And so was lack of engagement. People had been trained to expect local news to arrive only on a certain day via weekly newspapers, recalls Owen Youngman, then in charge of Tribune’s Digital City effort and now the Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Youngman said success will still be a challenge, but if a local online news service can demonstrate comprehensive and continuing coverage of a big story, akin to news radio, he said, it’s got an opportunity to grow.
According to people familiar with AOL, local full-time Patch editors, who range from fresh journalism school graduates to twenty-year-plus veterans, make about $35,000 to $50,000. They are the 24/7-foot soldiers and they work hard at cultivating their Patches. Every one gets a Blackberry, laptop, digital still/video camera, and a police scanner to keep them up at night. None of them has an office. They are encouraged to work out of local coffee houses or other public venues where they are supposed to be in touch with their neighbors—and the local news.
Satta Sarmah is the editor of the Patch in suburban Rye, New York (rye.patch.com). Sarmah, twenty-five, interned at CBS News London and the Columbia Journalism Review, and then worked at the Orlando Sentinel, CNN, and Everyblock.com before joining Patch in November 2009. She got a scoop in June when coyotes attacked and slightly injured two little girls in separate incidents. Rye Patch broke the story of the second attack.
Typically, Sarmah said, she posts her first story between 6 and 8 a.m. and on some days may finish work after a city council meeting ends at midnight. She writes as well as assigns and edits her dozen-odd freelance contributors and manages a weekly budget. She is supervised by the Hudson Valley regional editors, Kathleen Ryan O’Connor and William Demarest. Patch supervisors are said to earn around $80,000, depending on experience.
On September 11, the Rye Patch news site led with a comprehensive rundown on the fall activities of local youth football, field hockey, soccer, volleyball, tennis, and cross-country sports teams. Also featured were stories about: local regulations governing the installation of residential walls and fences, and the intricacies of the “bagel tax” for local coffee shops. Then there were the usual events and announcements.
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.