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On the Media: Patch.com's Newark plan smells of conflict

The AOL hyper-local news operation, now under Arianna Huffington, enters a partnership with a New Jersey mayor that doesn't seem journalistically sound.

March 16, 2011|James Rainey

Local editors have tended to make up the content gap themselves, working brutal hours and occasionally burning out. More than a few of the exhausted pioneers have left 4-year-old Patch, despite the tough prospects of finding jobs elsewhere.

That's not to discount the other Patch editors who tell me they are thrilled to be in the game and building something new. Some of them have been able to draw on the pool of experienced journalists available for reporting as traditional outlets contract.

(Disclosure: My wife is a former magazine editor and television producer who has written several freelance pieces for Patch.com. She gets $60 an article, a fairly standard rate for the site.)

Patch employees share with their older-media cousins an ongoing anxiety about what comes next. Several site editors complained to me around the time of the AOL-HuffPo deal in early February that they had been ordered to slash their freelance budgets.

"We will not be cutting anything," Huffington pledged in our conversation Tuesday. Webster said via a spokeswoman that the company might be "changing what we spend money on, but the net investment in content has only increased."

The hyper-local Patch sites I dip into are a wildly mixed bunch. The best editors deliver real news, covering stories that bigger outlets rarely get to. Prep sports can receive better play than in regional newspapers, which simply can't get to everything.

But most of what I see on Patch seems pro forma, the coverage of government tending to a stenography of the status quo. That doesn't seem to be by intention, or lack of effort. It turns out it's easier to commit to breaking news and probing beneath the surface than to actually do it, especially with thin staffing and part-timers doing much of the heavy lifting.

Hopefully, the Patch partnership with Newark's mayor isn't emblematic of more of the same. Even with her hundreds of Patch journalists spread thinly across the land, Huffington commands a substantial army. It would be nice to see them not just holding their positions, but reconstructing the battlefield to help not just her pals but her readers.

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey

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