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Patch.com makes layoffs/ redesigns and plans for a profitable future

Since Patch.com launched its first sites in 2007 and then was acquired by AOL in 2009. It has been scrutinized by the media world for its homogenization of local news.  Like a Wal-Mart moving into a small town, it has provided journalists with jobs, while also creating competition for the small moms and pops of the newspaper world: the community paper. But despite being backed by AOL, it has led a troubled existence.

With 900-plus sites across the country, Patch.com has obviously grown since its birth into the market six years ago. But in the last two years, the massive hyperlocal patchwork of sites has slowed its growth, consolidating sites as AOL attempts to make a profit. The most recent include Chestnut Hill Patch and Mt. Airy Patch in Pennsylvania, which merged in February into a single site called Chestnut Hill-Mt. Airy Patch.  Virginia’s Fort Hunt Patch and Huntington Belle Haven Patch also merged in March and is now called Greater Alexandria Patch. But the latest news is the layoffs, which comes on the heels of Armstrong’s claims that Patch would be a profitable enterprise by the end of 2013. The network of sites reportedly lost approximately $100 million last year for the company.

In a recent memo, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong announced that Patch would streamline its regional editorial teams from 20 to nine.  According to a post from Jim Romenesko, a conference call last Friday resulted in layoffs of approximately 39 to 40 people, including editorial directors Sherry Skalko, in charge of the Midwest, and Marcia Parker, who oversaw the West Coast. Reportedly, no local editors were let go.

Romenesko’s Patch.com informant, however, noted that a team model would be incorporated into running the sites, which would include a community editor and field editor, along with the regular local editor. Case in point, Massachusetts’ Andover Patch announced Thursday that local editor Brendan Lewis would now be serving as a field editor for multiple Patch sites in the region, while Bryan McGonigle has been named to serve as local editor for both Andover and North Andover. Meanwhile, Illinois’ Wheaton Patch local editor Charlotte Eriksen is taking on the role of field editor for Patch sites in Chicago’s near-west suburbs.

There was conjecture last year that the editorial structure would be undergoing some sort of change when outgoing local editor Donna Evans announced  that California’s La Cañada Flintridge Patch would make a big change from being editor-run to more of a cooperative. Such claims were disputed by then-Patch vice president of communications Janine Iamunno.

But the latest news does point to a modified editorial structure. Meanwhile, the sites have been undergoing redesigns since last fall. According to StreetFightMag.com, the new look has been unrolled in roughly 100 markets. Only last week, the San Juan Capistrano Patch debuted its new look, which is uniform with other revamped sites in the Patch network. One addition is the Boards tab, which makes it easier for readers and citizens to post notices or have discussions, while the redesigned sites also give readers the option of starting their own blog though Patch.

As 2013 closes in on its halfway mark, it will be interesting to see if Patch is able to finally make a profit for AOL. According to All Things Digital, comScore showed in April the sites growing traffic by 26 percent from last year. It will be no surprise if the company continues to cut costs and explore new opportunities in an attempt to achieve profitability before the year is out.

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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