My employment with Patch started with a handshake and a promise that I would be called with a job offer in the next few days. I had met with Patch’s editor in chief, Brian Farnham, at the company’s New York headquarters. This was in late October 2009, just a few months after AOL acquired the nascent hyperlocal platform for $7 million. In less than a week, I was hired to build and manage the Tarrytown-Sleepy Hollow Patch, covering a pair of Hudson River towns north of New York City.
I was one of about two dozen journalists Patch hired in the fourth quarter of that year, entrusted to replicate an online local news model that had been launched in New Jersey communities like Maplewood, Millburn, and Short Hills, suburbs on the outskirts of Newark. An end-of-year push would establish Patch in New York’s Long Island and Westchester communities, too, and further expand its coverage in New Jersey and Connecticut. At the time, AOL itself was in the process of spinning off from Time Warner, and was investing significantly in Patch as part of its strategy of repositioning the company to focus more on content creation.
The Patch idea was sold to me on the following premise: The backbone of the website’s offerings would be local news and information, with the goal being the digitization of a community—your town, online. Patch aimed to be the community newspaper and more, a hub for local businesses and a forum for community conversation: everything a local news outlet should be. We were given immense trust and responsibility to build a site to that standard.
Patch is relentlessly driven to refine and tweak its strategy to reach its goals, and it is entirely different now than it was in 2009. When I started, the organization was full of untested ideas, generalized performance targets, and grinding workloads. But it also offered local editors the unique opportunity to test content, prove their worth, and exert some influence on the editorial focus of the organization. For someone just establishing his journalism career, the fresh attitude and encouragement from the top was exciting.
Putting aside the uniform look of Patch sites at that time, we were given the opportunity to set our own work schedules and, more important, editorial priorities. Some editors focused almost exclusively on sports and schools, while others preferred hard news and politics. There was little in the way of mandates; we were to post between three and five pieces of news and information a day, with an equal amount of Twitter posts and Facebook updates.
How did we measure success? Traffic was the only indicator that sticks out in my mind—reaching our monthly unique-viewer target. The objective was to hit unique-visitor numbers equal to half of our community’s population. The most recent census numbers showed Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow with a combined population of about 21,000, so I was aiming for 10,500 unique viewers a month.
Like the majority of Patch sites, my community had been chosen based on demographic indicators, including median household income, the performance of the school district, and the penetration of the Internet. The combination of these, and a list of other community-specific statistics, pointed to a measure of affluence in the local populace—which is not to say Patch was at all marketed as a luxury. The idea was to fill a gap in coverage left by retreating newspapers, and capture the advertising that went with it.
Most Patch editors recorded the news and civic conversation in a thorough, all-encompassing manner. For example, the Tarrytown-Sleepy Hollow site began keeping track of Tarrytown Village Trustee work sessions and criminal court happenings in both villages. It was the first time anyone had done so. I also revived the police blotter, which no one had tracked for decades. Hard news was my site’s focus, and readers told me they were amazed at how much was going on in their seemingly quiet community.
Even before local editors got up to speed and their sites went live, it was a stressful job, due to the strain of trying to keep on top of every meeting, car accident, and sports score. The pressure was slightly alleviated by the power of the purse strings: We had a sizable freelance budget—some $2,000 a month—to experiment with general reporting and evergreen content. There was nothing better than seeing freelancers take on a regular feature, especially when that content would allow you to sleep in on a slow Sunday.