January 31, 2014

How low can you go: Patch.com lays off hundreds of journalists with a conference call


Take the Astroturf sign, Patchers! It'll feel so good.

Take the Astroturf sign, Patchers! It’ll feel so good.

Corporate America has long distinguished itself at humiliating employees in the beginning, middle, and end of their employment. For instance, would you like to pee or drink water? Oh, you fussy thing, you. Or leave your workplace without being detained for long security screenings, after you’ve already punched out? Impossible: all of our “associates” are treated this way.Patch Media Group, which was bought by Hale Global from AOL just a few weeks ago, has added a new and pretty ignominious chapter in the history of ways to fire people who have sincerely believed in a mission, like the importance of local journalism. Its COO, Leigh Zarelli Lewis, laid off what’s being reported as up to 80-90% of Patch’s staff in a conference call yesterday morning.

Jim Romenesko posted about the lay-offs mid-Wednesday, with a link to a recording of the call itself:

And shortly after, emails and responses started to come in. Aaron Castrejon, who covered crime, education, and city politics for the Altadena Patch, wrote a heartfelt goodbye to readers, thanking them and speaking wistfully about stories he would have liked to have had the chance to cover.

In central Massachusetts, Sam Bonacci reported that as many as two-thirds of the employees were fired, affecting coverage across the state. “In Connecticut,” he wrote, “where Patch has 67 sites, one former employee said that less than 10 Patch employees remain with the editorial staff.”

In the Baltimore area, editor of the Catonsville and Elridge Patch Jennifer Donatelli had started just three weeks earlier. She quit another job with benefits to take the position:

[S]he had no idea what the call was for when she dialed in. “I just feel like the wind got knocked out of me,” Donatelli said. “I was  having the best time. It’s just a kick in the teeth.”

Lehigh Valley editors said brief goodbyes over Twitter and Facebook, before their sites went dark in Bethlehem, Easton, Emmaus, Hackettstown, Hellertown-Lower Saucon, Lower Macungie, Upper Macungie and Upper Saucon.

Editors wrote in to Romenesko’s blog to confirm the sequence of events and tell their stories:

 “I was a local editor for Patch for 3.5 years, up until about an hour ago. ..We knew it was coming. but the silence from New York over the few months was deafening. They left us in a state of suspended animation. For those of us who killed ourselves working for this company, it was a real slap in the face.”

“I was hired in 2010, survived two rounds of layoffs but not the third. I was told middle managers in editorial were on a call earlier this week and being asked about which local editors are worthy. Based on info from HQ, I had one of the top sites in all of Patch for the past 2 years, but now I’m on the outs. Sounds like politics and not performance is the deciding factor for most, if not all, of us.”

Patch was never profitable, and a round of lay-offs coming after the acquisition by Hale is not surprising, but it’s still a great blow to hundreds of people and to the communities they covered. It’s also, depressingly, not the first time this year that a group of reporters was fired by phone call, instead of the executive having to do this in person, looking at the faces of the folks they’re firing: on July 30, journalists at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer were told to stay home the next day and await phone calls that would tell them whether or not they still had had a job— over one-third of the staff was fired.

Still, there were some indomitable spirits among the Patch employees: in his Facebook posting about his firing, Josh Popichak from the Upper Saucon Patch wrote not only that he was grateful for the readership and support, but also that he’d like to “start some type of independent local news site, if not immediately, then eventually” and asked for email addresses. In other words, the dream lives on.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.