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
AllYourTV.com
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 respond: A trawl through the CJR archive reveals that at times the Lower Case has run at a half-page—and we often strain to fill a full page. Thus, we decided to try peppering the items, Burma Shave-style, throughout the March/April feature well. In this issue, the items are reunited (page 13). If you’d like to see more space devoted to Lower Case, please help with submissions! Send bonehead heds to cjr@columbia.edu or to cjr, 201 Journalism Building, 2950 Broadway, New York, NY 10027.

Brought to book

In “The Girl Who Loved Journalists” (CJR, January/February), Eric Alterman, bemoaning the loss of book-review sections in US newspapers, neglected to mention the new eight-page book-review section in the Saturday edition of The Wall Street Journal, which started publication in the fall of 2010.

As one of the leading critics of Rupert Murdoch’s purchase in 2007 of Dow Jones and the WSJ, I must give great credit to Robert Thomson, editor-in-chief of Dow Jones, for his decision, unique in today’s shrinking newspaper world, to heavily invest in eight pages every Saturday of some of the best-written book reviews published anywhere in the US today.

Friends in the New York City book-publishing industry tell me the WSJ’s new book-review section is highly respected and very helpful for launching new books because it is read all over the country.

Competition with The New York Times may have inspired the new WSJ book-review section, but it is a major, positive contribution to US book publishing and intellectual life. It should be celebrated by a CJR Laurel and not ignored.

Jim Ottaway Jr.
Retired director and senior VP of Dow Jones
Past member of CJR’s Board of Overseers
New York, NY

Correction

In “Only connect” by Alec MacGillis about reporter Connie Schultz (CJR, March/April), we wrote in a caption for a photo of Michael Green that “Schultz’s articles helped set him free” from prison. However, Schultz’s series did not lead to Green’s exoneration. She chronicled his ordeal, but only after the Innocence Project and his stepfather worked to free him. The week after Schultz’s series ran, the real rapist confessed to the crime, 14 years after Green was convicted. The rapist served five years in prison.

 

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