In addition to the editorial and volunteer work, we fought to get our sites noticed—on and off the clock. The marketing dollars that we were given, if any, usually came with the understanding that we would be manning booths at community events, or taking the lead in finding sponsorship opportunities, like supporting the local hayride or Little League team.

It seemed I could control every aspect of my site’s being, but making it sustainable was out of my grasp. And for me, it was aggravating to know that my site was not profitable.

In many small-town publications there is a thin wall between advertising and editorial. At my previous job, with a twice-weekly newspaper, the wall literally had a doorway that connected the two departments. At Patch, the dividing wall between editorial and advertising seemed so high at times that it was impossible to know where we stood in relation to those on the other side.

As editors, we were told only general information about revenues, sales, and business strategy, at least in the beginning. Many of us rarely saw our ad managers. My area went through four ad-sales agents, only two of whom I met. I didn’t envy their job: Our salespeople were stretched thin, sometimes covering more than three Patch sites, making their positions more difficult than ours, at least from a relationship-building perspective. By the nature of the position, local editors were the ones best-positioned to pitch potential advertisers, but that was off-limits, and to preserve editorial integrity, Patch made sure the division was strict.

Church, meet state

This began to change. In 2011, as reports leaked to the media noted, editors were encouraged to collaborate with members of the ad sales teams to better both the journalistic and advertising sides of the business. Some saw something sinister in this; as reports in Business Insider framed it, Patch was “juicing” its sales by asking editors to “start drumming up ad sales leads.”

But there was nothing quid-pro-quo about it and, to me, certain collaborations just made sense. If a new business is opening in a small community, for example, the event has both news value and potential advertising value. As far as I was concerned, the ad manager was one more set of ears on the ground that I desperately needed. My only question was, Why wasn’t Patch already doing this?

Still, local advertising was only one side of the equation. As a national company, Patch was also gathering prime eyeballs—local, mostly affluent readers—that could be valuable to major national brands. While I was at Patch, the focus was almost entirely on local businesses, with a limited interest in national advertising, which I thought was unsustainable. But that seems to have changed somewhat. This was particularly evident during the Christmas season, when I saw ads by Target, AT&T, and major banks on Patch sites.

Meanwhile, toward the end of my tenure, editors were slowly beginning to see some of the financial numbers behind our sites—how profitable or unprofitable they were generally, on a month-by-month basis. What financial information we didn’t receive from the company often appeared in the press. (For example, a headline from Business Insider near the end of 2011: “Leaked: AOL’s Top Ten Patch Salespeople, and How Much They’ve Sold in 2011.”)

Readers are not enough

In the second half of 2010, Patch made headlines with hundreds of site launches and an endless stream of new hires. While business publications and media pundits argued over the Patch model and the quality of journalism it produced, the most interesting shift was occurring at the editorial level.

Engagement became the buzzword. The goal was to tailor content that would make people stay and play. To push this transition, we were given content mandates for the first time. This radically reshaped how we had to think about our audiences and what made our sites relevant. It wasn’t about the number of eyeballs seeing local news, it was about comments and cultivating user-generated, free content.

The first push was an attempt to cater to mothers, and to make Patch information more relevant to the everyday family. Many editors were transparent with their audiences about the new content requirements. They published the mandates, in abbreviated form, as a letter to their readers, notifying them of the changes. On my site, I implemented some of the changes grudgingly.

Sean Roach worked for Patch from November 2009 to September 2011. He is a freelance writer based in New York and also works in public relations. He is currently running for elected office in the Village of Sleepy Hollow.