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.
By the end of 2010, Tarrytown-Sleepy Hollow Patch had some of the highest unique-viewer numbers in the Hudson Valley, but without looking at the statistics, I knew the content mandates had bombed with my audience. The comments weren’t forthcoming and, later, when I began to drop the mandated features, nobody complained.
And by the time I left Patch in September 2011, the majority of these MomsDay and other content mandates had been quietly phased out; mere remnants of this marketing push are all that exist today on Patch sites around the country. Yet the mixed results from that operation didn’t produce a dramatic rethinking of the practice of top-down content mandates; that continued. Now they were about types of content (video, photo galleries, Q&As) and the number of posts we were expected to crank out. Patch kept experimenting with such goals in regional testing areas. It seemed there was an ongoing effort to devise a formula that would result in the maximum amount of views and engagement—whether that formula was run in Tarrytown, NY, or Palo Alto, CA.
The start of content mandates also signaled the slow reining in of freelance budgets, which were then consolidated at the regional level. This resulted in more generic content that could be shared with other sites in the region, like county news or home and lifestyle features. Weaning local editors off of their freelance checkbooks had the effect of lightening the workload (less to edit, less to plan), but it also made the sites less local. There were times toward the end when I hated myself for having the Saturday landing page look more like the front page of the regional Journal News than the Tarrytown-Sleepy Hollow Patch.
The Huffington Post deal was signed during the 2011 Super Bowl, with AOL agreeing to pay $315 million for the news aggregation site and for Arianna Huffington’s leadership over all of AOL’s media activities—including Patch. Employees were notified the next day via a conference call, only after the news had already spread on the Internet about the deal.
As editors, we often speculated among ourselves about the fate of Patch and AOL, and how each major announcement, merger, or acquisition would affect not only our daily workloads, but the viability of the entire online news model. Nothing was bigger than the HuffPo announcement, and changes were swift.
Some readers observed that there was a general Huffingtonization of Patch after the deal was made—and it was true that some of the hallmarks of HuffPo were quickly implemented. Within a few months, the call went out that Patch would “hire” up to 8,000 bloggers. We were to ask politicians, school-board members, and local business owners to create regularly updated columns, for free. Signing up bloggers became part of our job descriptions, as did giving their work a cursory edit.