Life in the Patch 

Is AOL's hyperlocal news network an evil slave empire or a boon to hungry journalists?

Chris Gray, Sara Fay, and Sofia Resnick

Chris Gray, Sara Fay, and Sofia Resnick

Colleen Durkin

CEOs must love it when small folk call them evil—nice guys don't wind up masters of the universe. Apple's Steve Jobs, Google's Eric Schmidt—you know they get it all the time. (Google Google and evil or Apple and evil if you have doubts.) But it's Apple and Google choosing up sides to see who gets to rule the Internet—as Tim Wu details in his new book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.

So I'm wondering if it made Tim Armstrong's day when someone asked him point-blank at last month's Online News Association conference in Washington, D.C.: "Is Patch evil?" Armstrong is CEO of AOL, and Patch is AOL's new online network of hyperlocal news sites. The case that it's evil is the usual one: too big, too heartless. Across America, Patch is supposedly strutting into town with all of AOL's financial muscle behind it to crush the real grassroots news organizations, its cat's-paws being journalists desperate for work that Patch hires for peanuts and exploits like gulag slaves.

If you're old enough to remember Kaypro, you remember when "America Online" truly did bestride the digital world. But the sun was already setting on AOL in 2000, when it snookered Time Warner into that $350 billion merger Wu says was doomed from the start because AOL, as the nation's leading dial-up portal to the Internet, was already obsolete. Within a few years it was a "zombie" (Wu's term) that Time Warner eventually cut loose. Zombies are evil, I guess, at least in the movies, but mainly they're just corpses that don't know they're dead.

Unlike the evil empires Wu sees scheming to take over the Internet, AOL is just trying to resurrect itself as a content provider. Patch is a bet it's placed on online journalism.

Lake Effect News and Southland Savvy are examples of the kind of sites that Patch is supposedly grinding under its heel. Each was launched by a print veteran who wanted to stay in the game—the first by Lorraine Swanson after the lakefront weekly she edited, the News-Star, went out of business was sold by its owner, Wednesday Journal Inc.; the second by Dennis Robaugh, after he'd been laid off as managing editor of Sun-Times Media's SouthtownStar. Both sites are now moribund. But Robaugh is a regional editor for Patch, and Swanson is one of the local editors he's hired; she runs the Oak Lawn Patch.

Swanson didn't return my calls. Robaugh did. "This is one of the best jobs I've ever had," he told me in an e-mail. "The people are smart, motivated and embrace innovation like no one else I've ever worked with or worked for." As for the slave-camp conditions, "They work very hard. But who wants a news job where your boss says, 'I don't expect you to work very hard'? . . . Has everyone forgotten the community newspaper publishers who pay their reporters 20 grand a year and expect them to work 60 hours a week?"

Patch launched its first sites in February 2009. Now it has over 360 in 13 states and D.C., and it expects to top 500 by the end of the year. The first Chicago-area sites opened in late July in LaGrange and Skokie; by the end of the year there will be close to 60. Midwest editorial director Sherry Skalko, half of the Online News Association's two-person staff before she joined Patch in August, says Patch is hiring editors from "both ends of the spectrum," Robaugh and Swanson being one end. "I have an immense respect and compassion for and understanding for old journalists," says Skalko, 40, so long as they can deal with the "harsh reality" that journalism as they know it is obsolete. "There's a difference between people who want to learn and people who don't want to learn," she says, "and if people do want to learn, their experience is welcomed with open arms."

Sara Fay, 22, is the other end of the spectrum. A year ago she was a Medill undergrad; today, she's Patch's Winnetka-Glencoe editor. "I can tell you I have never worked on a print deadline in my life," she says. "I've always worked on a Web deadline, which is right now right now right now." Election day was "madness" but "fantastic." She was covering the Tenth District congressional race, and when Robert Dold voted in Kenilworth, she was there. "I'm live tweeting, I'm sending live pictures as he's voting, and I mean it's so awesome. Some of the campaign staffers, when I'm introducing myself, they said, 'Oh, I've seen your tweets already,' And I said, 'That's probably what you saw me doing when I was packing my tools ten feet away from here.'"

She jumped in a car, and a roving Patch editor assigned to her for the day drove her to Max and Benny's in Northbrook, where Dan Seals was about to have lunch. "I was uploading and posting photos, and putting together a story," she says, "and I posted it by the time we pulled into the lot in Northbrook."

Patch spokesperson Janine Iamunno told me, "We studied daily newspapers in like-sized communities to Patch markets and found that on average we can operate at 4.1 percent of the cost." Patch doesn't pay for newsprint and doesn't pay for real estate. Fay's salary is about $40,000 a year—not so wretched—and because she's expected to live where she works, she's got a one-bedroom apartment over a Caribou coffeehouse in Winnetka. Her "office" is her backpack. "We are all completely 100 percent mobile," she tells me. "At any given time I'm carrying around in my backpack a laptop, a camera, a video camera, a voice recorder, a traditional pen and paper, a mobile Internet card, a smart phone, and assorted chargers." She checks her pack. "A press pass," she adds. "A police scanner—it's not that heavy, I get used to it. When I was in journalism school I carried most of this stuff around with me to classes.

"Part of my job is being visible and accessible. It means I'm working in coffee shops all over my coverage area. I have a big Patch sticker on the back of my laptop, so when I'm working people can recognize me. Since my site is so young it's a mix of curiosity—'What is Patch?'—and 'Oh, you're the Patch girl. You look much younger.' I didn't explode on the scene, but I've found that as people discover my site they like it. And they come back."

Iamunno won't talk about specific sites, but she says Patch's goal is to have each site visited by at least half the local population, and sites are "trending well," some reaching that goal.

What about ads? I ask Fay. There aren't any, though a local hair stylist is certainly making the most of Patch's free community bulletin board. Fay advises patience—her ad manager just started four weeks ago."

Fay relies on a small stable of freelancers. Chris "Topher" Gray (who's contributed two features to the Reader in recent months) and Sofia Resnick are both fresh from Medill grad school, and when Fay signed them up over the summer, they both told her that since they didn't have cars they'd be biking to their assignments. That could make this winter interesting: Gray, who lives in Rogers Park, covers Glencoe, and Resnick, who lives in Uptown, covers Northfield.

"A lot of these suburbs we're covering are not super bike friendly," Resnick tells me. "I love biking through Winnetka because it has some supergreat paved roads, but it's chock-full of big cars getting to where they're going fast. And at night it's pretty bad because they're small towns and they're not very well lit so it can be a little dangerous."

The ride to Northfield takes a little over an hour, and sometimes, "when the weather's not super awesome," Resnick takes the Purple Line through Evanston. She makes the trip at least once a week, on Tuesdays. "I have a little routine. I get the [police] blotter and then I sit in the library and do some work while there's a senior current-events club meeting. I don't cover it, but I like being around while they're talking. I work and listen. It's nice. They know the history of the town and I'm becoming friends with them."

I tell Resnick I hope she doesn't break her neck.

"Just the other day," she says, "I was thinking how I'm getting used to kind of riding in the dark and it's both sort of good and sort of dangerous. I was riding home from a meeting in Winnetka and I decided foolishly to go down Ridge, which has these giant signs that say no bikes allowed, but it was almost midnight. And I decided I should get on the sidewalk but at some point the sidewalk just ended and I did flip over, but I didn't get hurt too bad.

"There's the Metra," Resnick continues, looking ahead to winter. "There's the PACE buses. I'll have to take a few cabs, which is not very cool because I am not getting a big salary. Or any salary." She averages around $200 a week from Patch, a sum of money that is what it is. At 26, Resnick is a little more quizzical than Fay about the life they're leading. She went to Medill to learn the multimedia skills that are keys to the kingdom, but what she found out is that "I wanted to be an old-school reporter—work for one paper is what I mean, reporting and writing."

So Patch isn't a perfect fit. What's more, the business strategy puzzles her. "They decided to throw tons of money into this project to rejuvenate news in the community," she says, but "it's more my generation who gets their news online, not the people they're trying to reach, like our parents and grandparents." But as she wonders how long Patch will last, she gives it its due: "It's given a lot of journalists their start."

By the end of the year, says Iamunno, Patch will have hired 800 journalists, 20 percent of them with less than two years experience. That's not including freelancers.

Like Resnick, all Gray, 27, really wants to do is write. Patch is a port in the storm. "I don't see myself stopping this anytime soon," he says, "but I don't see doing it forever. I live a very one-day-at-a-time life."

Even Fay is, in her way, old-fashioned. "I really am not against print—I love it," she confides. "There's nothing like picking up the Sunday paper.," which to her is the New York Times. "But I can't deny what I do on a day-to-day basis, which is real-time reporting for the Web. There's nothing like it. It's instant gratification.

"Believe me, if I could work on one story a day, I'm sure my reporting would get a lot better. But I would miss the chase. I've accepted that I'm a journalist 24-7 and this job really fits me. It's the most fulfilling job I can imagine. . . . I envision myself telling stories the rest of my life and telling those stories in whatever media platform serves the story best."

So is Patch evil for being a collection of kids relocating the nation's newsrooms to suburban coffee shops? If the next time Sofia Resnick falls off her bike she doesn't hop right back up, Patch might have to answer for that. But you can't exploit someone who doesn't think she's exploited. And when you're 22, flinging the news giddily to the winds like so much confetti—much like I was doing at about the same age for UPI, come to think of it—you don't.   

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