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?


Being Me said...

Of course. It's a no-brainer! I had a similar thing happen last year, albeit on a very less grand scale. All my energy going into a job that, on paper, looked like it was paying well but in reality was netting me a grand total of around $4 an hour. Ludicrous way to spend one's precious time!

Glad you saw the light. Onward and upward, hey?!

Brian Miller said...

they justify it as you get to pump your resume as well with their name on it...ridiculous...glad you are mvoing on...

Vicki Rocho said...

working 75 hours a week is crazy. There's gotta be a better use of your time.

Good luck finding something with either better hours or better pay.

Anne Gallagher said...

Okay, so you're not working there anymore?

And if you're not, why can't you just be a reporter instead of an editor?

I liked that piece you did about the guy at the beach with his metal detector.

DEZMOND said...

ah, Ed, if I tell you that average yearly income for university educated people in my country is around $5,000 (per year, I emphasize) would you feel better :))))

Deidra said...

My son is in a similar situation. Working working working for a small amount of money at the end of the week. But he's got to live, and to avoid the blank space on his resume.

Claudia said...

i think journalists over here are also not very well paid but i go with a bible verse "A worker is worth his money" and i think good work should pay off

Linda Bob Grifins Korbetis Hall said...

work smarter, not harder...

best wishes.

Wine and Words said...

Don't become Patch. Whatever it takes is only a portion of what you are. Wear patch loosely, an overcoat easily discarded in the hours left. Simply a garment to use until the offer of cashmere.

Tori said...

I'm with Wine and Words.
This really opened my eyes and I now I see the light. You are an amazing talent and I don't think the "universe" is done yet...but in a good way. :)

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I know an editor or two at local papers working the same hours you described, and for the same money. Seems journalism is tough all over. Glad I'm out. (Did I just say that?)

The Words Crafter said...

See, this just feeds into my soapbox issue with rich fat cats getting richer and fatter while their minions toil away under ridiculous conditions. If it makes you feel any better, childcare workers are soon going to need a four year degree. And we have the pressure on us to prepare children for the Kindergarten entrance exam (yep). A four year degree! And we're thought of as baby sitters. If we could just strike oil or gold in our back yards....glad you're out.

Rats. Ordinary word verification. :)

Alexandra said...

I think you made the right decision. Sounds like exploitation to me. (My brother is a journalist. He has twice the work load now, ever since they fired a co-worker last year. He is trying to hold on until retirement in a couple years. Not easy this work world corporations have created!)

Su-sieee! Mac said...

Your post is very informative to people like myself who are looking for writing jobs and would be willing to earn the low wage because it is far better than nothing, at the moment, and the challege is exciting. I had checked out Patch. I liked the idea of having a police scanner. And maybe if I wasn't so darn tired and lazy, I would've talked myself into trying for it. My town really needs a daily source of news....But your question: How much should a person get? For the editor position,and especially because Patch is owned by AOL, definitely a lot more than $30K.

Alexandra said...

Oh, my gosh. I cannot believe that that workload would in any way lengthen your life.

I know, I'm such a downer,but, seriously.....over 70 hours a week?

I would worry myself about you and the strain on your health, but that's just me and b/c I've come to care about you.

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't it be less hours, less money; more hours, more money? One should be forgiven for thinking these mega-rich corporations have no soul. All they see are $$ signs; that's all they care about. What they're going to do with all these billions, I don't know.

But the universe allows it so they have a place in our story somehow.