Patch’s closure in St. Louis (and my closure after Patch)

After exactly three years with Patch, I was laid off on Aug. 16. I’m among the 500 (or so, as reports vary) employees who were fired as the company pulls back its costs amid a push to become profitable—a promise made more than once by CEO Tim Armstrong—by the end of the year. Multiple markets face complete closures, including the 24 sites in St. Louis.

Don’t fret for me, however, as I’ve started an exciting new chapter as the Digital Content Director at The Elkhart Truth, a daily newspaper with more than 100 years of service in northern Indiana. I’m leading the digital desk through a redesign and relaunch (among many, many other things). The differences between working for a family-owned news company vs. a Fortune 500 media titan are enormous, but perhaps that’s a post for another day. This one’s about collecting some of my thoughts about my time at Patch. And about closure.

Layoffs aren’t new to journalists. As someone who follows the journalism industry, I’ve seen media companies like Gannett and Advance Publications lay off hundreds of journalists at a time. Seeing so many folks endure that experience is nothing short of heartbreaking. Media critics and fellow journalists are quick to criticize the companies for being brutal with their cuts and short-sighted with their vision. Yes, Patch laid me off, but this isn’t one of those posts.

I’m not mad or critical of Patch. More than anything, I’m simply sad to see the great experiment fail. I’m heartbroken that so much great local reporting—the kind of news about local schools, small business owners and neighbors that bigger operations can’t cover—will again be missing in these communities. I’m disappointed to see so many great journalists finally give up on their journalism careers and transition into other occupations. On a personal level, I’m stunned to see the hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors and community contributors in St. Louis go ignored as the company shuts down the sites permanently.

We—meaning editors, sources, community leaders and many readers—poured everything we could into Patch to make it a destination for genuinely local news and community dialogue. I’ll never forget the time two local officials invited me and my former colleague Nate Birt to an interview for a huge announcement. They wanted our smaller shop to have the scoop on this big story because Patch had strengthened the community and even pushed the officials to do the best work they could (even when we uncovered a story that was difficult for them only two months earlier). I also remember a major zoning issue that pitted local business leaders and city officials against school board members and parents. This was one business on one intersection in one town of roughly 8,000 people, but it was very important for the members of our community. We saw probably 100 posts offering important updates and facilitating direct dialogue between everyone involved (including city and school officials, parents and business owners). That was the power of Patch. I’ll miss that.

Many will criticize Patch for its failures. They’ll say the company didn’t hire the right leaders, iterated too often, pushed content initiatives that no one wanted and diluted the sites with sponsored content. Many of these people are the same ones who criticize newspaper companies for remaining stagnant in a time of great disruption in the industry while new sources of revenue remain evasive.

Those criticisms miss the point. Launching Patch was a big gamble for AOL, and it’s a gamble that didn’t pay off. Would the gamble have turned out differently if Patch addressed any of these previously mentioned criticisms? Maybe, but I’m not sure how all that adds up to an additional $100-$150 million in revenue each year.

The biggest mistake that Patch made was scaling its product across the country in 2010 before establishing a firm business model. And the company made that bet (I’m assuming) because it believed a first-mover advantage (ahead of Yahoo!, Google, Facebook and every other company chasing local advertising) into the hundreds of towns would outweigh the costs and risks of rapid expansion.

That bet didn’t pay off, and that’s why I’m sad — for Patch, for my former colleagues, for the journalism industry, and for all of the communities losing their local sites.

But I regret nothing, and neither should Patch. In a time of mass layoffs and buyouts in the journalism industry, Patch dared to gamble in 2010 by hiring hundreds of journalists and expanding across the country. It reminds me of a Teddy Roosevelt quote that one of my former colleagues shared on Facebook ahead of Patch’s retrenchment in August:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Ryan Martin is a public safety reporter at The Indianapolis Star. He previously worked as managing editor of The Elkhart Truth in northern Indiana and associate regional editor of in St. Louis.

16 comments Write a comment

  1. Well said, Ryan. The finger-pointing is incredibly easy to do—but I dare someone to step up to the plate as boldly as a Patch editor.

  2. Ryan, you have articulated so well what so many of us feel as we grieve for what we worked for and cared about so passionately. Thanks for this.

  3. Ryan, I agree with everything you said. After working decades for newspapers I found Patch so refreshing. It felt young and full of potential. I’m not bitter about being laid off. Patch was a start-up so that was always a possibility. I’m sad about the state of Patch today, but I hope this is only a down period before it bounces back.

  4. Well said. Thanks for articulating that awkward angry-and-disappointed-and-bummed feeling so many of us have.

  5. Great post. I’m a Patch LE (still employed after 3 years) and can attest to how Patch has transformed towns, especially those traditionally ignored by larger publications. We’ve asked the hard questions, done the investigations and given readers a forum for issues they care about. Thanks for reminding people about what worked/works at Patch and about the gap in coverage that will now exist because of the closures. It’s nothing short of disheartening. Good luck in your next endeavor!

  6. I’m not quite as noble, because I am angry that our communities also have to suffer. The idea was worth investing in early and often, rather than leaving it to word of mouth and the countless hours put in by us editors. This makes it even more difficult for the next great idea to win over the trust of my town, which is now sick of the news industry crying wolf. That said, I am extremely proud of the work we all did and know that it did not go unnoticed by our communities.

  7. It’s a fine post Ryan. But one clarification.
    The grand experiment that is Patch has not failed. And it will not fail.
    The simple truth is that in order for a fruit tree to grow in a healthy manner and bear more and better fruit, it needs to be pruned back from time to time.
    That pruning is not enjoyable but it is essential.
    Best of luck with your new endeavor.

  8. We may have to agree to disagree on that one, Bill. I don’t see mass layoffs as an act of pruning, and I don’t see shutting down entire markets as bearing fruit. Maybe an entirely new and healthier Patch will emerge in the coming months or years, but this version certainly failed.

  9. You’re a trooper, Ryan, and it’s nice to see you come out winners after the “Grand Experiment.”

    I’ve been there, fell a few months short of your tenure, and feel that the powers that be bear more responsibility for their current travails than you might think. But, like you, I believe you have to be in the arena in order to fully appreciate, and comment on, the contest.

    Obviously, there are a few of us who feel it is a contest that can be won – without the missteps of “experiments” like Patch.

    Keep fighting. It’s a good fight.

    J.D. O’Connor

  10. As you pointed out, the first-to-market logic to scale aggressively was a big gamble, and it’s a shame that the overspending ultimately resulted in the large layoffs of so many people that poured their hearts into building Patch. The innovation that Patch made more widely available to small communities helped move the barometer in what both readers expect and what small businesses desire. If nothing else, they’ve changed the industry for the better.

    Since Patch first arrived in our community several years ago, we’ve followed the industry headlines and read the often sensationalized coverage. As a fellow start-up, we sympathized with the harsh judgment placed upon a company working to innovate in a challenging industry.

    For those ex-employees looking for their next move in this increasingly complicated industry, I’d like to offer up what we have been doing at Happenings Media. We run a network of digital, hyperlocal lifestyle magazines (not news), and have just launched #20. We license our sites to entrepreneurial locals as opposed to hiring people on salary. The beauty of this is that the licensee has freedom to make business decisions based on the unique market needs, while having the strength and backbone of a national network to draw from.

    I’d like to invite any ex-Patchers who would like to learn more to reach out to us. It’s hard work to be a business owner. But given how much Patch editors have accomplished on limited salaries, they are no strangers to hard work. We simply provide the platform to continue to build on your experience without the threat of layoffs.

  11. Getting Patched? Start your own news site

    Those Patch editors who are about to be laid off should take a few days to enjoy some much-deserved time with their families, and then get in touch with one of the 110-plus members of Local Independent Online News Publishers. If you’ve got the drive to be an entrepreneur, we’ve got a network of independent publishers who are ready and willing to help you establish a news outlet that is focused on your community.

    Start your own indie news site, and join us! You won’t have to cover a cat show (unless you want to — you’re the boss, after all), and nobody will fire you for snapping a photo.

    AOL’s Patch is failing not because local news isn’t a solid business, but because they’re not local.

    The local news industry is strong, healthy and growing — the real local segment of the industry. LION members and our many colleagues running local news websites are demonstrating that every day.

    80 local indie news entrepreneurs met in Chicago last week at the inaugural LION Publishers Summit, sharing their techniques for making their businesses work. It takes passion and persistence, but it can be done:

  12. Pingback: Patch editors in St. Louis say goodbye to their communities | Ryan Martin

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