Five years ago I was out of work when I received an unsolicited email asking if I’d be interested to talk about a mystery hyperlocal project. I sat through an interview with Steve Johnson and Brian Farnham where they detailed how they were planning a national network of local news websites. They had no name for the project, but they were looking to hire their first editors.
Three interviews later, I became one of Patch’s first local editors, starting in October 2008. There was a lot of work ahead before we launched the sites in three New Jersey towns — Millburn (my site), Maplewood and South Orange — and no one was really sure what to expect.
Almost five years to the day of that first interview, there is news Patch is going to lay off hundreds and shutter hundreds of its sites across the country. I haven’t been with Patch for over two years, but I can’t help but be sad, especially considering how the company was one the one hiring the most journalists not so long ago.
In the time since I’ve left Patch, I’ve gotten plenty of requests for interviews and declined all of them. People keep telling me I should write a tell-all about Patch, which I don’t want to do. I’d like to write something about all of my local journalism experiences, not just Patch, some day. I like to think I still have a lot of local journalism left in me before I get to that step. I also haven’t written much about Patch in the years since I’ve left.
It’s mainly because people want to focus so much on the negative about Patch. Anyone who knows me knows I have lots of criticisms about Patch both in the months before I left and in the years since then. But I don’t want anyone to think that everything was negative because it wasn’t. Patch, overall, was a positive experience for me doing some work I still am very proud of. I always will be proud of my time at Patch and having helped start and build that company as one of its first local editors.
Those early years of Patch were fun and innovative in a lot of ways because we got to be ourselves as editors and our opinions were heard. If we did something great, we all would try it to see if it worked. It wasn’t a mandate, just everyone trying out things that worked for someone else. If it didn’t work for you, you moved on to the next thing.
Every site reflected the personality of the editor and the community we covered. I like to public safety issues, so there always was fire log items and the police blotter. Education is extremely important in Millburn (and I like to cover it), so I always made sure I was on top of those stories. It was part of why I was able to own the Millburn High School hazing story and stay on top of the issue even after the national press had left. Other editors had their own focuses on education, the arts, taxes, etc.
Everyone was doing their best to serve the communities we covered, and it was a fun time to be a Patch editor.I could sit here and list off all the things that Patch should have done differently since those first 18 months I was an editor, before the large and rapid expansion. I don’t think it’s prudent to do so because the past is the past and you can’t fix it. Maybe some day I’ll address them, but not today.
I do think Patch shuttering sites isn’t a bad thing because it could help in the long-term focusing on places they can get things to work. Patch also should get back to its roots of letting the local editors innovate and make the best choices for their community.
But for now I’m sad to see so many sites close and so many people losing their jobs.