By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
When AOL, the digital dinosaur from the Internet's dial-up days, announced its big push into hyperlocal journalism known as Patch, a network of bloglike sites, the corporation spun it as a feel-good story.
An August 17 news release promised that Patch would hire "professional journalists" and provide "original, trusted coverage" in 400 locales nationwide, bringing AOL's blog site count to 500.
Rutt has been supplying news to Altadena on his hyperlocal altadenablog.com since 2007. Before he got a call from a Patch editor, who let him know they were setting up in his backyard and offered him a job, Rutt already knew a lot about Patch.
Rutt has a degree in journalism from the University of Colorado and once worked for a weekly in that state. On his Altadena blog, his journalistic high point so far has been his coverage of the 2009 Station Fire that killed two firefighters and blackened a vast area of the Angeles National Forest not far from his home.
Added degree of difficulty? His wife was recuperating from open-heart surgery.
In June, Rutt was approached by Pat Lee, a Patch regional editor, who wanted him to abandon his site to launch Patch's Altadena outpost, guaranteeing a steady paycheck.
Interestingly, Rutt said no.
His son has muscular dystrophy, and his daughter was born with Down syndrome. Rutt settles at his computer once they go to school and covers meetings in the evening when his wife returns home from work.
He was concerned that Patch corporate directives might get in the way of his schedule. But he also believes local news should be in the hands of, well, locals.
"It's hard for me to see how Patch Altadena can create a local identity when all their big decisions are made in New York," he says.
So now, AOL's Altadena blog is Rutt's competitor. In a blog post explaining his decision to his readers, Rutt sardonically substituted Patch for "poach."
That's a word Easy Reader, a longtime alternative weekly in the South Bay, probably also would choose to describe what Patch is doing in the area. Patch recently created blog outposts in Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach, all areas covered by easyreadernews.com.
Fair enough, but then Patch "approached our sales reps with offers of annual salaries that were 100 percent–plus of their sales goals," Kevin Cody, editor and publisher of Easy Reader, says in an e-mail.
"I told the reps, 'Take the job — but insist on a minimum one-year contract.' They have no hope of selling enough local advertising to support the rep's guarantee."
So which is Patch: a raider, or a wealthy savior stepping in as community papers die?
According to Warren Webster, president of Patch Media, AOL bought it in 2009 as AOL shifted to providing content. "Patch, from a local standpoint, has a very similar mission," says Webster, which is to provide solid news to communities of 15,000 to 75,000 people.
Each local editor — who essentially acts as reporter, editor, aggregator and community-outreach manager — is given a website, a MacBook Pro, a digital camera with video and an iPhone or BlackBerry, and reportedly paid between $38,000 and $45,000 with health benefits.
The editors then pay individual freelancers about $50-$100 per item. That's in stark contrast to HuffingtonPost, whose wealthy owner, Arianna Huffington, currently promoting her book Third World America, about saving the middle class, pays nothing to her thousands of freelance bloggers, who provide much of the site's content.
Although Rutt says he had twice as many ads as Patch when he compared them in June, he's aware it's still in start-up mode. "They're a formidable competitor. They can afford to lose money on this. They have the capitalization," he says.
He's now negotiating with Frontier Media to obtain capital, and says he is "thrilled to death" to have the competition. His confidence stems from faith in his product. "Where are people going to go for context — a place that provides understanding, background, history?" Gierach asks rhetorically.
Patch requires local editors to live in the communities they cover, but Gierach doesn't see that as a replacement for community reporting experience.
"Have you spoken to Nancy Rodriguez?" he asks, referring to Patch's West Hollywood local editor. "She knows West Hollywood as well as someone can from a Google search." Rodriguez, contacted by the Weekly, declined to comment.
Rutt also sees his knowledge as deep-seated, noting that it leads to tips and loyalty from sources. "If you have a bacon-and-egg breakfast, the commitment of the chicken is less than the pig," Rutt says. "I am the pig. I have a total commitment to this community, Patch does not. It's a franchise, it's a McDonald's!"
But Rutt concedes that Patch is engaging good journalists such as Dan Abendschein, formerly of the Pasadena Star-News. Sara Catania, hired by Patch as a regional editor, has written for the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily News and L.A. Weekly. Mike Szymanski, formerly of the Daily News, heads the Studio City Patch. Saul Daniels, a former editor at the Times, is launching Patch in Chatsworth.
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