Home > Business, Writing & Communications > AOL’s Patch, HBR, and sustainable local journalism

AOL’s Patch, HBR, and sustainable local journalism

Last week, Maxwell Wessel posted an entry on the Harvard Business Review’s blog network critiquing AOL’s strategy for Patch, an experiment in local news aggregation that is currently a rather high-profile drain on the company’s coffers. I appreciate the thesis of the post: that rather than ignore or discard Patch, AOL should invest in it more intelligently.

What bugs me is that Wessel mentions the ostensible purpose of Patch—the gathering and reporting of news—exactly twice, both times subtly disparaging it. First, in characterizing Patch’s modus operandi:

“Patch’s current business model is unsustainable. Patch is building a network of journalists and salespeople, and it’s costing the company a lot. This is not the way to build a disruptive business and it’s an open question as to whether Patch must grow this way to win in local news. Patch doesn’t need to be spending money this way to win in the space.”

The Business Insider story to which he links has some particularly unflattering things to say about Patch’s sales structure, but it mentions news or journalism precisely never. Conflating the functions of journalists and salespeople, without specifying how exactly the former are detrimental to Patch’s growth, is troublesome. How, exactly, is a news site supposed to grow without journalists?

Wessel offers a half-hearted recommendation to that quandary later, writing:

“A successful Patch might have deep integration with high school newspapers to source content and editors.”

I was a high school newspaper columnist for over two years, and an editor-in-chief for one. I was a damn moron. Okay, we produced some decent stuff, but still—we were 17! We didn’t have the foggiest what issues were important to our communities, nor the resources to pursue them even if we did. I’m not sure how integrating with high school newspapers would work, exactly, but I know that a multi-billion dollar company should not be pinning one of its key growth areas on the acumen and news savvy of 17-year-olds.

Look, I realize that journalism is a business like any other, beholden to the cruel capriciousness of supply and demand, and that trying to inject Very Serious notions of the Duty and Integrity of the news into a discussion about business models is, at best, quixotic. I get it, really; I have degrees in both fields. But in journalism, no less than in any other industry, shouldn’t the quality of the product still count for something?

Wessel talks about creating value for customers (actually what he says is, “in non-MBA jargon, Patch needs to align its resources with the value it creates for customers,” leading me to wonder if he knows what the prefix “non” means). And the obligatory caveat here is that, for most publications, the reader is not the customer, advertisers are. Granting that, you don’t acquire readership—which is the product you then sell to advertisers—without putting out something people want to read.

This requires trained, seasoned, professional journalists, people who know how to find stories that matter to readers, develop relationships with sources, navigate the cracks in the system to dig up information, ask the right questions of the right people, and coalesce it all into a clear, compelling, informative whole. And Wessel does recognize this: “[Readers] do care about the news that is featured on their Patch…about the community issues that will affect their families.”

I agree wholeheartedly that some new, sustainable model for gathering and reporting local news to communities is not only a valuable business opportunity but a vital service to the body politic. Patch may turn out to be the innovator that spearheads that model—but only if it respects its function as a news source, and not just a bulletin board for the local pizza parlor.

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