Patch writing tends to be competent if no-frills. As Ken Doctor pointed out on his blog Newsonomics, a Patch story may give the facts, but often with only a single source and sometimes without much context. He cited a story this summer about a police shootout that resulted in the death of an armed gunman at a 7-11 in San Ramon, California, in which Patch offered nothing but the bare facts. A story about the incident in the local Contra Costa Times newspaper, meanwhile, with two bylines, gave much more depth and background. Yet due to adept use of search-engine optimization, the Patch story topped the newspaper story on both Google web and news searches. And, Doctor added, there were nine comments on the Patch story and none on its Contra Costa counterpart.


It is on the bigger stage—breaking national and global news, at its AOL News site—where AOL faces an immediate challenge. Journalists from “legacy” organizations including The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and others are staff members and contributors there. The question is, how to consistently produce quality, original national and foreign news with a full-time staff of about twenty people, heavily skewed toward editors, plus about two-dozen part-time staffers and dozens of freelancers?

By mid-summer, somewhere between one-third and one-half of all the content on the site was original, according to former AOL editor Michael Nizza (Nizza departed for News Corp. in October). The balance was a mix of wire stories, content from partners, such as Space.com, and an often-awkward hybrid of rewritten outside stories with staff reporting added. Stories from AOL News full-time staffers consistently exhibit original in-depth reporting and analysis. But work from the dozens of freelance “contributors” is uneven.

For example, on July 6 a U.S.-based contributor, trying to report on Raoul Moat, a gunman loose in northern England, inadvertently quoted from The News Grind, a satirical British news site. The unwitting—but doubtlessly under pressure—contributor included this quote in his AOL News story: “I can scarcely wait for the climax,” confirmed Elsie White, 77, as she raced back to her house after picking up some toffees and copies of today’s paper from a local news agent featuring the blood-soaked face of a police officer allegedly shot by Moat. “We haven’t had a live event like this to enjoy for quite some time and there’s only old ‘Doctors’ episodes on at this time of day.”

The News Grind and The New York Observer gleefully noted the misstep and a correction swiftly followed. But the incident highlighted the potential danger when reporting is rapidly cobbled together from outside sources. Nizza said AOL News has since formalized a ban on posts based on single sources beyond proven news operations.

Many of these hybrid pieces, sometimes attributing to as many as five different news organizations, are clunky. They’re also vulnerable to errors, as journalists scramble to rearrange quotes and paragraphs during rewriting. This happened, for example, with a June piece on Starbucks offering free Wi-Fi, in which a quote taken from a New York Times story was attributed to the wrong person.

It’s not what Armstrong wants AOL News to be, he said. “I have a hard time seeing an economic long-term value in journalists scraping other journalists and adding 5 percent more to the story. I am not a fan of that. I think it’s not an economic viability and I don’t think it delivers great consumer value.”

But he also acknowledged the challenge AOL News faces. “Patch is very clear journalism. Something like PoliticsDaily is really clear journalism. Engadget and FanHouse, really clear original journalism, and strong,” he says. “Real time breaking news? How do you do that? You can be either the originator or the partner, but probably being in-between is not a good place to be.”

AOL is still working on that conundrum, he said, as well as how best to use the algorithm and its indicators of reader interest and response at AOL News.

This new union of journalism and algorithm is a tricky area that is still evolving. According to Ken Doctor, “No one’s done it right yet. The blend of real journalistic know-how, talent, and experience and the technologies of the day to aid that, and to distribute the work itself—it’s the blend of the two that nobody’s gotten right yet.” Still, he applauded AOL’s effort in trying.

No one, including Tim Armstrong, knows if AOL’s grand plan will work. “Our overarching business question is: Is journalism undervalued?” He continues: “As Warren Buffett says, be greedy when people are fearful, and fearful when people are greedy. We’re being greedy when people are fearful about journalism.”

Lisa Anderson is a 2009-2010 Encore Fellow at CJR. She was the the New York bureau chief and a national correspondent for the Chicago Tribune until December 2008.