My problem with Patch: An open letter to Arianna Huffington and Tim Armstrong

Mark Judge Journalist and filmmaker
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Dear Arianna and Tim:

You need to pay me more.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to be making money as a photographer for Patch.com, the series of AOL websites created in 2007 by AOL chairman Tim Armstrong and dedicated to local news. They are now under the tutelage of Arianna Huffington, whose powerhouse Huffington Post was recently bought by AOL. This is all exciting news for journalists. The newspaper industry is collapsing, and Huffington and Armstrong have fresh energy and excitement on their side. This is good, as the old guard is useless. We all know that Dana Milbank is really not necessary, and that Eugene Robinson does not have the ability to think original thoughts, write about diverse topics, and surprise. As David Carr once put it, the big rock is rolling down the hill. There’s nothing wrong with the slow-moving things getting crushed.

Still, I think that there is an equally valid fact that may have missed your attention: good journalism costs money. Tucker Carlson knew this when he started The Daily Caller and paid — even if it wasn’t much — journalists to find stories. They did just that, breaking stories about Michael Steele and the Republican stripper scandal and, just recently, a violent rapper who was invited to the White House. Money bought good stories, which then drove traffic to the site. They had — have — salaries.

Note: I’m not talking about bloggers; I agree with you that most of them aren’t worth much. I would be surprised if Andrew Sullivan spent more than two hours a day posting. And many of the professional pundits are worth even less. (Indeed, the question is how people like Dana Milbank and Richard Cohen have careers for doing a couple hours worth of work a week reciting liberal boilerplate. Then again, if the awful recent financial numbers about The Washington Post are to be believed, people have caught on.)

A few months ago, I was hired as a photographer for Patch.com. I take 40 pictures a week for four neighborhoods outside of Washington, D.C. Samples of my work can be found here and here. Most of the photographs have appeared on Patch.

I was raised in one of the neighborhoods I cover. This gives me added insight into the local scene. I should add that the Patch editors I work with are dedicated, patient, and terrific people. According to them, there has been very strong and positive feedback about my work.

They also are making roughly four times as much as I am. I’m getting paid $200 a week. That amounts to $10,400 a year. Most Patch editors are in the 35-40K range.

As a Catholic, I believe in the natural law — but also in social justice. St. Ambrose said that the conscience is “God’s herald and messenger.” Does your conscience tell you that you can pay a professional photographer $200 for four days of work? This is to say nothing of caption writing, which I also do for the job. Oftentimes this amounts to reporting on top of the picture-taking.

Would you pay a professional painter similar wages to paint your house?

I wanted to make my case in public because it is the kind of thing that makes so much sense that many editors, who tend to be busy and to not care too much about art (a fatal flaw in the Internet age), simply might not see it. The thing that I find so bizarre, Arianna and Tim, is that two people who are so savvy about journalism and the Internet seem to have missed the importance of photography to the web. A strong, beautiful image or video can drive traffic, increase hits.

My father was an editor at National Geographic for 30 years. I was ten years old when Watergate broke, and it transformed my life. I love journalism, at least when it’s good. I also know the difference between a photograph that is a work of journalistic art and a piece of garbage snapped by a kid with a flip camera. I care about the aesthetics of the thing; otherwise I would simply quit. For the past few months, my passion has been to elevate Patch, or at least my local Patches, from flip-camera ghetto to sparkling journalistic juggernaut. Why shouldn’t the photographs in Patch be as good as the ones in National Geographic? Because we’re local we can’t be great?

Of course, that will take money. While a 16-year-old may be happy, at least for a few weeks, to make $200 a week taking pictures, he also wouldn’t put care into the process. After driving around for six hours a day for three days and then spending a fourth and possibly fifth day writing captions and uploading the pictures (remember, this is 40 pictures, each telling a story), he might figure he could make more with a lot less hassle working as a waiter or a lifeguard. In short: in journalism, you often get what you pay for. And right now you are paying for a lot of burnout and turnover.

Arianna, you just announced — on the Patch site for Wayland, New York, no less — a new initiative of community bloggers. You explained it this way:

What’s so exciting about Patch is that it will bring quality, comprehensive news coverage to places that need it most. It’s no secret that a disproportionate amount of news coverage is centered on our country’s major cities, with their multiple newspapers, competing TV stations and armies of bloggers. Which, of course, is all well and good. But Patch’s unprecedented contribution will be to bring that same energy and quality coverage to the suburbs, villages and small towns too often neglected by traditional media. As much as any major American city, these towns provide a snapshot of our national story, a real-time portrait of the way we live now.

If you are going to aim high, you should be willing to pay for it. I’m not talking about Graydon Carter numbers. But if you want this thing to work, you should pay your photographers and videographers as much as you pay your editors. If you want to play it safe, give them a year contract and see what happens. Right now, you are exploiting and ultimately driving away the very people who would give everything, if paid, to make Patch work. There is no other way around it.

We want to destroy the competition and make a name for ourselves. This is easier than it sounds. One of Patch’s competitors in the Maryland suburbs is the Gazette newspapers, a series of local sheets that are owned by The Washington Post. Last year I took some pictures of actors in a local play for the Potomac Gazette. The arts editor, a hippie who was babbling about Vietnam while I was trying to explain the importance of great photographs, didn’t use my shots. Her preference was for stock photos provided by the actors.

If Patch cannot crush this competition, it doesn’t deserve to live. You just need to pay us what we are worth.

Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.