AOL's Patch Sites Push Unpaid Community Bloggers

In what it's calling a "full-on course correction," AOL's Patch network of hyper-local news sites plans to flesh out a forthcoming blog platform with 8,000 non-paid contributors.

In a memo issued this week, Patch Editor In Chief Brian Farnham said he wants all 800 Patch sites to sign up 10 community contributors, referring to the effort as a "full-on course correction heading Patch in the direction we want to go."

The move marks Patch's first major shift since AOL acquired the Huffington Post last month for $350 million.

The effort, however, comes at an awkward time for AOL. New star employee Arianna Huffington is dealing with a class-action lawsuit accusing her of "unjust enrichment" -- profiting from the labor of others. The blogger behind the lawsuit -- Jonathan Tasini, a union leader -- settled a similar case with The New York Times for $18 million back in 2001.

As president and editor in chief of the newly formed Huffington Post Media Group within AOL, Arianna Huffington has reportedly folded -- or is in the process of folding -- 30 content brands into other in-house properties.

According to Janine Iamunno, senior communications director at Patch, the AOL unit is still dedicated to paying journalists to produce only the highest caliber of content.

"We are 100% committed to professional journalism and continue to hire professional journalists for our communities," Iamunno said. "We are not replacing our journalists with bloggers."

"We believe Patch is a platform that should have many local voices," Iamunno added. "Blogging is a platform for those community perspectives that would otherwise not have a forum. This will open the door for everyone to contribute, alongside our professionally produced news."

Still, in his memo to staff this week, Farnham referred to the move as "short-term pain," to which he added: "The long-term gain is the kind of site we always envisioned -- and planned on -- becoming ... Ten times 800 sites is 8,000 bloggers. Wouldn't it be amazing to have that many local voices sounding off right out of the gate?"

The site merger also triggered concern about layoffs. AOL head Tim Armstrong assured last month: "There will be job changes ... There's no way around it, but we'll do it thoughtfully." AOL has said that it plans to get $20 million in savings out of the Huffington Post deal, so layoffs were inevitable.

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