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All eyes are watching Patch.com

At the height of its glory, Patch.com’s roughly 900 sites trailed down the East Coast as far as South Carolina, through the Northwest middle of the U.S., hitting Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa, and finally on the other end of the country to Washington and California. But all good things must come to an end, and it’s debatable whether AOL’s Patch.com was ever that good.

Earlier this month, AOL announced it planned to close or find partners for nearly 300 Patch.com sites. This is a longtime coming since CEO Tim Armstrong has said time and again that Patch would be profitable by the end of the year. Its excessive growth slowed last year, when AOL began consolidating sites and then later instituted layoffs of roughly 40 people in May.

Patch.com has been scrutinized since the beginning as a templatized hyperlocal media venture. Like a Wal-Mart moving into small communities and putting moms-and-pops out of business, Patch.com has been regarded with some amount of distaste among the media elite. Ken Doctor, a media analyst, however, noted recently that the general ire toward the sites may have been out of place:

“For starters, let’s acknowledge what’s clear here: Patch, as conceived, is in part a failure. Its army of national hyperlocal, arrayed across 20 states, is in retreat. It may be a strategic retreat. Just as likely, it’s the beginning of the end. Figure its life support now runs another 12-18 months,” he wrote recently. “If it is a failure, let’s also note it’s a partly noble one. AOL probably hired more journalists than any other American news organization in the 2011-2012 period. Hiring more than 900 journalists, to much bloggy uproar and sometimes misplaced rage, it defied the trend of local journalists being laid off by the thousands.”

But aside from resentment at its cookie-cutter approach and homogenization of local news, rumors have long abounded that Patch editors work thankless hours for little pay, also fueling umbrage. In early 2012, Dennis Wilen, founder of Pocho.com, and a former editor of the Brentwood, Calif., Patch, criticized the working conditions in an email interview with inVocus: “Working for Patch was like trying to captain a cruise liner when the intercom was out, the radar was broken, headquarters was radioing mixed messages 24/7 and the icebergs were approaching. It was an agonizing, energy-sapping trip to nowhere.”

Meanwhile, readers perusing recent articles about Patch.com’s most recent plight, weighed in by commenting. This was posted to an article on Newsday.com:

“Every Patch editor I know is dangerously overworked (writers don’t get paid, some editors do). Most editors in my area carry several towns. It’s a modern-day, local town sweatshop in my opinion.”

Others commented on the inevitability of the sites’ closing, take Mike Rose of Saint Louis Park, Minn., who posted to Romenesko.com:

“Former Patch local editor here. Sad to see this all happen, but honestly, it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise. The signs were there a while ago, and it was the main reason I decided to leave. As others have pointed out, I think the main fatal flaw was expanding too much, too quickly. This left Patch with a ton of employees and a ton of unprofitable sites…”

Some readers claimed to be fans of their local Patch site, like this TechCrunch.com commenter:

“Actually, our local Patch (in Agoura Hills, CA) does a great job of reporting breaking news that is relevant to our small area. My only beef with Patch is that it doesn’t pay so many of its contributors, offering that empty promise of ‘exposure’ to its writers, just like HuffPo. Our local editor does a great job, so I hope she makes the cut.”

Meanwhile, according to TechCrunch.com, there will be 200 to 550 layoffs with the cuts made to Patch.com, or as Armstrong termed them, “impacts.” Newsday recently reported that Patch has already cut costs by 25 percent this year, and that remaining sites will run at a lower cost. Whether that means fewer resources to the sites, or lower pay and more hours for existing staff will remain to be seen. But at least Patch will be profitable, right?

The story of Patch.com, seems similar to TBD.com (although without the longevity), the community-based news site that launched in 2010 by Allbritton Communications, which rose to prominence for its unique (at the time) use of blogger contributions and community online focus. What started out as a venture that had all eyes watching, slowly faded away into nonexistence last August. Although Patch will most likely not be going away anytime soon, it feels, as Doctor recently noted, like the beginning of the end.

–Katrina M. Mendolera


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