AOL’s hyperlocal venture, Patch, is now well into an expansion phase that by year’s end will bring to 500 the number of community news websites in its network, thereby making Patch the “largest hirer of full-time journalists in the U.S. in 2010,” the company boasts.But as the infrastructure of Patch grows, so too does the perception that it is a content farm with overworked editors and, in some cases, sloppy journalism.
- Patch’s local reporter-editors don’t know their communities. A recent LA Weekly article, for instance, refers to Patch as “The WalMart of news” — offering anecdotes that Patch sites in Southern California try to poach from existing hyperlocal media in the communities where they set up shop, or hire editors who are as familiar with said communities “as someone can [be] from a Google search.” (To be fair, good journalists will immerse themselves and become experts in local beats no matter where they’re from.)
- Patch editors plagiarize. More negative press came in the form of several plagiarism incidents in recent weeks — the first in West Hollywood, Calif., the second in New Rochelle, N.Y., where the local Patch editor was alleged to have been a “democratic political operative” while she was running the site. In both cases, the editors (one of whom was a freelance calendar editor) lifted content from local bloggers. (Both were fired.)
- AOL overworks Patch editors, who aren’t exactly making big bucks. Meanwhile, Patch editors, who reportedly make $38-$45K a year and are given a weekly freelance budget of around $500, continue to speak out about working conditions. We’ve heard from about 10 of them since publishing an account over the summer of an editor who claimed she worked 70-hour weeks, 24/7, without the vacation days promised her and with “little support in getting any kind of time off.”
- Patch requires overworked editors to also volunteer. One editor told us several weeks ago that “a lot of people are upset” that they are now mandated (as 15% of their performance evaluations) to volunteer at community events while having to run their respective Patch sites simultaneously. (Patch calls the program “Give 5.”) The editor also said that he and many of his colleagues struggle to find freelance editors — as Patch requires them to do — who can fill in when they want to take vacation/personal days or get relief on the weekends.
- Patch won’t “rock the boat” and hides from controversial stories. We got a tip that the Patch site in New Canaan, Conn., killed an investigative story involving a local bank executive for which a freelancer had been contracted $300 last month. The freelancer told us that the editor, a “23-year-old fresh out of j-school” (who no longer works for that site), was “gung ho” about the piece, but that his regional editor killed it because “they don’t want to rock the boat in town.” Emails we viewed seem to corroborate this claim. “I’ll never write for them again,” the source told us.
So why do Patch editors keep working for AOL? We posed that question to a disgruntled editor who has worked at Patch since the summer.
“A lot of us came from other media outlets, and those jobs just don’t exist anymore,” he said. “What else can you do? For a lot of people it’s out of necessity.
“I try to be patient with these guys,” our source continued, “but while it seems like they are very concerned about the perception in the media of how much we work and the workload they put on is, what happens internally is a completely different story.”
Patch recently got its own communications director, Janine Iamunno, who started two weeks ago. (AOL did not return previous inquiries seeking comment.) We requested an interview with Patch Media president Warren Webster. We also reached out to Patch editor-in-chief Brian Farnham by phone.
Farnham did not return our call, and Iamunno told us that Webster was not available. But she did respond to the questions we sent her.
Here’s what Patch has to say about….
- The recent plagiarism incidents: Like any journalism organisation, we won’t tolerate it. We are still going to be the largest hirer of journalists and we’re really proud of the teams we’ve created and the work they’re doing. Bad calls will sometimes be made — we’re all human — but we’re doing everything we can to hold our journalists to the strictest of editorial standards. We want to serve our communities well, our editorial team well, and journalism well. We take that seriously.
- The killed story in New Canaan: We were pitched a bad story and we passed based on its lack of credibility, period.
- The volunteering issue: We just had a Give 5 day, and have gotten great feedback from our teams in the field. We encourage employees to participate — it’s good for their communities and people seem to have a good time making a difference — but it’s not mandatory and the dates are flexible. Doing positive things in our communities is part of our core mission and we’ve gotten a tremendous internal response so far.
- Complaints from employees about unreasonable workloads and difficulties taking time off: We’re a start-up, with start-up hours and start-up enthusiasm. We want Patch employees to be happy and set out from day one to accomplish that. From the beginning, we’ve had a great deal of communication with our employees — it’s an open dialogue. As we evolve as a company, we’ll learn more and more about what works and what doesn’t, and we’ll continue to take steps to try to do what’s best for our employees, [such as] adding an additional editor in regions, offering our editors freelance budgets to help share the work, increased communications with the field and weekend relief, among many other things we already had in place and have since put in place.
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