If you think you can do better than Patch, go ahead

Many online journalists have been clucking about AOL’s Patch this week, after Jim Romenesko posted on reported changes coming at the network of local news websites.

According to Romenesko’s source, Patch is asking its local editors to run additional formula stories (lists, best-of tournaments, etc.) to goose traffic while also implementing employee review procedures that will result in the dismissal of workers who don’t improve their performance (in the eyes of higher-ups) within 30 days.

Sorry, but – yawn.

Any journalist who believes that Patch is doing something here that newspapers never did before the Internet either (a) never worked at a newspaper before the Internet or (b) has developed a convenient case of amnesia about that era. Newsrooms have been creating and running gimmick stories to attract readers since, well, long before I was born. As they should.

If you want readers to develop a habit of reading you, you need to give them content that grabs them, whatever their mood. That means mixing longer, in-depth investigative pieces with shorter stories, news-you-can-use tips and a variety of other features, including comics, lists and yes, even ads and coupons. Online, it can mean shaking up your front page with polls, discussions, lists and infographics, as well as blog posts and links to longer stories. If Patch wants to change focus and go with easy, formula pieces for a while to pump up the traffic, so be it. They wouldn’t be the first site to do so and won’t be the last.

Newspaper managers have been cooking up excuses to ride reporters out of town for decades, too. I’m reminded of the urban legend about sharks that quit swimming will die. Our industry’s version? If a news editor doesn’t can a reporter every few weeks, he or she’s just gonna drop dead at a budget meeting.

Sure, the humor’s dark, but if you don’t want to live under the constant threat of layoffs, you need to either start publishing for yourself or finding another field in which to work. Arbitrary dismissals are now part of corporate journalism’s DNA.

Hey, I’m no fan of Patch. As I’ve written before, Patch’s corporate overhead puts the network as a huge cost disadvantage versus locally owned and operated hyperlocal websites. It wouldn’t surprise me if what Romenesko wrote about this week didn’t turn out to be the first step toward Patch’s inevitable collapse.

But don’t think for a minute that many of those locally-owned and operated hyperlocals Patch competes with aren’t trying many of those same cookie-cutter, gimmick, formula stories in an effort to boost their own traffic. (Full disclosure: I’m running my annual “best theme park attraction” tournament right now.) Heck, like Romenesko, I think that the “what’s happening with the vacant storefront?” feature is a brilliant idea. That’s an excellent example of the type of local news people want to read from their neighborhood.

And the local publishers I know are even tougher than corporate publishers in holding the line on labor costs. I’ve paid for freelancers, but am much more parsimonious about handing out assignments than the newspaper editors I know. You get extra tight with expenses when it’s your money that’s getting spent.

If you want to attack Patch, hit ’em for attempts to gag their reporters after Romenesko ran his piece. Hit ’em for the futility of running hyperlocal sites through a top-down, national network. But spare me the “holier than thou” stuff.

Do you want journalism to succeed? Do want to see more money for more investigative reporting? Do you want to see more attention paid to good work from skilled reporters?

Then you’d better get working on building a community of engaged readers – with whatever tools or gimmicks you need. Patch will live or die on its own. If you think you can do better – do it. Then Patch can either step up its game and compete with better content, or die the death that so many of us have predicted for it.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.