#276: Patchy

January 31st, 2014

After high school, part of my job at the forest preserve district was cleaning up the outhouses.

I would go in with rubber gloves, heavy-duty blue paper towels, something to kill the fist-size spiders, a can of spray paint to cover the most recent round of “Meet here at 1 a.m. for hot gay love” graffiti, a can of spray disinfectant that advertised a single contact could kill everything up to HIV-2 and a shovel to scrape off where someone had invariably shit on the seat over the week.

Patch.com was the worst job I ever had.

Patch.com was a hyperlocal website where I worked from 2010 to 2012. There were some wonderful moments and wonderful people, but it was a 24-hour commitment and I can’t function that way. I can only function compartmentalized. Work is work, home is home and working from home in a cloud of depression in a town you just moved to for the job and where you only know your co-workers and you’re getting corporate emails telling you to be more chipper (“Patchy”) and your boss keeps telling you by name which of your co-workers are doing better than you (all of them) isn’t the best environment for me.

Other people loved it, thrived and did great work. I was not one of them. They took away our freelance budget so we had to do everything ourselves. They started making the editors go on sales calls with the ad reps, an implication nicey nice stories would be written. It made me very uncomfortable. It made me a petulant bore.

I didn’t quit until I almost got fired. I’m not proud of this, but if I’m going to trash a past employer in public, I’m going to at least be fair about my own faults.

If you’ve read about Patch over the last few months, it’s because of the layoffs. Patch’s plan was to go big then find the money from there. My site was, if memory serves, the 117th to launch. Within a year, there would be about 900, theoretically bringing local news to more than 1,000 communities from New York to California.

Patch had 1,300 employees last August.

Then one day they fired hundreds of them. You might have heard about this — those were the layoffs where the CEO lost his shit mid-meeting and fired a photographer live on a conference call across the country.

The Facebook messages started again two days ago.

“So. Patch. Wow.”

“Have you heard anything from your former coworkers about today?”

A call. Some emails. Have you heard? Have you heard? What have you heard?

Two weeks after acquiring Patch and its then-450 employees, the turnaround firm new owner fired what’s being reported as two-thirds of the survivors. A “skeleton team” of 50 journalists will run the 900 sites in 23 states.

Patch once boasted it employed more journalists than the New York Times.

Searching for #patch on Twitter the day after the layoffs gave a long list of the same tweet just with different towns across the nation tagged.

#Annapolis This Amazing Rescue of an 1,800-Pound Horse Will Have You Cheering #Patch

#BelAir This Amazing Rescue of an 1,800-Pound Horse Will Have You Cheering #Patch

#Aberdeen This Amazing Rescue of an 1,800-Pound Horse Will Have You Cheering #Patch

The links all go to a Storify roundup of a horse from Massachusetts, an armed robber from Maryland, a frozen bus driver here in Illinois. A guy I knew pulled it all together to send across the nation. I guess Brian made the cut.

Hyperlocal, they once told us. Focus on one town.

You won’t hear a lot of this in the public. Employees get their severance package doubled if they sign a pledge not to criticize the company in the media.

The silence you’ll hear will sometimes be out of love and respect for the company and its people. Sometimes it will be out of two extra months of being able to feed their families. You won’t know which is which.

There are tons of autopsies out there. Patch grew too fast. Tim Armstrong is a nutjob. The ad money wasn’t there. They tried to make one size fit all. Gypsy curse. (The last one’s my theory.)

At the end, I don’t care why Patch died. I’m just glad it did.

I am sorry people will have a hard time making their bills for a while, but they’ll find other jobs. I have faith in these people.

As I sit in typing my apartment, making pdfs of the Patch clips I’m proud of and occasionally getting up to check my spaghetti and dance to the Big Audio Dynamite playing on my Crosley, I can’t be anything but happy for the survivors of Patch.

They’ll get weekends back and nights out. They’ll get afternoons snuggled under blankets with their kids. They’ll get Big Audio Dynamite LPs and the simple, weird notion of “What do we do tonight?” without having to check Twitter, aggregate a news story, get shamed for not being smiley and happy working at 9, 10, 11 p.m.

I rode the Metra with my boss the other morning. We trundled up to Northwestern together, among the rattled crowds on the winter-dusted train. She said they’re lucky to have me.

The law magazine Northwestern hired me away from said the same thing. I teach nights at Loyola. The assistant dean thinks I’m great. The students seem to like me too.

I remember being shocked when the newspaper I freelanced for after Patch thanked me. It made me mad that it made me so happy. I hadn’t been thanked in two years.

There are places that tell you they’re lucky to have you, not that you’re lucky to have them. I can’t be sad when you have that to look forward to.

Love and respect, survivors of Patch. It’s better on the outside. I used to call the company “The Coming Darkness,” yet another bitchy witticism from who was at the time a very unhappy man.

The darkness came, the darkness went and now you’re standing blinking at the dawn. Walk into it. It’s really nice.

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