The Patch Powers that Be have faced an awful lot of scrutiny. And still do. Too often, they let the stress get to them publicly. The local editors on the ground, working 90 hour weeks with demands that they not miss a single breaking news event in their coverage area, do the same. They’re working their asses off, for better or for worse, and when journalists and organizations they admire criticize the work they do, it takes a toll. That’s when those in the same boat need to be there for each other while maintaining a cool outer face. Patch grew extremely big very quickly. Its management never caught up to handle that. The response: “You’re either with us or against us” is not the way, in any news shop.

Let the work speak for them and for your company. Choose talented people, understand that this is not the kind of business that succeeds with an army of identical drones. Listen to your talent and provide the resources your employees need to produce the best work they can. The culture you desire will evolve organically and authentically.

3 thoughts on “The Patch experiment: Don’t drink the Kool-Aid

  1. Constructive, clear-eyed insights, AmyJo.

    As a former regional contributor in Metro Detroit, I’m also a Patch partisan who knows the network is full of talented, passionately committed journalists who sometimes are undercut by flailing leadership and ill-conceived mandates.

    Coincidentally, I blogged yesterday about one fresh example — ad manager profiles under a senior regional editor’s byline that were displayed among the top four display articles at a dozen sites this week. “She comes armed with ridiculously effective advertising deals that should fit most any budget,” it says in paragraph two. [http://alanstamm.wordpress.com]

    Every paper I’ve worked at ran circulation and advertising announcements, naturally, but with a more straightforward tone and usually in a physically separate business section. With that option unavailable, Patch’s versions in Michigan and at least four other states (including Peters, PA, on Aug. 30) would have been more appropriate as Local Views posts, such as the ‘welcome new advertiser’ blog items, or as a Publisher’s Journal column in each region.

    Like you, I believe in Patch’s mission and want it to be consistent, objective and profitable. I hope managers consider your four smart lessons.

  2. Very interesting and insightful points that expand beyond Patch, me thinks. I’m always interested to see how others see the web. I found myself thinking “damn straight” several times throughout, and “hmm…” enough times for me to do a little reflecting of my own, so… Thanks for that.

    Eager to hear what you get into next…

  3. Could you hear me cheering, AmyJo?
    I completely agree with your assessment. As a former Patch local editor, I am a believer in the mission of Patch – and still think, with the right direction, it could be great. But Patch isn’t newspaper, yet the sales model (and some of the editorial) is created from tried (and often failed) newspaper tactics. Editorially, this company was on to something great, but it was the editorial that suffered from lack of innovative sales initiatives. I was sorry to leave the company, but the behind-the-scenes sales ineptitude took a toll on this experienced journalist. Onward…

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