Still, local advertising was only one side of the equation. As a national company, Patch was also gathering prime eyeballs—local, mostly affluent readers—that could be valuable to major national brands. While I was at Patch, the focus was almost entirely on local businesses, with a limited interest in national advertising, which I thought was unsustainable. But that seems to have changed somewhat. This was particularly evident during the Christmas season, when I saw ads by Target, AT&T, and major banks on Patch sites.
Meanwhile, toward the end of my tenure, editors were slowly beginning to see some of the financial numbers behind our sites—how profitable or unprofitable they were generally, on a month-by-month basis. What financial information we didn’t receive from the company often appeared in the press. (For example, a headline from Business Insider near the end of 2011: “Leaked: AOL’s Top Ten Patch Salespeople, and How Much They’ve Sold in 2011.”)
Readers are not enough
In the second half of 2010, Patch made headlines with hundreds of site launches and an endless stream of new hires. While business publications and media pundits argued over the Patch model and the quality of journalism it produced, the most interesting shift was occurring at the editorial level.
Engagement became the buzzword. The goal was to tailor content that would make people stay and play. To push this transition, we were given content mandates for the first time. This radically reshaped how we had to think about our audiences and what made our sites relevant. It wasn’t about the number of eyeballs seeing local news, it was about comments and cultivating user-generated, free content.
The first push was an attempt to cater to mothers, and to make Patch information more relevant to the everyday family. Many editors were transparent with their audiences about the new content requirements. They published the mandates, in abbreviated form, as a letter to their readers, notifying them of the changes. On my site, I implemented some of the changes grudgingly.
Wednesdays were to be called MomsDays, and we were given five pieces of content that someone apparently thought would appeal to the mother demographic. We were to post stories about a shopping bargain in town, and about a nice thing for moms or parents to do as a getaway from the kids, as well as a generic question intended to spark a conversation in the comments section, an article highlighting a standout student in the community, and a weekend planner specifically aimed at families.
To develop this content, Patch sites were to put out a call for mothers looking to be a part of a “Mom’s Council,” which was supposed to function as a sounding board and give MomsDay some editorial direction.
Thursdays, meanwhile, were aimed more at families in general. We were urged to publish a list of events in the surrounding areas, a gallery of open houses, a community photo slideshow, a list of five things you should know for the day or weekend, and a puff piece highlighting a local restaurant.
What worried me and many other Patch editors was that this focus on catering to a certain audience ignored the progress many of us had already made at cultivating readers in our communities. And some editors worried that it would outright alienate readers, even those mothers being targeted. I was definitely part of that crowd, and considered the content ideas antithetical to the entrepreneurial editorial mindset I had come to enjoy.
Practically speaking, implementing the initiative meant we had less time to focus on traditional newsgathering and less money to spend on freelance stories that we already knew our readers liked. Although we were encouraged to find a way to come up with the kind of copy headquarters now wanted at little to no cost, such stories still had a price—in time and freelance expense, especially if you wanted to maintain your site’s regular flow of features and hard news.