Patch is about as evil as Starbucks (and that’s less than you might want to believe)

Is Patch evil?

That was the wildly well-remembered question asked by Robert Hernandez at a lunch keynote panel during the Online News Association conference, which I was able to attend. Hernandez was asking Aol CEO Tim Armstrong, whose company owns hyperlocal news and information platform Patch and who was on stage with NPR President Vivian Schiller.

I’d say the answer is simple: it’s not.

There are lots of complaints about Patch, which plans to have something like 5o0 community sites up across the country by next year.

Some of those complaints:

I can’t be the only one who hears this just as whining and complaining from those in a broken industry.

Patch is a profit-driven investment by a for-profit corporation. They are beholden to no one but their shareholders.

Tim Armstrong defends against Patch criticisms

After asking his ‘evil’ question, Hernandez elaborated by describing the common complaints about Patch. In his answer, Armstrong tried to defend his platform in a variety of ways. [My notes here]

On Patch’s reception: “The consumer says tell me what I need to know”

On working staff too hard: “If you don’t want to work hard, you’re in the wrong industry.”

On the value of ‘franchised news’: “Distribution is changing… But content is what people do online… We can do it better.”

On the focus of money: “You need great talent, great product and a great business plan in news like any industry.”

On inexperienced or underpaid staff: The average Patch staffer has 6.6 years of industry experience and 75 percent are paid the same or more than they received at their last job

“We aren’t evil.”

Generations of thickening the editorial wall has apparently made those points difficult to understand for journalists.

When I heard the excitement in the ONA ballroom after Hernandez asked that question, I immediately thought of the widespread push back against high-end coffee super-chain Starbucks.

Starbucks, like Patch is trying and hundreds of other chains have done in various industries, developed efficiencies, created a brand, pushed out a product and won customers.

Many smaller coffee shops lost out. Likewise, journalists fear that their local niche or hyperlocal sites will lose too.

Look, I have made one Starbucks purchase in my entire life, and that was at the original location in Seattle.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I most certainly do not kneel at the corporate altar, but, simply, corporations aren’t as universally bad as American populism might have you believe.

They employ people. They pay taxes. To avoid paying as much in taxes, they donate a lot to charitable efforts.

That’s not the real problem here.

The reality is that competition is brewing in an industry that has mostly had monopolies for decades, as newspaper staffs contracted.

In Philadelphia, for example, Patch has two sites in neighborhoods in the northwest part of the city, with more to come there and in the suburbs. They’re running right into WHYY, the NPR affiliate here that is launching its own hyperlocal movement starting in the northwest.

So let the competition begin.

If you like the locality and the authenticity of your local coffee shop, then support it. Likewise, if you think your news is better discovered and disseminated by a local group or independent site, then support it, follow it or create it.

Out compete, don’t complain.

If you don’t or you won’t, then I don’t understand the problem.

I think it makes a hell of a lot of sense to sell your local site as valuable because it is truly local, but it’s lazy and surely downright un-American to think a company chasing market share is evil.

That’s what this country — and most certainly the news industry of a different age — was built on.

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  • Kyle

    Hey Chris,

    Nice post, I’m currently in the interview process for Patch and it’s helpful to see a lot of the discussion and criticisms all in one place.

    In all honesty, I see Patch as a great thing for journalism right now, in that they’re providing jobs for an industry where it’s tough to find one. Most journo grads I talk to are taking jobs under $30,000, hopping into a different industry like PR, or busting their ass freelancing and living back at the parents’.

    The fact that Patch is giving young people a $35,000+ job, benefits, professional equipment and software, and a chance to run their own site is a big deal. I can see where there would be a concern about “Starbucks,” but they aren’t putting news machines in these communities, they’re putting in people with degrees in journalism eager to serve a readership.

    If someone were giving out $35,000 annual grants to set up local journalism websites in 500 communities across the country, people would be stoked. Well, this is essentially what Patch is doing, but they’re backed by AOL instead.

    The stories of 60-70 hour work weeks are a bit off-putting, but it’s a job, and one that provides you with a lot of tools and freedom to run your own show. How much freelancing would it take to reach $35,000, plus benefits, in a year? It’s nice to get value from your journalism degree.

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  • http://www.christopherwink.com Christopher Wink

    Your perspective is certainly one that I’ve seen before. If you get the job, follow back up. I’d love to hear more about your perspective. Good luck!
    -cgw

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