Friday, January 28, 2011

The New Yorker Magazine Article On Aol & Patch

We're going to take a step back from our local situation today and look at things from a more national perspective. A valued reader and friend dropped a New Yorker magazine article ("Can Tim Armstrong Save Aol?") off at the Maundry compound recently, and it sheds significant light on things we have been discussing for the last few days. Apparently what we have seen from the Sierra Madre Patch this week is hardly a local problem alone.

However, before we get there, here's something from this New Yorker article that you might want to act on. Particularly if someone you know is using Aol's on-line subscription service.

The company (Aol) still gets eighty percent of its profits from subscribers, many of whom are older people who have cable or DSL service but don't realize that they need not pay an additional twenty-five dollars a month to get online and check their e-mail. "The dirty little secret," a former Aol executive says, "is that seventy-five percent of the people who subscribe to Aol's dial-up service don't need it."

Aol, the former colossus once known as America On-Line, was at one time the most commercially prominent way for people to get on the Internet. The figure given by the New Yorker is that at its peak Aol was doing business with 35 million people. Most of them wised up, however, and moved on to far better Internet services. But out of that figure 4 million subscribers still remain. And despite the fact the Aol provides unneeded services in exchange, those remaining subscribers, mostly older people unaware that they can do much better and for little or no money, still send in a separate check every month. They really don't need to do that anymore.

Patch is one of the ways Aol hopes to be able to regain some of its former glory. Its dominance as an Internet service provider long past, and with that its partnership with Time Warner. Aol badly needs to reinvent itself and Patch is their hope for the future. Tim Armstrong, the CEO of Aol, explained it to the New Yorker this way:

Local is the one area of the Internet that has not been built out in an extensive way. We believe it's an untapped market, for the most part, and one of the largest commercial opportunities online that has yet to be won.

And thus Patch was born. There are now 700 cities all across America that have their very own outpost of Tim Armstrong's dream. He truly believes that Patch is going to save Aol. Which is why he has invested $50 million dollars in the effort, with more expenditures certain to follow.

Aol's local effort is called Patch, a compendium of online newspapers that target small, affluent communities and are supported by advertising. Each paper offers a calendar of after-school activities and planning-board meetings, links to stories about breaking news, and a scrolling Twitter feed that includes information on traffic accidents, police logs, and ongoing craft sales.

All of which you can see on our local version of Aol's on-line messiah. Each Patch sports a generic cookie cutter layout that is dictated precisely from Aol's headquarters in New York City. And each Patch editor is required to adhere to a carefully market researched product and content design that you as the consumer is supposed to find infinitely appealing. Comfortable colors and cozy content being the mien.

Each Patch site is run by a journalist, who earns between forty and fifty thousand a year. There are no offices; reporters live in the area they cover. Because there are no newsprint or shipping costs, Aol publishes news, Armstrong says, at approximately four per cent of what it costs a traditional local newspaper to do so. Still, the sites are not making money yet. "We will be the largest publisher of local news in the U.S. this year," Armstrong predicts.

I suppose Aol could become a significant purveyor of local news on a national platform comprised of hundreds of Patches. Anything can happen in this world, and certainly Aol has the cash to do it. At least for a while as their parachute out of Time Warner was a golden one. But, as the New Yorker article points out, there are problems.

They might not, however, be the best. The sites aspire to break news, and occasionally they do. The Darien Patch, for example, reported that a First Selectman candidate had a criminal record. But often the sites are like digital Yellow Pages, promotional bulletin boards accompanied by news about all the fun things going on nearby. Quality varies widely, and one senses a tension between journalism, which often conveys uncomfortable news, and boosterism. Which makes everyone feel good about the home town.

"Uncomfortable news," which is a nice euphemism for government and politics, is a thing that many claim to find unpleasant, but based on our traffic success with The Tattler can't wait to read. Boosterism, on the other hand, which most will tell you is their favorite because it is so happy and pleasant, draws ratings flies. I mean, just how many stories about cute tea shacks can one person take?

The New Yorker article puts the finishing touches on its reasoned demolition of Patch with a description of the Aol news culture at large. Apparently Patch's problems stem from some unhappy issues endemic to the corporate parent as a whole.

Quality is a problem for the entire Aol media empire. The company has hired many talented journalists, and some of the niche Web sites, like Engadget, publish content that particular readers love. Much of what Aol publishes, however, is piffle. On a typical day in January, its home page included a substantive story about the recovery of Representative Gabrielle Giffords after she was wounded in an assassination attempt in Tucson. But there were many more pieces with headlines like, "Katie And Tom May Boycott Oscars," "Curled Lashes With No Mascara At All," and "Videos: Hilarious Pets."

Which I guess goes to show that when it comes to what they publish, Aol and its entities such as Patch have an unfortunate addiction to cloying content over actual news. Which to me shows a certain level of disregard for the intellect and discretion of those they hope will want to read their stuff on a regular basis.

And with articles such as "Humane Society Wants Your Kitty Pictures for 2011 Spay Day Contest," "A Short Ranch House On Sierra Madre's Lotus Lane," "A Convenient Condo Near the Village" and "All Cats Have Nine Lives, But Only Albert Has 24 Toes," it is easy to see that the Sierra Madre Patch apple has not fallen very far from the Aol corporate tree.

Happy Friday!

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

64 comments:

  1. I can't believe that the Patchsters haven't corrected the Chapman article yet. Is there some sort of rule in the AOL handbook on how to deal with local blogs?

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  2. Seems to me they've moved it way way way back on the site. Out of harms way. Like they're not too sure what they should be doing.

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  3. As Richard Nixon said, "It's not the crime,
    it's the cover up that gets you."

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  4. A Rose by Any Other NameJanuary 28, 2011 at 7:41 AM

    Piffle--exactly--until they try to deal with anything that matters--then they are dangerous--if they have any readers. Interesting times, information-wise.

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  5. Damn, there it is again - we're small and affluent?
    Argh!!!

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  6. How about the fact that AOL will hire, so has not yet hired, an overseer of quality control, an ethics officer? Maybe if that job had been filled first, the West Hollywood Patch wouldn't have plagiarized, and the Sierra Madre Patch wouldn't have published an allegedly false report.

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  7. Urban-Cowboy-PlannerJanuary 28, 2011 at 8:22 AM

    We're not affluent, we're blighted. There's an old white church on Highland, a purple structure on Montecito, one vacant lot, and the smallest park in the western hemisphere. Please send in the Feds.

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  8. Let's see... $50,000,000 divided by $700 = $71,429 rounded per location. Add $40,000 for the editor's salary, plus another $10,000 for a year's worth of contributors...click...click...whizz...whizz...that comes to a $131,428 cost per site. And that doesn't include all the supporting backroom stuff in New York.

    Going to take a lot of Bottle Shop ads to make it work here.

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  9. John & Kurt...

    thank you for your sincere help and support...a army can only win a victory by intelligence, planning and having multiply soldiers, in this case it's "residents".

    Rome was not defeated in a day and neither was its leadership replaced in a day either (city management)

    we the residents "all" need to take action to conserve what we call home!

    this city needs to conserve its money which it has left, not go into $50 Million Dollars more debt (water dept & street repairs..)as the city manager budget states (2010/2011)and addition more debt as Mosca states as "round two"

    Earl Richey
    eerichey@earthlink.net

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  10. The Patch authors have to write with the goal of being picked up on search engines. It's called SEO, Search engine optimization, and it's the corporate policy for authors.

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  11. I cannot wrap my mind around how dumb you have to be to think you can get away with plagiarism in this day and age.

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  12. Good point 8:38. But 700 Patch sites competing for the SEO page views on articles about muffins? This is beyond saturation, it's a digital swamp.

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  13. Is there a branch in New York that monitors the search engine numbers? What are the tasks involved in killing the spirit of journalism.

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  14. 8:38 is correct.

    I noted when doing Google searches on the Arcadia Woodlands issue, among other local happenings, I had to wade past all the Google top-ranked Patch sites which were an "echo chamber" to get to the real newspapers and blogsites (including the blogging day) that had actual reporting and outreach information. That issue didn't even come up linked to Tattler even though Caroline Brown was posting on Tattler before all the news broke in the papers and on television.

    So this Patch thing is obliterating real news with content generated from other sources (unattributed and not linked)and gets to the top of the search engines because it mirrors the stuff on all the local Patch sites. This is obviously how AOL, a media company, set up its strategy to pull in eyeballs with minimum effort/cost and no standards of reporting. It's just using cheap content to manufacture an ad platform that will build up with local online comments, more of a Yelp format, very Yellow Pages.

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  15. Not just muffins 8:45 - muffins in your town USA. Hyper-local muffins.

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  16. There is a Tattler article a few weeks back that broke down those numbers for us.

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  17. So why aren't these sites getting any advertising, 8:59? Have merchants figured out that the local traffic is weak? Is AOL going after national advertising?

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  18. Looking up the spelling of the phrase below,
    "Caveat emptor" (Let the buyer beware) so let the reader beware,
    and found an equally applicable phrase listed below it:
    "Merda taurorum animas conturbit" (Bull**** baffles brains)

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  19. Patch as in patchy, inconsistent and incomplete, patchy work, patchy reporting, patchy skills, and patchy standards.

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  20. I still do my homeworkJanuary 28, 2011 at 9:16 AM

    AOL is building the platform first, then the generated content will allow the online platform to attract Facebook-style advertisers (from comments on the "articles" and business listings) because of the local participation in building the content (trust in "local recommendations"). Right now many of their dialup customers don't even realize they don't need the service to get internet access, but that will change, and AOL needs a new market.

    http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2376167,00.asp

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  21. We used to have AOL back in the late 90's.
    They had our credit card compromised, which I caught right away, had to have our card changed.
    We were getting bogus charges from two of their "advertisers". Phony companies based in Florida.
    AOL was very rude and basically ignored our complaint. It was very difficult to cancel our subscription service with AOL, but of course we did. The only good stock trade Old Kentucky made in 1999 was dumping my AOL stock for over 50 dollars a share....we won't mention what happened to Old Kentucky's other holdings, except to say they were all fiber optics on the NASDAQ..........SIGH
    AOL SUCKS! I have a couple of good friends who still use it, I hope they are reading this today!
    PATCH SUCKS Don't go there!

    Earl R. Hope to see you at the big fund-raiser tomorrow!

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  22. If you'll look to the left of right of your screen., you can observe the search engine optimization in real time as you note the Patch articles about library doings, a bit of local literary history, and a blurb, very city hall flavored, about the police fund raising. SEO success

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  23. Alanis, I'm looking left and see virgin territory... do you mean open up Patch and look left? What am I missing here?

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  24. More homework, arrgh!!!!!January 28, 2011 at 10:00 AM

    The Sierra Madre Headlines on this blog powered by Google are almost all listed as from Patch.

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  25. You're surprised by this, Homework? The Tattler is a small blog located in a town of around 11,000 people. AOL is still an internet giant. Managed expectations, please!

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  26. Patchy also uses Facebook and Twitter, 2 social media providers that are notorious for information gathering for selling to corporations later. The Tattler does not of that. Here your identity and information are safe.

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  27. The Patch response to the HJTA fiasco was laid out yesterday in an article by Justin Chapman, link above.

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  28. 9:55 I was referring to the rotating Sierra Madre headlines that Sir Eric has set up for our edification, located on the right hand side of the column, at least on my computer. I am assuming that this is a service gratis from google blogger, and judging from the variety and type of headlines, it's some kind of automatic search result for Sierra+Madre. Sometimes there are reports from Sierra Madre, Mexico and other points south, but since Patch has been around, there are a bunch of links to it.
    The google of it all.

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  29. Would someone post the gist of Chapman's response? Really don't want to wade through it or give that site another page view.

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  30. AOL can only sustain this crazy level of spending on Patch for so long. Unless Johnny Walker and Captain Morgan ads start showing up on 700 Patch's soon, I can't see this situation lasting much longer.

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  31. 10:33 is not being on the level. Happy Chappy's article was not a response, it was the 2nd in a series. Big difference.

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  32. Heh. Thanks 10:43. Somebody should be working on his own blog,

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  33. read blogs but not that oneJanuary 28, 2011 at 10:54 AM

    10:43, thanks for clearing that up - and what does the aspiring writer, actor, poet, drug reform activist have to contribute?

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  34. He's just another hack writer working for the development crowd. The only question is whether he knows it or not.

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  35. It is possible to pay a fee to get the addresses of folks who come onto a web site.

    In other words, never assume that your address is private.

    I have it on good authority that the Tattler does not use that service, but does anyone doubt that Aolpatch does?

    It is a last gasp effort by a failing tech company to generate revenue based on advertising desirability.

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  36. All the big internet media companies do it, 11:12. "Capturing" and selling information is big business. Go to Google News and type in Facebook and "data." Big story this week about how they capture and sell information. Tell somebody on Facebook what you saw on TV last night and that goes to a Facebook client involved in marketing entertainment. People who think social media networks are these benign places where you get to tell everybody what and who they like are living in a dreamland. They want to know as much about you as possible because there are people willing to pay a lot of money for information like that.

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  37. Dear Editor, I see there is a story on the POA by Justin Chapman, I see they are taking full credit for that story when I was the one that sent that documentation to you and we broke the expose in our comments first. At the time, I assumed you gave it to Stephens for better exposure and I would have quibbled but better Dieter be mad at them, than us. For the record the police association only gets 35 percent of what is raised. So if you gave it to Stephens how did Chapman get to write it? If you did not give it to Stephens then they stoled it from the Tattler but I remember the "you took it to a whole new level" remark you made to Stephens how did that little scumsucker Chapman get to put his name on it? See this is just like the HJTA situation, somebody told the little plagerizer to write it. Patch is a parasite, a tapeworm that hooks on to other stories and claims they are their own. You are probably more patient and forebearing than I am, but as for me Stephens and Chapman are pond scum and theives, not journalists. Let me add dangerous and stupid, if I were Patrick Lee, I would not be so proud of that Lucas Starwars picture, because I worked on a case that involved blackmail, extortion, a Rizzo and Lucas. Lucas was the victim, but the same group have never let him go.

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  38. Very revealing developments in Egypt regarding internet access and address ID's. In short, the government sure knew what to shut down and where.
    The following is from some kind of monitoring site called BGPmon:
    "BGPmon can monitor your prefixes and alert you in case of a 'interesting' path change. Recently this has received quite some attention. Specifically after the Youtube hijack and the demo given at defcon. Path changes can be of different kinds, such as more specifics, change of aspath, change of origin AS, Transit AS or any combination of this. BGPmon classifies these changes in types."

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  39. It's like they say, if you want to make enemies in Sierra Madre, tell the truth.

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  40. slow growth activistJanuary 28, 2011 at 11:44 AM

    Amen 11:43.

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  41. Good job Bad Company. Excellent point. That's what happens when the ethics of a new technology are so separate from, and so far behind the inception of, the technology.

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  42. Patch editors are expected to produce a lot of content, and on a daily basis. They want readers to stop by the site several times a day and find new articles to read. The temptation to cut corners in order to meet the heavy work load expectations must be strong.

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  43. i attended a web seminar for people competing with Patch. AOL has identified local businesses as a source of revenue, and their main goal is to get local biz to buy ads and "upsell" them (i.e. are you ready to see a video about the Bottle Shop?). All the money gets hoovered from local small businesses and sent away to AOL corporate in New York City - at least, that's the plan. The New Yorker story was OK as far as it goes, but AOL is losing money on Patch because it's EXPECTED to at this stage. Losing money is not their long-term goal.

    So the question is: would you rather see your local business money kept in the community or sent to New York City? And is your unique community served by a news website that looks exactly like 999 others out there? The local Patch editor has very little power over those things.

    And while the SIerra Madre site is just silly, we actually have a fairly decent Patch site and editor here in Altadena, it pains me to say -- even if Justin Chapman is all over the place here, too.

    If you want to read more about Patch vs. local sites, I have a complete collection in my "about " page: http://www.altadenablog.com/about-altadenablog.html

    But you go, Tattler!

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  44. Hi Mr. Rutt, you seem like a nice person and your blog is interesting. But I do not believe it is about money or advertising on this blog, I am only a not so humble commenter, and cannot speak for others especially our great John Crawford. I think it is about doing good for its own sake. Not for profit, and as to your questions about advertising dollars and were we we like to seem them go, I personally would not buy anything advertised in a blog for profit. It is a rare and great thing in this sell everything even your soul for money world, to be able to observe our John Crawford's great mind and literary talent. A tall drink of water in a desert of parched humans for unbuyable truth. But thank you for the support.

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  45. I love the praise, but Tim Rutt and I run very different kinds of blogs. And he's a pro, whereas I did this on the side as a community service. Tim Rutt is a smart and accomplished independent blogger, and he has had a lot of success in avery difficult field. He also knows an awful lot. I have a lot of respect for the guy.

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  46. Made up my mind counted to three Sierra Madre Tattler is the only Blog for me.

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  47. Lumpy shuns prose
    because s/he knows
    poetry glows

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  48. Sage of Altadena, thanks for that post.
    I couldn't agree more. 'Local' is just that, while 'hyperlocal' is a manufactured product.
    The situation here is that like many activists in Sierra Madre, Mr. Crawford spends lots of his time writing, as a way of volunteering for the common good.
    There is no way to "monetize" this use of his time and energy - and there should be, but once that happens? It's not cool, t borrow Zuckerberg's words. Zuckerberg certainly made his adjustment, huh?
    I keep hoping that one day Crawford or someone else will collect these masterful articles, and use them as a guide to the story of a fierce political struggle in one small town, between those who want give it a makeover and sell it, and those who love it.

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  49. the center will not holdJanuary 28, 2011 at 3:04 PM

    I also read the New Yorker article, You've Got News, and got a strong hit on the impending failure of that organization. Very hard to reverse that vibe once it's out there. Morale in the troops and all. Not much loyalty or desire to excel, or even more important, be true to guiding principles.

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  50. Revolutionary breakthroughs come through inspiration.

    The Aol CEO is declaring patch will be the "next thing"

    It doesn't work like that.

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  51. Tim Armstrong is the Hail Mary kind of CEO.

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  52. If this country should decline so badly that
    people get their information from patch, then
    we just might as well sell the place to the
    Chinese.

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  53. Anderson got handed a big pile of money and
    he's spending it. Once the cash is gone he'll
    give himslef a huge bonus and ride off into
    the sunset.

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  54. From what I understand 3:22, he's already got enough moolah to last for a few generations. More than even profligate descendents could go through.

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  55. 2:39, don't you know that everybody loves Sierra Madre - they just have different ways of showing it.
    Like ravaging the hillsides for McMansions is showing love for the $40,000 infrastructure fees. What are open space, trees and wildlife worth anyway? Or trying to implement the comprehensive Downtown Specific Plan to turn us into a spiffy new town, stuffed to the gills.
    To a person, our elected representatives will say publicly that they want to "preserve our village." Privately other perspectives are shared.

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  56. Tattler, just followed your link to Friends for Fullerton's Future.
    Great site. Nice to have company.

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  57. Patch is a rich man's toy.

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  58. Absolutely couldn't agree more -- the Tattler and Altadenablog have different missions in our respective communities-- but a common love for local news and a common enemy in carpetbaggers who tell us they're local.

    Just be aware of why Patch is really here, and that's to ship big bags of money from Sierra Madre to New York City. And they'll want lots -- the local editors make about $40-$50K, but ad managers will make about $100K when they're ready to start selling ads. And that's BEFORE they start feeding the corporation, which WILL demand to be fed. Patch is expecting substantial return on investment in Sierra Madre, and it's all coming from your pocket, Sierra Madreans!

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  59. Mr. Pithy StatementsJanuary 28, 2011 at 4:52 PM

    Patch is the DSP of infotainment sites.

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  60. Thanks for the heads up Sage.
    Honestly though, I think the patchy days are numbered. The whole thing will go belly up, and then we'll see who comes out writing after it's gone.

    Besides the Sierra Madre Patch has yet to run ads - other than the built-into-the-story kind. We have a different sort of ad dollar succubus in our town. Takes out tax dollars to.

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  61. Patch is the imperialist maneuver on the internet, dividing up the landscape to distribute the spoils.

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  62. There are so many of us who care about our communities, and find the war with the development industry a terrible fact of modern American life. Because of writers like the Sage and Sir Eric, we have a chance.

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  63. Crawford, altadenablog.com looks excellent.
    Gotta love the description "Your independent, advertiser-supported, locally-owned community news source!"
    Mr. Rutt is a good example of how to make the business consonant with your integrity.
    Something to think about for the future.

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  64. And Patch content gets weaker still. Paid Journalists? Who needs 'em when you can get "Local Voices" to contribute unpaid blogger posts like "How to Frost Cupcakes" --- intriguing, ay?

    For the real dirty little secrets AOL and Patch don't want anyone to think about when they read all that local feel good piffle -- check out: http://patch.framingham.com

    Stock analysts are taking note -- unfortunately for investors in the Patch concept -- they have lost 1/3 of their investment in the past 6 months as AOL stock price continue their downward plunge. The only good news is that the money is going somewhere else.

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