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.
In L.A., not everyone sees it that way. "It's a Walmart moving in and driving out the mom-and-pop businesses," says Altadena resident Timothy Rutt.
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.
"Heck, they're operating on a $50 million pot of gold," says Ryan Gierach, editor of the well-read wehonews.com, who finds himself competing with Patch.
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.
Catania says that rather than a top-down operation, Patch is more "collaborative." There's "lots of conversation, lots of feedback from local editors and regional editors." If a local editor "has a good idea they can try it out, and if it's cool everyone else can do it, too."
But instead of bringing journalistic eyes to spots that desperately need it, Patch isn't opening in Bell, Compton, South Gate, Vernon or Cudahy. It's taking the Real Housewives circuit: Beverly Hills, the West Valley and the Westside.
Patch Media's Webster concedes that the more attractive suburbs are the focus, where regional dailies have cut back coverage and left a business opportunity. But he promises that next year more Patches will launch in "underserved communities."
For now, one big requirement is that Patch local editors create a comprehensive directory of local businesses and public institutions before the site goes live.
Explains Webster, "We create the most comprehensive local directory" with "hubs of information for, say, the City Hall or a business." The goal is to create a single digital destination that provides extensive information about the town.
"They put up a Web page on every business in a community, many of which don't have Web pages. That's free," says Ron Kaye, former editor of the Daily News. "I think he's got the best game plan of anyone I know" because it aims at solving the key problem: "The whole challenge is generating revenue."
Webster calls Patch sites "news" outposts, not "blogs." But its concentration on creating directories leaves people wondering what the real plan is.
"I thought they were in journalism — not a business directory," says John Amato, whose highly successful political blog, crooksandliars.com, is based in L.A.
Rutt adds, "The endgame of Patch is to get money from local businesses and funnel it into New York, where headquarters is."
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Cody has a different question: whether AOL will see a payoff at all. "I don't know much about national sales, but with Web rates as low as they are" — at $1 to $5 for each "impression," or set of eyes that view a site's ads — making a profit will be tough, he says.
"I cannot envision national advertising generating enough to support Patch," Cody says. "This doesn't even address the question of how they can responsibly cover schools, sports and local politics with one editorial person."
Webster says what really drives Patch is providing "excellent service to a community." He adds, "That's a good business strategy — as opposed to just trying to drive traffic ... off the bat."
But on a recent Tuesday morning in September, it's the Easy Reader that posts a couple of hard-hitting news stories, not Patch Manhattan Beach.