AOL's Patch to go from lousy local news network to even worse community message board network

By Sarah Lacy , written on January 16, 2013

From The News Desk

Ever since Tim Armstrong took over AOL to "save" the news business, there's been apocalyptic sign after apocalyptic sign that the slick Google ad exec simply had no idea what journalists, readers and even the most cynical, profiteering media moguls held sacred about this industry.

There was the "AOL Way" memo, which told all media properties to prize page views and volume and steer away from actual breaking news (no one knows how to search for something they haven't read!). It held up headlines like "Lady Gaga Pantsless in Paris" as the gold standard for their ability to leverage SEO juice.

There was Armstrong's abomination of a statement to the New York Times that TechCrunch simply didn't feel it needed to adhere to any ethical standards of journalism-- throwing every reporter and editor who wasn't raising a venture firm under the bus, and igniting a total shit storm inside and outside the publication.

As for AOL's premier media properties it purchased, it's done what it told the staff it'd do: Flooded them with traffic from its homepage and other sites in the AOL network. Page views are higher than they've ever been. Hooray! But forget the ethics of journalism; just look at that from a business point of view: It's destroyed the lucrative demographics these sites once owned in favor of just recirculated dumb page views. AOL already had plenty of that without spending hundreds of millions of dollars.

Early in 2011, Comscore reported that TechCrunch now shares more readers with other AOL sites than it does other tech media sites-- a big change in a short period of time. Likewise, Business Insider has reported that out of 80 AOL properties only about a dozen have a primary source of referral traffic that is not AOL's legacy, declining ISP and mail properties.

Even Huffington Post's page views have seemingly come at the cost of its demographics. The original Huffington Post team worked tirelessly to get the site down from an undesirable aged-60 demo to a sub-40 year old demo. And as Bryan Goldberg reported a few weeks ago, it's back above the 60-year-old demographic. What's more: The audience is solidly rooted in Middle America, not the coasts as it was before.

What does that demographic sound like? Oh yeah, people who don't realize they don't have to pay for dial up and still go to AOL's home page everyday. I was watching Top Chef last week and Tom Colicchio screamed at a chef something to the effect of: "Why do you people always think if you take one thing that's seasoned and one thing that's bland and put them together the result will be something seasoned? It'll be something bland!"

Voila, AOL's media strategy in practice.

Now, Armstrong is finally making moves at his baby, the much maligned and money-losing local news network Patch, which he co-founded with AOL President Warren Webster. Like so much of AOL's content strategy, it's something that both journalism purists and those watching the business hate. It's written by a low-paid, overworked staff schooled in that AOL Way method of click bait, rather than investing in the local news that these communities actually really need. And while 100 of the sites are profitable, the overall property is not and has been under continual Wall Street pressure. (There are more than 800 total, so that figure isn't quite as impressive as it sounds.)

So is it a good thing or a bad thing that Patch is moving towards giving up on doing journalism altogether? According to comments made by that same Patch co-founder Webster at a conference Tuesday evening, those complaints of editors being "overworked" will simply be alleviated this year by turning the "news" sites into "community hubs."

From a Columbia Journalism Review story:

"Five towns in Long Island have been testing a new platformthat shifts the site’s focus from publishing outlet—for both professional reporting and unpaid, HuffPost-style community bloggers—to more of a “community hub.”

There will be “as much and more quality original content,” Webster said, though “content” will mean not only reported stories or but also community conversations as encouraged by the new platform. Running a community hub, Webster said, is “definitely going to be a big part of what our editors do.” So Patch is going from a bad version of something the journalism world desperately needs to something no one needs-- more community message boards. Just kill it already and make Wall Street happy. What decade is this anyway?

Beyond these moves, my internal AOL sources have told me over the past few weeks that the message throughout the company has been that Armstrong needs to show Wall Street escalating revenue growth at whatever core media properties they have left-- no matter what it takes. Marketing costs are escalating to help push this at core properties, I'm told by multiple sources. Expect more of the same: Greater volume, more link-bait headlines, and more re-routing of the legacy Web 1.0 the AOL home page trades on. I'd guess that Huffington Post will be the most immune from the bad effects of this, given Arianna Huffington's continued role at the company.

While a quick fix to keep the stock price moving, the strategy erodes what was great about any of these properties AOL spent hundreds of millions of dollars on. You know: Quality content and a premium audience.

Last year, Armstrong did a good job of dealing with Wall Street. But as our own Kevin Kelleher explained in November, the stock rally isn't necessarily a sustainable one.

(Disclosure: I'm heavily biased when it comes to AOL's handling of media properties, seeing as how I quit my last job because of it.)