Outta this world: A convo with a Patch.com VP

Usually, journalists attempt to maintain what they call editorial independence – news that’s escapes the influence of advertisers and other economic pressures. Not Patch.com, apparently.

I am open to stretching the definition of journalism – and challenging the very notion of objectivity – but Patch.com’s new local Iowa City site has me confused. (See an earlier post on Patch.com)

My experience in trying to talk with Patch.com representatives, including the editor of the local Patch and the company’s VP of Communication.

Just some quick examples of Patch work that’s confusing to me on the local Patch site:

– There’s a realtor that writes about the local real estate market. Does this present a conflict of interest?

– A photographer shoots photos for Patch.com and her postings under the news section advertise her local photo business. Is this an ad or news, photojournalism or art?

– The “Places” feature of the site highlights local business (see image below). Is this an editorial decision or a business move? Are these ads or what?

Earlier this week, I sent an email to Stephen Schmidt, Editor of Iowa City Patch, with some questions about the news organization. Essentially, I wanted to know what part of Patch.com was “news” or “editorial” and what part was “opinion” or advertising. How do they tell the reader what’s what?

My email is here:

Hi Steve,

I am a Ph.D. Candidate in Journalism and Mass Communication at Iowa. I also run a blog about media, which you can read at robertgutschejr.com/blog.

I have some questions about the local Patch.com for a blog post I am working on, and I hope you would be able to send back and email with some thoughts.

1) I notice on Iowa City’s Patch site that some of the contributors are business owners. For example Julie Staub (www.juliestaubphoto.com) and Denise Hamlin.

Does Patch.com normally accept work from local business owners? I see in Denise’s bio that she is transparent about her business as a relator, but is there ever concern about the content of the work that these contributors submit if they are writing about their own sectors of local business?

2) Then there are contributors who are supporting local business openly, such as Paul Deaton who has published work that supports Tea Spoons, for instance. He was asked by Sandra Oshiro, which places people like the best. Is this common for contributors to endorse local business in a such a way?

3) The “Places” spot of the site lists photos and contact information for local businesses. Are these ads? Is there anything that distinguishes them from ads and editorial?

4) So as you can see, my questions revolve around the role of the contributors. Are they citizen journalists? Is the work on the city considered journalism? Even the cops and courts work?

How do you distinguish between journalism and something else?

Thank you for looking at these, and I look forward to your thoughts.

Schmidt didn’t respond.

Instead, the Patch.com’s Vice President of Communications, Janine Iamunno, called me.

Now, it’s common for journalists to seek permission from supervisors or their corporate authorities to speak to the press and other media outlets – even researchers and bloggers. But I don’t know how helpful it is to talk about journalism standards and practices with a public relations professional. We tried.

The phone conversation, at Iamunno’s request, was on “deep background,” so I can’t share the details of that talk – but I will say that the talk ended with me seeking “someone who I can talk to on the record.”

I then emailed Iamunno with the same questions I sent to Schmidt and got this note:

Again, there isn’t a way to answer the rest of the questions since they don’t make sense – I hope our discussion earlier cleared up that some of the premises below aren’t accurate. But I can get you a response to the last Q in the morning!

Ultimately, here is her email:

Patch is a news, information and community engagement platform; alongside our professional journalism, we have a Local Voices blogging platform which empowers users to share their opinions and observations about living in their town.

Places is our directory of local businesses in every Patch town.

(Aside – no idea what this means? “Is the work on the city considered journalism? Even the cops and courts work?”)

Admittedly, I don’t always make sense, but I thought the questions I asked were fairly clear.

I thought I was going crazy, so I asked some reporter friends if my questions made sense.

One said, “Weird. Those questions are pretty straightforward.” Another told me, “So… how do your questions not make sense?”

In the end, I didn’t get my answers to what is objective Patch journalism and what is not. And, I have no better idea about Patch’s policies on advertising and citizen journalism.

I just know this, that over 15 years of doing journalism, my editors would never have allowed me to post a private business I may have had in my news posts, and that I would not be allowed to write about a topic within which I had a vested interest. Indeed, when I was writing business stories, I told my editors that I could no longer write about the banking industry, because we had purchased stock in the same bank where my wife worked.

Today, when the journalistic community has expanded to include citizens, bloggers, opinion-havers, and even comedians like Jon Stewart, journalistic transparency is more important (or at least more likely to be achieved) than journalistic objectivity.

Maybe Patch.com lacks both. I don’t know.

Shouldn’t it be more clear about what is a paid advertisement or not? Lots of media outlets write about local business: Stories about our great hospitals, business buys, energy companies, and local doughnut shops.

It’s boosterism at its best — even if it’s not always paid for.

But mostly, we know what’s paid for and what’s not.

I’d think Patch.com would be the same. Especially if Patch.com wants to be a local voice on crime, courts, politics, and other news, which seems to follow an “objective” model for news reporting.

But, I’ve been wrong before.

From my interactions with Patch this week, I don’t even know if they know enough to be right or wrong about their choices, standards, and purpose.