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Patch owner slashes staff to a handful

Updated 10:03 pm, Wednesday, January 29, 2014
  • Tim Armstrong, chief executive officer of AOL and founder of Patch, is seen at a 2013 conference in Idaho in this file photo. Daniel Acker/Bloomberg Photo: Daniel Acker / © 2013 Bloomberg Finance LP

    Tim Armstrong, chief executive officer of AOL and founder of Patch, is seen at a 2013 conference in Idaho in this file photo. Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

    Photo: Daniel Acker

 

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Patch, the network of hyper-local news sites that expanded rapidly for several years in hopes of revolutionizing a beleaguered local journalism business, laid off the majority of its remaining staff on Wednesday.

The company, whose controlling stake was sold by AOL just weeks ago to turnaround firm Hale Global, operates 67 sites in Connecticut, including a dozen or so in Fairfield County.

Following news of the layoffs during a conference call Wednesday morning, biographies were taken down for 24 of the 30 local editors who were managing Patch sites across the state.

The six editors whose biographies stayed online were the only editorial staff members to keep their jobs, several laid-off employees told Hearst Connecticut Newspapers.

That included the current local editors for Greenwich, Darien, Bethel, Brookfield and Oxford -- as well as several sites located upstate.

The laid-off employees interviewed for this story said they had no insight into the company's strategy moving forward.

"It's going to be a challenge for the people remaining, because now you have a skeleton staff covering the same number of sites," said Leslie Yager, who lost her job reporting for and editing the Norwalk and Wilton Patch sites.

Yager, who'd previously worked in public relations and advertising, called her three years at Patch -- which included her being a 40-hour a week freelance contractor, community editor and finally a local editor -- the most fun she's had working in her life.

"This job was addicting," she said, describing a typical workday in her most recent gig as lasting up to 14 hours -- including many weekends -- not because she was told to, but because she had become so engaged in her communities.

"I worked really long hours because I wanted to," she said. "I'm sad now because I'm wondering how there's going to be on-the-ground reporting."

The company was conceived of and initially funded in 2007 by Greenwich resident and AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, who wanted to see more online information about his neighborhood of Riverside, according to a 2009 New York Times story.

AOL went on to buy Patch in 2009 and quickly invested tens of millions of dollars into the company, whose local sites spread like kudzu across the country. Battered financially, however, the company let go of 400 employees last August as Armstrong attempted to make good on a promise that Patch would be profitable by the end of 2013.

Then, earlier this month, it was spun off by AOL and sold just weeks ago to turnaround company Hale Global.

"The lesson here is simple: just because you can scale up rapidly in the digital environment in terms of going from three sites to 1,000 virtually overnight, it doesn't mean that it is wise to do so," Rich Hanley, associate professor and director of the graduate journalism program at Quinnipiac University, said in an emailed statement.

Hanley praised the site for providing a "lifeboat of jobs" for hundreds of new and veteran journalists when traditional news outlets were shedding staff. But he said the company would have been better served had it created alliances with existing local news organizations that had advertising and sales teams in place.

"It now joins the growing digital heap of startups that showed great promise but fell apart when it scaled up without the logistics to support a sustained news-gathering and advertising platform," Hanley said.

tloh@scni.com; twitter.com/timloh