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AOL's Armstrong answers question, 'Is Patch evil?'

On stage at the Online News Association’s annual conference here in DC, AOL chief Tim Armstrong (left) was winding down the keynote session with NPR’s Vivian Schiller. That’s when USC’s Robert Hernandez (right) walked up the microphone and dropped the question that some in the audience wanted to ask, “Is Patch evil?”

When Armstrong asked him to elaborate, Hernandez brought up the allegations of long hours and low pay, as well as how corporate AOL is now competing with many grassroots hyperlocal sites in communities across the country.

Armstrong answered the first part of the question with a few stats: 75 percent of people who work at Patch are paid as much or more as their last job, and 25 percent of them are freelance. As for the long hours, Armstrong said, “This is a startup.” And here, in part, is Armstrong’s answer to second part of the question:

“I live in one of the most resourced communities in America, there are blogs in town, they don’t cover my needs as a consumer. If you think it’s evil, put on your consumer hat for a minute. You guys are press on press, press on AOL, press on Patch, everybody on everybody. You know, what’s the consumer need in the town, and are you meeting it? Instead of writing articles about each other….”

“We also have a lot of partnerships that the press doesn’t write about, where we’re doing content with blogs, or content with newspapers, where we’re joining content forces. Nobody covers that…. ”

“I’m going to say something that, strategy-wise, I don’t know where we’ll end up on it. It’s highly likely we will do more partnerships around Patch, also. I think there are cases where there are local blogs we’d probably love to partner with. But in essence, we’re trying to run something that fits a consumer need. So if you feel it’s evil, just make careful it’s not media on media. If you start with the consumer, I don’t run into too many consumers who in the Patch borroughs who think what we’re doing is evil.”

So a little bit of news here — Patch may forge more partnerships, even with local blogs. For independent news sites out there, what Armstrong says about the consumer is important to hear. It’s not about who’s local or who’s from out of town, it’s who’s better at serving consumers, both the audience and advertisers. Armstrong is saying by extension, the “I’m local” defense will have limited shelf-life.

By the way, Hernandez’s question is the moment of ONA so far. The moderator referred to him as “evil man,” drawing big laughs from the crowd. The question spread like wildfire across Twitter (he’s @webjournalist), even becoming a trending topic in the DC area. Some are even suggesting making T-shirts. “For the record, I’ve been on the fence about Patch, but knew it was on everyone’s mind,” he wrote on Twitter. “Someone had to ask.”

What do you think of Armstrong’s answer? Or what Vivian Schiller said about it, “Competition is not evil.” Post in comments below…

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