AOL's Patch network hit 750 today - that's 750 individual Patch sites now running across the country. It's up from 500 in early December and up from 30 at the start of the year. I'm told the rapid roll out earned some top managers their holiday bonuses, and that some Patchers worried quality could suffer in the furious effort to meet the goal.
At least AOL realized that the mini-plagiarism outbreak needed a response. A reliable source tells me Patch editors will get mandatory plagiarism-prevention training.
And since I've gotten into a one-way argument with the LA Weekly over all this, here's another thought:
While the Weekly likes to describe Patch as the WalMart of news, I think it risks becoming like a fast-food chain - each franchise operated locally but serving a narrow menu of nearly identical content and dictated to by national headquarters. Think of AOL as the McDonald's Corp. of information and each Patch site as a local joint. Different kids in the play yard, but every Happy Meal the same.
Now, AOL's stated goal is to let individual editors cater to their local communities using only a common platform. Editors are expected to tailor content to local readers, not follow a single AOL formula; and if AOL can resist top-down meddling, and encourage bottom-up innovation, then the network might avoid the fast-food stamp.
But AOL will inevitably count hits and ad dollars and wonder why some site are doing better than others. Being the conglomerate that it is, AOL will think conformity is the best prescription for uneven performance. When controversy strikes - lawsuits, boycotts, plagiarism, etc. - AOL will be tempted to craft one-size-fits-all edicts that will, over time, narrow the menu to the things that work best - i.e., draw the most traffic at the lowest cost.
Of course, news stories aren't Happy Meals and different cities will always have different issues to cover. The best editors at the best Patch sites will resist the mothership. But I haven't seen a newspaper chain yet that hasn't consolidated and embraced sameness as a way to cuts costs in tough times. If Patch can buck the trend, that would be something special.