August 20, 2010

Patched Up

I worked at Patch for six weeks and earned about $4,400. I’m considering spending the bulk of the money on a new camera and telephoto lens so I can shoot nighttime and indoor sports photos. I was as a freelance photographer briefly once and loved it.

Since I left the editing position at Patch last week, I have commenced with my freelance career. I’m looking forward to doing a lot of photo assignments, and I’ll also write whatever I can sell because I will be needing the money.

Cheap apartments are not easy to find, but I be looking. It felt good to begin the search for a home. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a home of my own: Five years. Over the five years, I’ve had a bedroom of my own for a few months in a hippie house, I’ve had a wing of my sister’s house to myself, and I’ve lived in a rundown motel room on the beach for a few months at a time in the off season.

But I haven’t had my own home since I lived in New Hampshire in 2005.

So I worked this job to make some money to spend on equipment to make me a little more money. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, which I am famous for doing, but I think it might all work out. If I make just enough to be financially independent again, the solar systems I have crossed will have all been worth it.

August 19, 2010

Patch Point and Shoot

At Patch, I found journalists of all ages determined to produce quality and relevant stories. Those same journalists also knew time wasn't on their side. The Patch game was about the number of stories, not about writing the definitive piece with seven sources. One had to adjust one's expectation for success.
Two quick stories, or three, over a week's time on a topic was just as good as a single definitive piece.

My news writing was rusty after six years off from working as a daily newspaper reporter. News writing is so different than story telling. Story telling proceeds in chronological order, largely. News writing is structured in what's called the inverted pyramid, with the most important bit of news pushed up to the top and all corresponding relevant information following.
I found my joy working for Patch in the fact that I could hog all the photo assignments, as I was the local editor. 

I always dreamed of working as a staff photographer. In the newsrooms I worked, I was as likely to be found hanging out with the photographers in the photo departments as I was at a vending machine in the cafeteria trying to shake loose a Snickers without paying.
I enjoyed taking photos for Patch. Then my kick ass camera broke down after my first week of work. When that happened, the universe patiently waited for me to stop swearing in order to inform me that I could still take as many photos as I liked. I simply had to use the crappy Patch point-and-shoot camera.
After more swearing and waiting, the universe informed me that a real photographer would accept this turn of events as a challenge.
Sometimes I hate the universe.

August 18, 2010

Startup No More

During the interview, my boss didn't downplay the intensity of running a Patch website. The workload arrived like a wave: Three deadlines a day. Go.
I foolishly told someone that I liked a challenge and this job was indeed a challenge, just as my boss explained, just as I expected.
I worked 75 hours a week to keep up.
As a temporary editor, I inherited the previous editor's salary, about $37,000 a year. That came out to $740 a week. That came out to less than $10 an hour. Some local editors claimed to have made as little as $7 to $8 an hour.
By the sheer generosity of the universe, I had an intern helping me. She was a terrific reporter, and an amazing worker. I could not have succeeded without her. She made $12 an hour. The intern made more than me.
I was grateful to be making steady money. And I was happy for the work because I needed the money, and I guess that's the point.

Patch calls itself a startup company. The term startup began during the dot com era, where people formed companies and worked to grab a chunk of the market in the hopes their long hours would pay off and they would be a part of a successful and wealthy corporation. Employees putting in double-time usually held a stake in the fledgling company.
The justification for startup working conditions went like this: If they're trying to get rich, they can work as long and as hard as they like.
No local editor is hoping to get rich working for Patch. They don't hold any stake in the company either. They are instead hoping Patch will succeed so they will have job security. Over the last several years, thousands of journalists have been laid off, and now this new company called Patch is hiring. People are lining up to apply. They need the work, whether they are at mid career points or recent graduates from college.
But Patch is no startup company. Not anymore.

Patch is owned by AOL, the granddaddy of online companies. Venture capital is not funding Patch, and neither are angel investors. AOL may not be the powerhouse it used to be since high speed internet came along, but AOL is rock solid.
Patch was launched last year in New Jersey with seed money from Tim Armstrong, who was then a top executive with Google. The board of directors at Time Warner liked Patch enough that they hired Armstrong away from Google and made him the new chair of AOL. Then Time Warner bought Patch from Armstrong for $7 million.
Armstrong was paid in AOL shares when AOL split with Time Warner late last year.
Patch believes it can take over local news coverage and the advertising revenue that commands after so many newspapers went out of business or were reduced in size over the past several years. AOL blessed Patch with $50 million to spend this year in an effort to grow as fast as it could.

And it's growing. Patch celebrated the launch of its 100th website yesterday with the announcement that it plans to cover 500 communities by the end of the year. If Patch does as it plans, the company will employ 500 journalists by the end of the year, which will make it the largest hirer of full time journalists in the country this year.

When Armstrong and his Google buddies launched Patch in New Jersey last year with a few websites, sure, Patch was a true startup then. But Patch now has websites on the East Coast, in the Chicago suburbs and in Southern California. Patch is coast-to-coast and has been for months, battling with the New York Times for local shares in New Jersey and running big ads on Yahoo! for more local editors. Pepsi is a sponsor of Patch.
This is no startup company. This is a well-financed company.

AOL calls Patch a startup to justify the working hours and low pay for its employees. Overworked and underpaid journalists aren't anything new. But the Patch model is worth taking note of.
An editor is assigned to each town and runs the website for the community, writing stories and editing copy from freelancers. Each editor is supplied with a laptop, BlackBerry, camera and police scanner. Each editor's town also has a Twitter account and Facebook page. A local editor is on call for breaking news at all times.
Someone on call for a job typically makes time-and-a-half for being on call. It's a joke to mention how things typically work when talking about a startup company, or one that claims to be.

A local editor for Patch can be a very fulfilling and demanding job. If I could have tended to my blog and self-publishing hobby on the side while working for Patch, I might have stayed on. In time, I believe I could have reduced my workweek to 65 hours as I became more efficient.

Many of the local editors are recent college graduates. They need work, like we all do. Many of them are working for Patch because it's the only job they can land. And they're grateful, as many applicants are turned away. The fact is, it's great there's a big company hiring journalists after all the layoffs over the past several years in the industry. I'm glad Patch is doing well, if for no other reason than journalists are finally finding some work.

My question is: What should the minimum wage for working 75 hours a week be? If a deep-pocketed company like AOL were to give a 23-year-old or a 55-year-old employee a workload so that he or she had to work at least 70 hours to keep up, should that employee make more than $9 an hour?

August 17, 2010

The Patch

For a while I’ve told the universe I’d be willing to write anything for a living.
I really don’t care what I write, so long as I can make a living off it. That’s been my attitude for a couple years now. Clearly, it’s the dream. And I am the dreaming fool.
In my mind, I was thinking I’d be willing to write fiction or non-fiction books. Turns out, the universe heard me say exactly what I said, which the universe has an annoying habit of doing. I said: I’d write anything.
So the universe dropped my old job back in my lap, the one I happily left six years, and that is community journalism.

I’ve been looking for a job since January. I’ve inquired about work at Cosco and coffee shops, and even hit up a very successful high school classmate for a job at my 20th reunion earlier this summer. No luck anywhere. The census wouldn’t even hire me, and I got a 26 out of 28 on their silly screening test. There’s not much out there for anybody in this economy, and there’s less out there for someone who has a giant gap in his resume from quitting his full time reporting job six years ago to write a few books on his own.
So while I was in Chicago for my high school reunion, I had lunch with a former reporter colleague and she told me that a former editor was working for something called
Patch is basically local community news websites.
Most importantly, Patch was hiring.
So I dropped that former editor an email and he recommended me to the regional editor here in Southern California and she offered me a job, which I took with some conditions.

One of the conditions was that I would do the job temporarily, for about a month. I was balking at taking the local editor position permanently because of the demands of the job. By working the position for a month, I would give my boss more time to find another qualified candidate, and I could also decide to take the job permanently if I wanted. 

It was a sweet deal. I was grateful, largely because I was broke. I ran out of money in January, and had to move back in with family. I’ve been living between my sister’s family’s house and my mother’s condo in Torrance, Calif. The job at Patch would provide a paycheck that would allow me to be financially independent again-- the sweetest of all dreams. The cost: No time for anything else.