Farnham wants Patch editors to recruit 8,000 unpaid volunteer writers by May 4 (yes, that’s a week from now). To preempt any complaints, Farnham writes that as an employee working for a start-up, “you have to get used to changes and moving fast if you want to be a Patch editor.”
But who would go for Patch’s offer? And more importantly, will this “course correction” address the bigger issues Patch is facing?
Let’s start with the first question. Farnham wants his Patch editors to pitch local residents an unpaid writing gig in exchange for… what exactly? Arianna Huffington has outlined her reasoning for not paying contributors to the Huffington Post in her response to a lawsuit by former bloggers for the site. It goes roughly like this: The Huffington Post provides contributors a platform and allows them to widely distribute their content, an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have. Huffington is trading attention for articles and blog posts. Everyone is free to participate or not. (Let’s leave aside the fact that attention doesn’t buy lunch).
By that logic, working for free for Patch is a highly unattractive offer. The sites simply don’t get enough page views to justify the “we’re providing a platform” argument. Patch sites “only managed to scrounge up about 4 million uniques last month,” writes Business Insider — and that’s across all individual sites combined. (Patch is expanding so quickly it’s hard to tell how many sites there are exactly. It passed the 500 site mark in December 2010.)
If I’m a resident of, say, Falls Church (hey, I am!) and I’m passionate enough to want to write about my community… why in the world would I do it for Patch? For free?
Anyone with an ounce of sense would just start their own local blog. The blogger would get editorial control without the corporate corset of an AOL-owned company, and ensure that if the site becomes popular enough to run ads on, he or she will get that revenue. I’m not sure if Farnham and the HuffPo leadership think people won’t realize they’re getting the short end of the stick here, or if they’re trusting they will win over potential bloggers who just want their work published. People still pay for dial-up internet, so anything is possible, right? (I emailed Farnham for comment).
Still, this “course correction” doesn’t address some of Patch’s bigger problems.
Patch is aiming for “hyper-local,” but how small is too small? I may live in Falls Church, but if I want to find out what’s going on just a couple miles away, I have to change Patch sites. It’s simply inconvenient for users, because it under-estimates the radius of “local news.” This is what Amy Webb argued at the Online News Association’s 2010 conference when she said hyper-personal trumps hyper-local. One of the reasons is that people move between different localities throughout their day. Patch’s structure doesn’t account for that.
Patch’s local editors mostly work from home, and many of them are young journalists straight out of college. There’s nothing at all wrong with hiring young people. The issue is that there is no editorial oversight. While some editors do great work, there are others… as well.
This uneven quality of work means Patch loses out on both ends: It has neither the editorial coherence of a large news organization, nor the charm and personality of a local blog.
I’ll readily admit that I’m not an expert in this, but I think those simple observations raise questions about Patch’s potential for success. It’s ironic that Patch is now courting the same local bloggers it has been competing against in its aggressive push into the local news business.
It’s also ironic that Arianna Huffington said just a couple weeks ago that Patch would hire new local journalists. Now Farnham has decided in favor of free labor. It’ll be interesting to see how this new course works out for Patch.