In Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, Patch arrived at the perfect moment. The community was served by two monthly newspapers, The River Journal and The Hudson Independent, neither of which had a competitive Web presence, and by Gannett’s regional publication, The Journal News, which would sweep in only during a major event. It had been years since a newspaper chronicled the daily, or even weekly, pulse of the community. As in many towns, my Patch exploded, and became the only source of daily information. Within a year, I was exceeding my traffic goals.
Strangers, politicians, and police officers would strike up conversations with me around town. And if it was the first time I was talking to a new face, I knew which question would eventually arise: “But how do you make money?”
It was difficult to give a straightforward answer. Patch was a startup, with more than $50 million in investment capital to keep it running in 2010. The common refrain was that Patch had the goal of making its money through business listings and advertisements. But for months, my site recycled the same three banner ads—small, bottom-bar placements that, I assumed, were the cheapest ads in the arsenal.
So excited. So tired.
Andrew Kersey has never been so excited. Andrew Kersey has never been so busy. Andrew Kersey has never been so tired.
So began an article in the Los Angeles Times, when Patch launched sites in California in early 2010. The Times published an article on the expansion of Patch to the West Coast, using the Manhattan Beach Patch editor, Kersey, in the lead. Everyone at Patch read it, and local editors were sold on the accuracy of the piece based on those first three lines.
Many of Patch’s new hires came straight out of journalism school or from small, community publications. Even our more experienced editors, many of them refugees from a recently downsized newspaper, were thrown into an entirely different work environment.
You can’t comprehend the scope of a local editor’s workload by title alone. The duties included writing the majority of the day’s stories, editing, managing a budget, paying freelancers, editorial planning, reviewing metrics, attending weekend functions, taking photos, shooting and editing video, and a number of administrative activities that swallowed the hours. In short, the job entailed everything that makes a respectable local newspaper function—from publisher to reporter—and the hours reflected this reality. In 2010, and through most of 2011, I spent more than 60 hours on the street and behind the computer each seven-day week. It was hard to take a vacation and, if we did, most of us were incapable of turning off our phones and laptops.
Burnout became a big problem. Two great editors in my area quit within a year, partially due to stress. The company made a number of attempts to make the local editor position sustainable and more enjoyable: group activities for staff members, additional freelance money for hiring a vacation replacement, and permission to use regional content on the weekends, to give editors at least a day off from worrying about posting stories. While taking advantage of these opportunities could ease stress, it often meant the sites suffered in terms of day-to-day news relevance.
In hindsight, I feel Patch did an excellent job of setting ambitious workloads and hiring people who were eager to make their sites a reflection of their character and work ethic. The biggest drain was often representing the publication. Each editor’s photo is prominently displayed just below the masthead; we were the face of the local site, and, by proxy, of the company. So even when we weren’t working, local editors were on the job, especially if we lived in the community we covered.
And living in or close to your coverage area was more than encouraged—relocation was often a requirement when a local editor accepted a position. So was living up to the company’s philosophy on connecting to the local community through charities or volunteer organizations. Editors were asked to volunteer five days a year. Some of us bemoaned the additional hours; others, myself included, found real satisfaction in the spirit of the practice. Although it raised some conflict-of-interest concerns in the beginning, I joined a local ambulance corps. When there was a big story involving emergency medical services, I was adamant about keeping things out of the press until a police officer or citizen “tipped me off” to an incident that I may well have been at the night before. While it made my job more difficult, I’m glad I joined. I still volunteer with the ambulance corps today.