When is a company hiring 500 journalists in a year a bad thing for journalism? According to some, it's when that company is AOL.
Through 2010, AOL's Patch neighborhood news initiative has grown like a weed and with that growth has come controversy over the way Patch treats its employees, oversees its journalism and competes with established local bloggers. The debates about Patch are interesting, partly because they connect with larger concerns about commercial journalism and the new reality of journalism jobs.
Patch was acquired by AOL in 2009 for $7 million, and in 2010 the company has invested another $50 million to finish launching 500 hyperlocal news sites in 20 states by the end of the year. In an August press release, Patch announced that with more than 500 positions to fill, it would be the largest hirer of full-time journalists in the U.S. this year. The heavy upfront investment and warp-speed launch schedule are part of AOL's plan to quickly establish a nationwide audience and brand footprint, which will make it easier to sell advertising to both small local businesses and national outfits.
One key difference between Patch and many national players in the hyperlocal space (such as EveryBlock or Outside.in) is Patch's decision to invest in locally based reporters producing original content rather than rely on aggregation. That sounds like something journalists would get behind but as Patch has swept through small towns and suburbs across the country, a litany of complaints and allegations has followed in its wake.
Foremost, Patch is haunted by anonymous charges that working conditions for local Patch outposts are unfair and grueling. In one e-mail published first on the blog Media Nation and then referenced on several other sites, an alleged local Patch editor describes the job as "24/7 with so far little support in getting any kind of time off nights, weekends, vacation days guaranteed under our AOL contract... Yes, 70 hours [of work per week] and more .." That e-mail sparked discussions on multiple sites, with many posters reporting similar experiences.
But Patch has plenty of defenders, on and off its payroll. An anonymous e-mailer to the site BusinessInsider.com wrote, "Maybe there's some poor sap out there who went into this line of work thinking it would make him rich, but that certainly doesn't describe me or anyone I know... I'm here to do some good, solid reporting in a small town arena." Other current and former journalists simply suggested the unhappy Patch employee should suck it up or find a new line of work.
The sharply contrasting perspectives on Patch working conditions could have to do with variances in the amount of news to cover in each community, regional management situations and expectations coming into the job. Some regard the reported $40K-range salaries of local Patch editors as a ridiculous insult; others see it as a much-needed paycheck.
Working conditions aren't the only issue dogging Patch. There've also been documented incidents of plagiarism in which local Patch editors took content from other sites. In one case a New Rochelle, New York, Patch editor stole a mug shot compilation image from a local blogger and when caught, lied about it to her editors. In another case, a West Hollywood, California, Patch editor stole an obituary from a local blog and ran it without attribution. Patch managers apologized for both incidents, emphasizing Patch's commitment to journalism ethics.
Finally, there are tales of Patch's attempts to hire the operators of existing community news sites, creating a major backlash among those who don't want to see their vibrant, locally published community sites replaced by a corporation whose objective is to suck dollars out of small towns.
This image of AOL as a soulless corporate raider seems to be the subtext of all of the charges being raised. Skeptics see the HR challenges as evidence of a company that views its employees as disposable, instead of an unintended side effect of an extremely intense growth cycle. They view the plagiarism incidents as evidence of a disregard for journalism ethics, instead of a statistical inevitability of hiring hundreds of young reporters at the same time. As for the accusation that AOL is in it for the money well, it's sort of hard to argue against that one.
But consider this pragmatic take on the whole situation:
The hyperlocal business model has proven a hard nut to crack (See "The Online Frontier," Fall,) (and "Rolling the Dice," June/July 2007.) Meanwhile, the basic sustainability of traditional methods of producing news, particularly for newspapers, is under duress. What AOL is attempting to do demonstrate that original reporting is the basis for hyperlocal success, and find more cost-effective models for local news reporting could be revolutionary if it succeeds. Either Patch will fix its issues and make the model work, or it will fizzle out and turn into yet another cautionary tale about hyperlocal. In the meantime, there are 500 new journalism jobs out there.