Friday, January 31, 2014

Patch restructuring decimates Georgia's local sites

After national layoffs, only two staffers are left to cover 45 Patch sites in Georgia

Posted By on Fri, Jan 31, 2014 at 2:26 PM

UNPATCHED: Only two staffers are left to cover 45 Patch sites in Georgia.
  • UNPATCHED: Only two staffers are left to cover 45 Patch sites in Georgia.
Last Wednesday, hundreds of Patch employees nationwide were fired on an early morning conference call. The layoffs, which followed AOL's recent sale of the hyper-local news platform to a tech investment firm for an undisclosed sum, affected between 60 to 90 percent of its entire staff, according to multiple estimates.

Despite lofty expectations, internal struggles, failed profit models, and prior staff reductions ultimately doomed the project. At its peak, Patch boasted more than 900 community websites across the country. But the cuts hit its Georgia sites especially hard. Two editorial staffers are now tasked with running the state's 45 websites. It's unclear how those local pages, some of which became an important resource for residents whose communities were often overlooked by TV news or print publications, will function moving forward.

In December 2007, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong launched the community news enterprise. Each site placed an emphasis on local stories ranging from divisive neighborhood meetings to four-way stop sign installations. Dunwoody residents landed metro Atlanta's first website in 2010. Soon Buckhead, Decatur, Midtown, and other intown neighborhoods got their own community portals. The quality of Patch's local content varied greatly depending on its respective editors. Some staffers became trusted citizen-reporters while others often just regurgitated press releases.

For the city's southeast neighborhoods, East Atlanta Patch became an integral resource for residents following its 2010 launch. Former AJC reporter Péralte Paul covered stories such as Atlanta Public Schools' redistricting, the fight against big-box retail in Glenwood Park, and the crime wave that struck the East Atlanta and Grant Park in 2013.

"East Atlanta Patch really made hyper-local news important and made people pay attention," says Paul. "I tried to not make it just all bad things, but a wide range of things that could give a reasonably good flavor of the communities."

Several local neighborhood leaders praised Paul's community reporting and said that East Atlanta Patch offered residents a place to discuss issues often unnoticed by larger Atlanta news outlets. Instead of focusing on car crashes and violence, Chosewood Park Neighborhood Association President Jim Williamson says, the site offered a different perspective beyond the news adage: "if it bleeds, it leads."

Cascade Patch Editor Marc Richardson, who managed Midtown Patch in recent months, thinks the southwest Atlanta outlet became a "beacon of light" for residents tired of TV reporters who primarily focused on the area's crime. Larger local outlets, the former 11 Alive producer says, would frequently overlook positive stories within those neighborhoods.

Without an editor who understands the community, Richardson worries that Cascade Patch will become a "dumping ground for Black on Black crime news" - and that the site's estimated 40,000 monthly visitors will stop engaging with the once-vital community resource.

"Sites like Patch need to be created by small groups or individuals that actually live in the communities, with the sole purpose of delivering local content and less of a focus on meeting corporate payrolls," Richardson says.

To its former editors, Patch's future looks bleak without reporters creating quality content for its small, devoted readerships. Based on content posted following the layoffs, aggregated posts, republished statements, and unedited reader-submitted posts could become the norm.

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