Patch work

Excellent piece (“The constant gardener” by Sean Roach, CJR, March/April), and even though I didn’t join Patch until 2010, my experience matched Roach’s in a number of ways. Before joining Patch, I had a lot of experience running larger digital news operations and my own website, which is probably why I was so frustrated by the amount of “guidance” from Patch HQ and my regional editor.

I loved the work and the people I covered. But I was frustrated when my desire to report deeper pieces conflicted with that “5 posts a day” mandate. And there were management issues I won’t get into in public.

So my old town is now on its third local editor in 18 months, and it saddens me to see the site posting stories that are sometimes literally a headline with a link to the story that was published by a local newspaper. It’s one thing to be beaten by a competitor, but at least make an effort to write a version of the news. Such recycled posts make the site almost useless in my mind. Patch needs to be more than the local stenographer. Entirely too many of their sites have slid into that role.

Rick Ellis
Founder, Managing editor
Apple Valley, MN

So let me see if I have this right: Each Patch editor was doing the work of two editors and a staff of reporters, but I think it’s safe to guess that each one was only paid the salary of one editor; and relief came in the form of $2,000 a month to pay freelancers? And that $2,000, spread over a sufficient number of freelancers to make enough of a dent in the workload to allow an editor to sleep in on Sunday, meant that freelancers were getting paid what?

The whole undertaking seems predicated on everybody being hugely overworked and underpaid. Except, presumably, the brains at the top, who came up with this business model. I know from experience that editing even a small weekly local paper can scarcely be done in a 40-hour week; but a small locally owned local paper doesn’t have the expectation of such astronomical profits, and doesn’t build a business plan on fantasy fiction. The expectation that magic unicorns bearing panniers filled with ad dollars would descend from the sky once all this superhuman labor got the site to its page-view goals seems to have kept management in a chronic state of the fidgets; hence the constant tweaking of the content strategy and production processes.

The move to aggregation of regional content was not so much a relief to overworked editors as it was a first step toward dispensing with the need for them altogether, even at the cost of being local and unique that originally defined the whole undertaking. The expectations were not adjusted; adjustments were inevitably in the direction of somehow wringing even more out of the staff, including leaving it to them to figure out how to get people to write for them for nothing.

Kia Penso
Takoma Park, MD

Talk is cheap

Sorry, but whether journalists should take speaking fees seems like Ethics 101 (“Money talks” by Paul Starobin, CJR, March/April). Speaking for fees to industry groups you cover is unethical. Gretchen Morgenson has got it right: She’ll accept paid speaking gigs at universities, but if she speaks to vetted industry groups, she does it for free. End of story. I thought we already went through this back in the 1990s when the Chicago Tribune’s Jim Warren smoked out and shamed prominent journalists doing paid speaking gigs. How soon we forget. Kudos to Robert Thomson of The Wall Street Journal and to CNBC for flatly barring their reporters from doing paid speeches.

Harris Meyer
Yakima, WA

Hard numbers

16,502 Number of readers who always check out The Lower Case when CJR arrives.
16,502 Number of readers who discovered The Lower Case missing from usual place and thought (or shouted) WTF?
16,502 Number of readers who considered canceling their subscription unless CJR editors offer a reasonable and timely explanation for deleting the Lower Case page.
123 Number of readers satisfied with paltry number of Lower Case items in new location.
4 Number of readers pleased that the Lower Case page deleted (all Republicans).

Burt Dragin
Professor of Journalism
Laney College
Oakland, CA

The Editors