cover story

The Constant Gardener

My two years tending AOL's hyperlocal experiment
March 12, 2012

My employment with Patch started with a handshake and a promise that I would be called with a job offer in the next few days. I had met with Patch’s editor in chief, Brian Farnham, at the company’s New York headquarters. This was in late October 2009, just a few months after AOL acquired the nascent hyperlocal platform for $7 million. In less than a week, I was hired to build and manage the Tarrytown-Sleepy Hollow Patch, covering a pair of Hudson River towns north of New York City.

I was one of about two dozen journalists Patch hired in the fourth quarter of that year, entrusted to replicate an online local news model that had been launched in New Jersey communities like Maplewood, Millburn, and Short Hills, suburbs on the outskirts of Newark. An end-of-year push would establish Patch in New York’s Long Island and Westchester communities, too, and further expand its coverage in New Jersey and Connecticut. At the time, AOL itself was in the process of spinning off from Time Warner, and was investing significantly in Patch as part of its strategy of repositioning the company to focus more on content creation.

The Patch idea was sold to me on the following premise: The backbone of the website’s offerings would be local news and information, with the goal being the digitization of a community—your town, online. Patch aimed to be the community newspaper and more, a hub for local businesses and a forum for community conversation: everything a local news outlet should be. We were given immense trust and responsibility to build a site to that standard.

Patch is relentlessly driven to refine and tweak its strategy to reach its goals, and it is entirely different now than it was in 2009. When I started, the organization was full of untested ideas, generalized performance targets, and grinding workloads. But it also offered local editors the unique opportunity to test content, prove their worth, and exert some influence on the editorial focus of the organization. For someone just establishing his journalism career, the fresh attitude and encouragement from the top was exciting.

Putting aside the uniform look of Patch sites at that time, we were given the opportunity to set our own work schedules and, more important, editorial priorities. Some editors focused almost exclusively on sports and schools, while others preferred hard news and politics. There was little in the way of mandates; we were to post between three and five pieces of news and information a day, with an equal amount of Twitter posts and Facebook updates.

How did we measure success? Traffic was the only indicator that sticks out in my mind—reaching our monthly unique-viewer target. The objective was to hit unique-visitor numbers equal to half of our community’s population. The most recent census numbers showed Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow with a combined population of about 21,000, so I was aiming for 10,500 unique viewers a month.

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Like the majority of Patch sites, my community had been chosen based on demographic indicators, including median household income, the performance of the school district, and the penetration of the Internet. The combination of these, and a list of other community-specific statistics, pointed to a measure of affluence in the local populace—which is not to say Patch was at all marketed as a luxury. The idea was to fill a gap in coverage left by retreating newspapers, and capture the advertising that went with it.

Most Patch editors recorded the news and civic conversation in a thorough, all-encompassing manner. For example, the Tarrytown-Sleepy Hollow site began keeping track of Tarrytown Village Trustee work sessions and criminal court happenings in both villages. It was the first time anyone had done so. I also revived the police blotter, which no one had tracked for decades. Hard news was my site’s focus, and readers told me they were amazed at how much was going on in their seemingly quiet community.

Even before local editors got up to speed and their sites went live, it was a stressful job, due to the strain of trying to keep on top of every meeting, car accident, and sports score. The pressure was slightly alleviated by the power of the purse strings: We had a sizable freelance budget—some $2,000 a month—to experiment with general reporting and evergreen content. There was nothing better than seeing freelancers take on a regular feature, especially when that content would allow you to sleep in on a slow Sunday.

In Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, Patch arrived at the perfect moment. The community was served by two monthly newspapers, The River Journal and The Hudson Independent, neither of which had a competitive Web presence, and by Gannett’s regional publication, The Journal News, which would sweep in only during a major event. It had been years since a newspaper chronicled the daily, or even weekly, pulse of the community. As in many towns, my Patch exploded, and became the only source of daily information. Within a year, I was exceeding my traffic goals.

Strangers, politicians, and police officers would strike up conversations with me around town. And if it was the first time I was talking to a new face, I knew which question would eventually arise: “But how do you make money?”

It was difficult to give a straightforward answer. Patch was a startup, with more than $50 million in investment capital to keep it running in 2010. The common refrain was that Patch had the goal of making its money through business listings and advertisements. But for months, my site recycled the same three banner ads—small, bottom-bar placements that, I assumed, were the cheapest ads in the arsenal.

So excited. So tired.

Andrew Kersey has never been so excited. Andrew Kersey has never been so busy. Andrew Kersey has never been so tired.

So began an article in the Los Angeles Times, when Patch launched sites in California in early 2010. The Times published an article on the expansion of Patch to the West Coast, using the Manhattan Beach Patch editor, Kersey, in the lead. Everyone at Patch read it, and local editors were sold on the accuracy of the piece based on those first three lines.

Many of Patch’s new hires came straight out of journalism school or from small, community publications. Even our more experienced editors, many of them refugees from a recently downsized newspaper, were thrown into an entirely different work environment.

You can’t comprehend the scope of a local editor’s workload by title alone. The duties included writing the majority of the day’s stories, editing, managing a budget, paying freelancers, editorial planning, reviewing metrics, attending weekend functions, taking photos, shooting and editing video, and a number of administrative activities that swallowed the hours. In short, the job entailed everything that makes a respectable local newspaper function—from publisher to reporter—and the hours reflected this reality. In 2010, and through most of 2011, I spent more than 60 hours on the street and behind the computer each seven-day week. It was hard to take a vacation and, if we did, most of us were incapable of turning off our phones and laptops.

Burnout became a big problem. Two great editors in my area quit within a year, partially due to stress. The company made a number of attempts to make the local editor position sustainable and more enjoyable: group activities for staff members, additional freelance money for hiring a vacation replacement, and permission to use regional content on the weekends, to give editors at least a day off from worrying about posting stories. While taking advantage of these opportunities could ease stress, it often meant the sites suffered in terms of day-to-day news relevance.

In hindsight, I feel Patch did an excellent job of setting ambitious workloads and hiring people who were eager to make their sites a reflection of their character and work ethic. The biggest drain was often representing the publication. Each editor’s photo is prominently displayed just below the masthead; we were the face of the local site, and, by proxy, of the company. So even when we weren’t working, local editors were on the job, especially if we lived in the community we covered.

And living in or close to your coverage area was more than encouraged—relocation was often a requirement when a local editor accepted a position. So was living up to the company’s philosophy on connecting to the local community through charities or volunteer organizations. Editors were asked to volunteer five days a year. Some of us bemoaned the additional hours; others, myself included, found real satisfaction in the spirit of the practice. Although it raised some conflict-of-interest concerns in the beginning, I joined a local ambulance corps. When there was a big story involving emergency medical services, I was adamant about keeping things out of the press until a police officer or citizen “tipped me off” to an incident that I may well have been at the night before. While it made my job more difficult, I’m glad I joined. I still volunteer with the ambulance corps today.

In addition to the editorial and volunteer work, we fought to get our sites noticed—on and off the clock. The marketing dollars that we were given, if any, usually came with the understanding that we would be manning booths at community events, or taking the lead in finding sponsorship opportunities, like supporting the local hayride or Little League team.

It seemed I could control every aspect of my site’s being, but making it sustainable was out of my grasp. And for me, it was aggravating to know that my site was not profitable.

In many small-town publications there is a thin wall between advertising and editorial. At my previous job, with a twice-weekly newspaper, the wall literally had a doorway that connected the two departments. At Patch, the dividing wall between editorial and advertising seemed so high at times that it was impossible to know where we stood in relation to those on the other side.

As editors, we were told only general information about revenues, sales, and business strategy, at least in the beginning. Many of us rarely saw our ad managers. My area went through four ad-sales agents, only two of whom I met. I didn’t envy their job: Our salespeople were stretched thin, sometimes covering more than three Patch sites, making their positions more difficult than ours, at least from a relationship-building perspective. By the nature of the position, local editors were the ones best-positioned to pitch potential advertisers, but that was off-limits, and to preserve editorial integrity, Patch made sure the division was strict.

Church, meet state

This began to change. In 2011, as reports leaked to the media noted, editors were encouraged to collaborate with members of the ad sales teams to better both the journalistic and advertising sides of the business. Some saw something sinister in this; as reports in Business Insider framed it, Patch was “juicing” its sales by asking editors to “start drumming up ad sales leads.”

But there was nothing quid-pro-quo about it and, to me, certain collaborations just made sense. If a new business is opening in a small community, for example, the event has both news value and potential advertising value. As far as I was concerned, the ad manager was one more set of ears on the ground that I desperately needed. My only question was, Why wasn’t Patch already doing this?

Still, local advertising was only one side of the equation. As a national company, Patch was also gathering prime eyeballs—local, mostly affluent readers—that could be valuable to major national brands. While I was at Patch, the focus was almost entirely on local businesses, with a limited interest in national advertising, which I thought was unsustainable. But that seems to have changed somewhat. This was particularly evident during the Christmas season, when I saw ads by Target, AT&T, and major banks on Patch sites.

Meanwhile, toward the end of my tenure, editors were slowly beginning to see some of the financial numbers behind our sites—how profitable or unprofitable they were generally, on a month-by-month basis. What financial information we didn’t receive from the company often appeared in the press. (For example, a headline from Business Insider near the end of 2011: “Leaked: AOL’s Top Ten Patch Salespeople, and How Much They’ve Sold in 2011.”)

Readers are not enough

In the second half of 2010, Patch made headlines with hundreds of site launches and an endless stream of new hires. While business publications and media pundits argued over the Patch model and the quality of journalism it produced, the most interesting shift was occurring at the editorial level.

Engagement became the buzzword. The goal was to tailor content that would make people stay and play. To push this transition, we were given content mandates for the first time. This radically reshaped how we had to think about our audiences and what made our sites relevant. It wasn’t about the number of eyeballs seeing local news, it was about comments and cultivating user-generated, free content.

The first push was an attempt to cater to mothers, and to make Patch information more relevant to the everyday family. Many editors were transparent with their audiences about the new content requirements. They published the mandates, in abbreviated form, as a letter to their readers, notifying them of the changes. On my site, I implemented some of the changes grudgingly.

Wednesdays were to be called MomsDays, and we were given five pieces of content that someone apparently thought would appeal to the mother demographic. We were to post stories about a shopping bargain in town, and about a nice thing for moms or parents to do as a getaway from the kids, as well as a generic question intended to spark a conversation in the comments section, an article highlighting a standout student in the community, and a weekend planner specifically aimed at families.

To develop this content, Patch sites were to put out a call for mothers looking to be a part of a “Mom’s Council,” which was supposed to function as a sounding board and give MomsDay some editorial direction.

Thursdays, meanwhile, were aimed more at families in general. We were urged to publish a list of events in the surrounding areas, a gallery of open houses, a community photo slideshow, a list of five things you should know for the day or weekend, and a puff piece highlighting a local restaurant.

What worried me and many other Patch editors was that this focus on catering to a certain audience ignored the progress many of us had already made at cultivating readers in our communities. And some editors worried that it would outright alienate readers, even those mothers being targeted. I was definitely part of that crowd, and considered the content ideas antithetical to the entrepreneurial editorial mindset I had come to enjoy.

Practically speaking, implementing the initiative meant we had less time to focus on traditional newsgathering and less money to spend on freelance stories that we already knew our readers liked. Although we were encouraged to find a way to come up with the kind of copy headquarters now wanted at little to no cost, such stories still had a price—in time and freelance expense, especially if you wanted to maintain your site’s regular flow of features and hard news.

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.

Huffington 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.

Overall, the Huffington deal did help solve one of Patch’s problems: the workload placed on local editors. With more free content, more cross-posted stories, and more aggregation, it became easier to set the site on autopilot. Which, of course, can be dangerous.

Near the end of the year, some media-business outfits were saying it was “do-or-die” time for Patch. Business Insider estimated in December that Patch would lose “at least $100 million this year,” according to calculations based on “documents we’ve obtained.” In an earnings call with analysts in February, though, AOL’s chairman and CEO, Tim Armstrong, and other company officials pushed back, saying they had invested $160 million in Patch in 2011 and that nearly half of its 863 local sites were generating about $2,000 a month in revenue by the end of the year. They said they expected more growth this year, and claimed that they already had 50 percent of the total Patch revenue from 2011 on the books for 2012, though they didn’t say how much that was. Arthur Minson, AOL’s chief financial officer and president of AOL Services, told analysts that the original business plan for Patch assumed that local sites would break even within three to four years, and produce “healthy margins thereafter. That continues to be our assumption.”

And, it is worth reiterating, AOL is still investing in Patch. Personally, I have no doubt that Patch as a whole will be profitable at some point, and that cutting costs at the local level will help that. But that could also mean a marked shift from what made the company so exciting for me in 2010.

Then and now

Just before handing in my resignation at Patch, I began working on a series with the local historical society entitled “One Century Ago.” We would transfer (from microfilm to JPEG) and then post the front page of the local newspaper from a hundred years ago. It was a fun tidbit that let people reflect on how the villages had changed, while giving a little historical context to the modern community.

Yet what struck me is how little difference there was between what I kept seeing on the front page of the old Tarrytown Press-Record for each week back in the day, and what would be on the front page of a solid Patch site in 2011. A great local newspaper or local news site has everything—from trustee meetings to petty theft, from church service times to seemingly trivial society pieces. There is a formula for local news, and it works. If done right, in a thorough manner, a news site can captivate a community—it can bring its audience online, it can digitize a town.

I would say the Tarrytown-Sleepy Hollow site succeeded in digitizing the community through solid reporting. Many other Patch editors accomplished this as well. However, that didn’t always mean advertisers were eager to support our sites and it didn’t mean that the sites were financially sustainable, given money spent on employees, freelance costs, and the corporate backend. And still there is the local editor’s punishing workload.

No doubt the Patch model will adjust to market realities. It is still focused on that original goal of total community integration. The effort to find the balance between shoes-on-the-ground reporting and search-engine pop that aids profitability will result in sites that have a dramatically different character than they did even a year ago.

If anything, I think Patch’s trials and errors will show that online local news can be sustainable, even profitable, if you have good, hardworking journalists, a strategy to keep costs at a minimum, and a willingness to stick to what has made community news a staple across America for decades. It’s a challenge, and I wish my former colleagues the best of luck. 

The print version of this story, which appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of CJR, featured two sidebars: “A brief history of hyperlocals” and “Tim Armstrong Still Believes.”

Sean Roach worked for Patch from November 2009 to September 2011. He is a freelance writer based in New York and also works in public relations. He is currently running for elected office in the Village of Sleepy Hollow.