David Carr’s Misguided Takedown of AOL CEO Tim Armstrong

January 6, 2014

I’ve been bothered by a column two weeks ago by New York Times media critic David Carr about the closing of Patch by AOL CEO Tim Armstrong. Carr’s columns are usually quite straightforward and insightful, but this one seemed a bit off. It was almost as if there was a sense of triumph in Armstrong admitting defeat with Patch, an initiative that he had stuck with and defended despite heavy criticism in some corners.

I’m not really sure why Carr seemed to relish the failure of anyone who valiantly tried to make a journalism venture succeed, particularly an accomplished technology executive. Carr never delved into the reasons for Patch’s failure, which seems rather germane, or whether a different ownership structure might have led to a different outcome for Patch. Such story elements normally would have had a place in a Carr column.

While I respect Armstrong for having a vision and the tenacity to try to make it work, I admit I wasn’t enamored with the execution of it. Its content was inconsistent, often quite lame, and increasingly not even local. The writers and editors running Patch sites typically have limited training and are stretched way too thin to provide any meaningful coverage.  As a result, few sites have attracted a strong and loyal following.  Increasingly, Patch sites were running stories that were no longer even “kinda local” to their communities, much less hyperlocal. My colleague Jackie said she increasingly found news on her local Patch site that was not specific to her hometown or county (“I don’t want to read about ‘Unusual Calendars to Get You Through 2014’; I want to know why there were three police cars crawling down my road last night with their spotlights on, clearly looking for someone or something.”)

AOL was trying to sell its hodgepodge of community websites to national advertisers, who quite rightly didn’t see much value in the enterprise.  At the end of the day, Patch wasn’t really offering residents anything they weren’t already getting from their local weekly community newspaper’s website. For advertisers, this lack of traction made the Patch sites about as appealing and effective as the legions of content farm websites that are set up solely to attract eyeballs and clicks.

My guess is that Patch could work if managed by a company that understands and appreciates the value of meaningful content and would be willing to pay talented and experienced journalists to create it.  And instead of focusing solely on national advertising, Patch sites with strong local followings could offer a highly attractive platform for local businesses, who could run special promotions on terms considerably more favorable than those offered by Groupon and other coupon sites.

Regardless, I give Armstrong considerable credit for having the courage and conviction to stick to his vision, despite a loud chorus of media and Wall Street naysayers.  I can’t help but note that Carr has also voiced skepticism to Bloomberg reporter Felix Gillette about the viability of Capital New York, a community focused website that was recently acquired by the owners of Politico, a website and print publication that focuses heavily on Washington politics.

Given that Carr himself works at a publication whose financial viability is also in question, and that the Washington Post was recently rescued by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, he would be wise to heed the insight of Jim VandeHei, Politico’s chief executive:

“God bless anybody who is putting money and time into trying to figure out a way to fund journalists. I don’t know what Jeff Bezos is going to do at the Washington Post, but I love the fact that a guy with big ideas and with a lot of money is going to experiment. Everybody is testing out a bunch of different theories right now. As journalists, you’ve got to adapt or you’re going to get crushed.”