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.
The Patch site itself was redesigned to make it easier to aggregate stories from other news and information sites, a practice perfected by HuffPo. There was renewed emphasis on search-engine optimization and tagging articles with keywords. Requirements on content counts were also relaxed, but that didn’t mean much, as most sites had begun running aggregated stories or cross-posted content from neighboring Patches. It was becoming easy to have more than seven stories a day.
For AOL and The Huffington Post, the relationship between local and national news properties was seen as mutually beneficial. Patch editors could feed AOL and Huffington Post ground-level perspectives during local elections, for example, or through photo galleries, like one commemorating the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
But the messages from the top about how Patch was going to maintain its local reporting—while making a drive toward profitability—seemed at times conflicting. For example, Arianna Huffington indicated she wanted to see small teams of reporters tackling a community, negating the need for freelancers, a point that was picked up by Bloomberg News. Others at the top of Patch maintained that the company would keep a freelance force to help shore up local reporting.