In the last few months AOL's "hyper-local" news sites called Patch have been hard to ignore. Not only have they moved into some of Los Angeles County's more-affluent communities, but they've been hiring journalists at a time when some of the best scribes in town have been surviving on unemployment.
The network has also been controversial: Patch has moved into communities -- Venice, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills -- already well-served by local media outlets, often with editors who don't live in those communities.
What's more, young Patch journalists have been caught stealing content. With all that as a backdrop, Marcia Parker, Patch's West Coast editorial director, spoke to the Los Angeles Press Club in Hollywood Thursday night.
Parker talked up the benefits of working for Patch (it has "fun club" after-work events and benefits that she said were "almost unheard of in the industry right now") and noted that the company had 55 local sites in California and "quite a few more to come."
She seemed unsure of the company's editorial vision, however, indicating that each site was free to throw stuff against the wall -- straight news, snark, video -- and see what stuck locally.
Patch's aim is to go into more-affluent communities and serve up news from the city council, local high school football team, and chamber of commerce.
It sounds reasonable on paper, but many of those communities (Venice, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills included) already have local outlets with journalists much more plugged into what's happening on the streets there.
Parker indicated that Patch's local editors don't even have offices. They work from home -- often in communities other than the ones they cover. That seems like a stretch.
What's going to make Patch -- each site works off the same exact platform -- stand out?
"Our industry is really hungry for a new business model," Parker said.
While AOL -- the geniuses who brought the internet to your mom and who nearly sunk Time Warner -- thinks providing cookie-cutter sites for your neighborhood is the new journalism, folks such as Gawker Media's Nick Denton have already figured out the new business model and are light years ahead.
What's even more perplexing about Patch's foray into Southern California is its almost complete ignorance of the region's ethnic diversity. Nearly one of every two people in Los Angeles County, for example, is Latino, but you wouldn't know it by reading Patch's sites.
Asked about how Patch would cover the area's array of ethnic enclaves, Parker actually alluded to software-driven language translation as a panacea. (And to assume that all Latinos consume their media in Spanish is such an outdated, corporate-media notion).
"We're actually talking a lot about language capability," she said. " ... Google's also got a very strong language platform we can leverage. Obviously California would be a great place to do it."
Really? Wow. She actually said that.
What's frustrating about the Patch Kool-Aid, which Parker served in spades, is that the bosses say they're serving a world thirsty for watch-dog journalism.
If Patch was really interested in patching the holes in coverage -- in places that haven't seen much presence from the Los Angeles Times and, yes, LA Weekly -- it would go into Bell, South Gate, Huntington Park, Watts, Pacoima, etc.
But it's clear Patch wants the advertising juicy fruit of the Whole Foods demographic. That's fine. We can't be too judgmental as we sit in an office in the heart of the Westside. But the spin that Patch is doing some kind of community service is a little hard to swallow.
Parker also seemed defensive about the level of journalism the sites are churning out. Clearly it has hired some young, green people to oversee some of its community sites. On the other hand, its regional editors are seasoned veterans, some with experience at the Times and LA Weekly.
"We're doing good, solid journalism," she said. "We're getting better all the time."
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And so, in a room full of journalists, the questions were mostly softball, and Parker came off as a publicist for Patch, using the occasion to note repeatedly that the company was hiring.
Asked if she was concerned about accusations that her editors had been caught plagiarizing and, in one case, running wire copy without credit, she blew the question off and said the matter had been addressed.
"We abide by the same set of principles that journalists believe in," she said. "When we're mistake we own up to it."
We wish Patch the best of luck, but on a they-don't-get-it scale, the company ranks off the chart. We give it to the end of 2011.