It’s not the type of sentence usually seen in news space:
“She comes armed with ridiculously effective advertising deals that should fit most any budget,” a senior regional editor reports at the start of prominently displayed articles this week on 12 Patch sites across Southeast Michigan.
Each is a “we’d like to introduce” presentation about the AOL-owned network’s ad managers, who talk about their backgrounds, personal interests and benefits of buying space on Patch:
- “I firmly believe that advertising online is where you need to be!” Lisa Mazzola says Wednesday at Brighton Patch in one of three exclamation point statements.
- “I want you to thank me for helping your business grow,” Catherine Grace says at Bloomfield Patch and three nearby sites.
- “It’s important to support local businesses, so that’s why I’m excited to be working for Patch,” Julie Klotz informs readers in Clawson, Troy, Rochester, Rochester Hills, Oakland Township, Lake Orion, Utica and Shelby.
Northville Patch’s editor taped a video interview last week with ad manager Susanne Spruit, who tells viewers: “A great variety of businesses have really found great success here at Northville Patch.”
Financial realities in the news business have brought a looser separation between editorial and commercial content in recent years. Ads run across the bottom of Page 1, on section fronts or in pagetop corners. They pop up on news sites as mid-article links or bouncing, blaring intrusions. Some papers wrap full-page ads around print editions.
And publications traditionally write about themselves to announce awards, contests, good deeds, executive appointments and design, content or delivery
changes improvements. That comes with owning presses or domain names.
But showcased sales manager profiles — which include similar Patch presentations in Milwaukee (Sept. 3), Brecksville, OH (Aug. 14), Kensington, MD (Sept. 6), Peters, PA (Aug. 30) and elsewhere – are the latest sign of eroding journalistic standards at the three-year-old “hyperlocal” news network.
Patch has grown since 2009 to more than 850 daily news sites in 23 states, including 29 in six counties around Metro Detroit. I was a paid contributor from November 2010 through June 2012.
Though each site has a full-time editor, including veterans of metro dailies, these decisions position it closer to free “shoppers” or “pennysavers” than a consistently objective news source:
- Metro Detroit’s ad sales articles generally received prominent play, initially as one of four featured items atop the landing page. In West Bloomfield, Cathy Grace was introduced Tuesday alongside three reports on a police officer’s slaying. Nearly all of the Q&A-style reports remained on the landing page in a secondary news spot the next day.
- Each carries the byline of Don Wyatt, a senior regional editor for the Midwest who closes his ad rep introductions with a pitch: “Get in touch. She’ll come out to see you.”
He relayed questions Wednesday morning to communications specialist Troy Gunther at Patch headquarters in New York. Any response will be added to this post.
In another move that appears self-serving, Patch two weeks ago announced “free mentoring to small business owners” in partnership with chapters of a nonprofit named SCORE.
Under the arrangement, “Patch staff members are also available to speak about social media and online marketing issues at SCORE events and workshops,” says a California regional editor’s posting that appeared as an article or “Editor’s Notebook” column nationwide.
While the service sounds benign and can benefit merchants, ethics issues exist:
- Patch provides and promotes a service related directly to Patch advertising. Participation generates sales leads and other information about prospective customers.
- Patch isn’t a neutral source for online marketing guidance, just as shopping tips from Kroger or vehicle-picking pointers from GM can’t be objective. “Because there are so many media choices available today, it is often difficult to know which media plan is the right choice,” ad manager Catherine Grace tells Wyatt. Hmm, I wonder what choice she recommends.
- Sales-related information is presented as an article or editor’s column. There’s legitimate reader value, but each posting ends with a call to action from the writer and links to a Patch Partners site with a 14-page digital media sales kit. At the end of this Aug. 27 article, an associate regional editor invites emails to him “if you’d like Patch to teach your business or organization about online marketing.”
Again, there’s no denying that desperate times call for desperate maneuvers. It’d be naïve to apply all old ethical strictures amid survival struggles in a new media era.
In an article headlined For AOL, a Costly Gamble On Local News Draws Trouble, the Wall Street Journal spotlights Patch’s financial bind:
As the ad-supported network has expanded to more than 850 towns from 30 in the past two years, its annual loss has widened sharply to more than $100 million in 2011, analysts say.
The main problem: It is tough to sell enough online ads to cover the cost of producing local news.
. . . AOL says the business is on track to bring in between $40 million and $50 million in revenue this year. That translates to an average of $50,000 for each of its 850 local sites. But the average Patch site costs between $150,000 and $200,000 a year to operate, [founder and CEO Tim] Armstrong told investors last year, or a total of $160 million.
As Patch tiptoes across a tricky tightrope between telling and selling, I’m surely not the only reader who sees credibility slipping.
Is it realistic to crack the news | ads wall at least a bit?
Does Patch go too far or am I unfairly rigid?
Note: All three advertising manager photos appeared with their Patch profiles.