I liked writing for Somerville Patch. I really did. My various editors supported my ideas, allowed me a relatively relaxed work schedule, and helped me fine-tune the high school sports reporting I anticipate doing for the next few years of my career.
They also paid me, even as a student intern.
So when my editor told me AOL Patch was killing its freelance contracts at the end of 2011, I was sad. The steadiest outlet for my work had suddenly dried up. I feared my skills would grow dull without an editor and the scrutiny of a well-read site.
At the time, I understood that just like every other online news source, Patch didn’t make enough money to justify its paying structure. Changes had to happen, and cutting freelance contracts was a way to minimize overhead.
As much as I hated getting downsized, I accepted that it was a budgetary decision. I didn’t believe it represented a philosophical shift by the company.
I was wrong.
Not only did Patch end its freelance contracts, it also has seemingly ended any interest in high-quality content.
No more timely, relevant reporting or well-written, clever copy. Instead it’s “Pizza playoffs,” “Best of” lists, and “easy, quick-hitting, cookie-cutter copy.” I can hear my journalism professors screaming all the way from Commonwealth Avenue.
My editor had told me this would happen and, so I of course knew it was coming. But I had no idea how bad Patch would become.
A few weeks ago an ex-teammate emailed me asking if I wanted to profile the American Ultimate Disc League. It’s the first-ever professional (or at least semi-professional) Ultimate league.
As both an avid Ultimate player and a budding sports journalist, I immediately expressed interest in covering the league and their nearest affiliate, the Rhode Island Rampage. I knew both the Boston Globe and DigBoston – the two papers I currently write for – would pass on the story because of distance, so I started pitching elsewhere. My first choice was East Providence Patch, because that’s where the Rampage play, and I had still had a loose connection to the company.
I did a Google search for both the team and the league, and so far no one else has published anything. I believe whoever accepts my intended feature would be among the first, and I’m certain the AUDL would work its ass off to publicize our story. Ultimate players are very supportive of each other and the sport’s growth – my feature could really generate a lot of traffic for whoever publishes it.
Now, I put all of that stuff in my pitch. East Providence Patch responded that while it was a “neat story,” all they could afford was someone posting a quick bit about the first game and schedule. A few quick, unpaid-for words to replace a potential opportunity for real journalism.
People may not want to pay for news online, but I still ardently believe that they want real news. They don’t want to know which pizza place is best; they want to know about the meth lab in their town (third most popular story on Somerville Patch in 2011, by the way). At the very least, they want a mix between the two.
I hope someone else picks up my feature, because I promise it will be a good one. It will require time, care, and honest-to-god reporting and interviewing, but the product will be worth it.
I’m concerned Patch’s willingness to sacrifice that for watered-down content will hurt the company. Their content policies suggest a belief that Americans won’t read (and pay for) high-quality work. I want Americans to rise up and reject that notion, and unfortunately that may push Patch out of the industry.
But I have to wonder: if Patch can’t or won’t pay for a real story when one is presented to them, should they even be in the industry in the first place?