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Five Things AOL’s Patch Is Doing Right

Patch has gotten somewhat of a bad reputation in journalism circles — remember when USC journalism professor Robert Hernandez asked Tim Armstrong if Patch is “evil” at 2010′s Online News Association conference?  For those of you who have been living under a rock, Patch is AOL’s local news initiative that now has more than 500 sites in 20 different states.  Some newspapers feel threatened by a big tech company, some say it’s a waste of money, some say Patch is exploitive of its staff– but maybe it’s just too early to tell whether Patch is really going to make a big impact in hyperlocal news.

Despite the criticisms, I’ve lately noticed a few things that Patch is doing right to serve its communities. So whether you disagree with Patch or not, there’s a a thing or two you can learn from them about transparency and openness.

1. Complete Transparency of editors

If you’re unfamiliar with how Patch works, each community has a local editor. Each group of communities report to a regional editor. These editors aren’t just names on a masthead — they’re real people with faces and personalities. Each editor has a biography page on his or her respective Patch site that contains:

  • Email
  • Phone number
  • Hometown
  • Birthday
  • Biography
  • Beliefs
  • Political disclosures (including party registration)
  • Religious disclosures
  • Opinion on local hot-button issues

By openly listing all these facts, Patch’s editors abide by the mantra of transparency over objectivity. That is, they put all their potential biases out there in the open so that their readers know how to read any accidental biases into their stories. They also get to know the editors a little better and have access to a direct mode of contact.

2. Accountability through editor newsfeeds

Each and every action a particular editor or reporter takes on a Patch site is documented in a Facebook-newsfeed-style display. This editor newsfeed captures:

  • Comments the reporter/editor leaves on stories
  • Photos the reporter/editor adds to stories
  • Announcements and stories the reporter/editor adds
  • Status updates

An open newsfeed creates accountability for the news organization because every action on the site is accounted for and attributed to a person. An error in a story? Yeah, we know which editor updated it. The wrong photo attached? We know which reporter did that.

You can also learn about how editors are communicating with their communities by seeing the number of comments on their newsfeed. For example, in the newsfeed of Jenna Chandler, the local editor for the San Juan Capistrano Patch in the Los Angeles area of California, has comments like this in her newsfeed:

We’ve updated the story to clear up the inaccuracy Walton is referring to: the original version of the story stated the district was seeking a waiver to average 33 students per class in grades four to eight. The district is actually seeking a waiver to average *as many as* 33 students.

She also has tons of comments where she is answering questions from readers, all of which are aggregated in this one spot on her profile, so that readers can go to her profile to see any clarifications made to particular articles, rather than having to sift through each article one-by-one.

3. Send us a news tip

Suggesting tips for the editors is easy. There’s a huge button at the bottom of each page that says “Submit a tip.” It may seem simple, but venture over to some of the top news sites and tell me if you see something similar. (You won’t).

When you submit a tip, it’s not like your email will be sent off into the cybersphere’s abyss. The form clearly tells you who your tip will be emailed to, like this example:

Enter your tip here and it will be sent straight to Jenna Chandler, Copy Editor Joan Fantazia, and Laura Nott, San Juan Capistrano Patch’s (incredibly grateful) editors.

Again, you see that there’s personality and sincerity in the language used by editors on all aspects of the site.

4. Topic-specific email notifications

Let’s face it: email newsletters can get annoying. I subscribe to a few dozen, and have over the years found myself start to mark them as “spam” once I stop reading them. But if there’s a specific topic I want to follow, Patch lets me subscribe to follow-up articles. That way, you only get a few email notifications and only when a story of interest gets updated. Readers’ inboxes aren’t flooded with daily emails about topics they’re not particularly interested in, and they have an hassle-free way to stay informed about particular issues.

5. News Q&A

All Patch sites come equipped with a Q&A section where signed up, logged in readers can ask questions for both the community to answer and Patch reporters to answer. It gets back to idea of using Quora as a reporting tool, allowing the opportunity for readers to get their questions out in the open.

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