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.