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.

What does 'job security' mean for a journalist, anyway?

First, I want to recommend that all online journalists take a look at Howard Owens’ excellent piece on what AOL is asking its Patch editors to do on a daily basis: You should only work this hard if you own the business.

I tweeted that link to my followers this week, and got some push-back from friends and colleagues. Their reaction boiled down to: “What about job security?”

They tried to argue that Patch editors have job security that self-employed news publishers don’t enjoy. But working for someone else doesn’t equate to job security. From my perspective, it’s not working for someone else that provides the ultimate in job security.

An agreement from an employer to cut you a weekly check means nothing if that employer goes under. Or if it cuts you loose. Patch hardly looks like a stable employer at this stage, with reports of multi-million dollar losses and few signs of black ink anywhere in its network.

But even profitable employers lay off workers. The Los Angeles Times was still fat with cash from the real estate bubble when it bought out me and dozens of other employees in 2004. Unless you are the owner of the company, you’re always at risk for a lay-off. (Which is why I now work for myself. Given that I wasn’t born into some rich newspaper family, this was the only way I was ever going to be the owner of a publishing company.)

That’s also why the “job security” argument just doesn’t resonate with me. Even an argument that full-time employment delivers income security leaves me skeptical. While it’s nice to know that you are supposed to have a consistent income from week to week over the upcoming months, what happens if your boss taps you on the shoulder and says “I need to see you in my office” and you find a HR department rep waiting there?

(In addition, while income security can mean that your paycheck isn’t going down, it also means that your paycheck isn’t going up, either. In my family, if we have an unforeseen expense, I bust my rear by selling some extra ads to make up the difference. I wouldn’t have that option with most salaried newsroom gigs.)

To me, job security means working for someone who I know will never fire me. In my experience, with this industry in this economy, there’s only one person I trust fits that description: Me.

I understand that not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. And, frankly, it’s a sad statement about our economy if only the self-employed would enjoy any reasonable job security. Many people are holding onto jobs, even in this lousy economy. So how can you take an honest look at your situation, and get an accurate assessment of just how secure your job really is?

Here are a few signs that your newsroom job might not be as secure as you believe:

You’re doing commodity reporting, with no scoops and no voice

Whether you work for yourself or someone else, you’ve got to deliver an original product if you’re going to survive in a competitive marketplace. In the news business, you’ve got two main ways to distinguish yourself: 1) Provide news people want or need that no one else has, or 2) Provide fresh analysis, perspective or a voice no one else does.

Unfortunately, most newsrooms employ copy desks charged with stripping the individual voice from your work like dairy farmers homogenizing the milk from their cows. Blogging has provided a refuge for many newspaper writers, giving them a place at work where they can speak in their unique voice. Take advantage, if you have the opportunity. And don’t settle into daily, predictable beat reporting. Seek fresh news – the scoops that make people pay attention to your work. Develop a reputation as a fresh voice with fresh news, and you’ll not only be more valuable to your employer, you’ll build an audience that you can keep with you, to your financial benefit, should your employer ever get stupid and let you go.

The more degrees of separation between you and the owner, the less secure you are

The owner retains ultimate responsibility for decisions in a workplace. If the owner (or CEO) knows you personally, and knows your value to the company, then you’re safe. (Assuming you bring value to the company, of course.) The farther you work away from the owner’s attention, the more variables exist between you and that ultimate decision maker – variables that can hide or distort your value.

Maybe that works in your favor, and you endure forever, drawing a paycheck as the corporate cog everyone forgot to fire. Or maybe it doesn’t, and you’re the hotshot reporter laid off because an editor took credit for your work and the editor’s boss didn’t know any better. It’s chance, really. And if your future is left to chance, you’re insecure.

If one decision by someone outside the company can wipe you out, you’re not secure

I start every presentation I make about news entrepreneurship by telling my audience the same thing: “When the music stops, always have a chair.” Unfortunately, too many online news businesses are built upon single sources of revenue – gaming Google through SEO for search engine traffic, building publications dependent upon one huge advertiser, or starting a non-profit that runs on a single massive grant.

If Google changes its algorithm, that sponsor changes its ad budget, or that foundation doesn’t renew the grant – you’re done. Don’t assume that your job’s secure because your business has one big outside patron. If that’s all you have, your job is definitely insecure. Look for work situations where the company is supported my multiple sources of revenue. Look for rooms with lots of chairs.

You’re doing the same work as an independent operator, but for someone else

Returning to Howard’s piece, which sent me into the topic: If you’re doing the same work as someone who’s running his or her own company, you’re not as secure as you could be. Remember, that independent publisher doesn’t have to pay for corporate overhead, and corporate profits. As an employee, the money you make in your market does have to cover those costs, in addition to your pay and expenses. If ad sales or other income lag, it won’t be the corporate overhead that takes the first hit. It’ll be your office budget – and your pay that will suffer first.

Trust me, if AOL’s taking losses, it’s not going to turn to bankruptcy to protect the incomes of its Patch editors.

Patch is the news industry's problem, not its solution

Jack Shafer’s right: hyperlocal efforts are “a complete waste of time and resources” as he suggested this week in Slate.

Shafer missed one crucial qualifier in his hypothesis, though. Hyperlocal’s a waste of time and money for national corporations. What’s happening in the news industry today is not the Internet destroying the news industry by spreading free content. It’s the Internet destroying the national news chain by eliminating of the traditional economies of scale for the news industry.

Shafer bases his arguments on continued criticisms of AOL’s Patch.com network. Hey, I teed off on Patch nearly a year ago, so I share the skepticism. But Shafer errs in not even mentioning locally-owned and operated hyperlocal news sites, much less contrasting them with the top-down, corporate-driven AOL/Patch model for hyperlocal coverage.

In Shafer’s piece, the alternative to Patch are sites such as Facebook, social networks where residents in a community can get what Shafer calls “social news” about their “interests,” as opposed to “hyperlocal news”: “the starving-artists exhibition at the farmer’s market, increasing parking-meter rates, the city budget, local real estate prices.”

But there’s an alternative to corporate news chains and corporate social networks: homegrown news communities run by local journalists. That’s a model we’re encouraging by training dozens of journalist/entrepreneurs in our annual KDMC News Entrepreneur Boot Camps. Freed from the burden of paying for a national management team and Wall Street expectations, local journalists can make hyperlocal pay in ways that big companies such as AOL simply can’t.

National news chains arose because the barriers of entry to printing, promoting and distributing a newspaper were so high. You needed printing presses, trucks, a telemarketing team, and an advertising and promotions budget. Oh yeah, you needed content, too, which meant hiring reporters and paying syndication fees for state, national and international news and features.

Corporations brought a load of capital to the table, and could leverage economies of scale in the purchase of newsprint, equipment and syndication deals. The could employ national sales staffs to sell ads across communities to regional and national chain retailers. And they could centralize telemarketing, IT support and even newspaper (and later website) design.

Over time, more and more locally owned papers sold out to the chains, as the chains amassed vast fortunes to buy out family-owned papers where the next generation decided to cash in rather than fight on alone in a consolidating industry.

But in the late 1990s, the Internet blew all those advantages away. One journalist could publish to an entire community, or the entire world, without having to pay for presses, trucks or newsprint. One journalist could link to all the state, national and international news and features his or her readers wanted, without having to pay for expensive syndication rights. One journalist could leverage social networks (even before Facebook and Twitter) to publicize his or her work, without having to pay for advertising or a promotion team. Open source and online instant publishing solutions allowed that individual journalist to create and manage interactive news without having to pay for huge IT and design teams. And national ad networks such as Google’s AdSense gave independent publishers who were savvy enough to make that system work access to lucrative national ad buys.

So corporate news chains have lost all the economies of scale that allowed them to pay for ever-more-expensive multiple layers of management, multi-million-dollar executive bonuses and Wall Street dividends and profit growth.

Is it any wonder then, why corporate news is struggling? Patch.com isn’t the solution to the industry’s problems. It’s the manifestation of the industry’s problem – a top-down approach to an industry that now economically favors the bottom-up.

If the FCC wants to save local journalism, it ought to be pushing the Department of Justice and the Commerce Department to encourage news chains to break up and sell their publications to local owners.

And online journalists who want to stay in the business for the long haul ought to say no to Patch’s temporary lifeline of a few months’ paychecks and instead develop the entrepreneurial and publishing skills necessary to launch, grow and sustain an online news community.

We’ll talk more about those skills over the next weeks.