Patching into the future

As I write this, I am sitting at my desk in the Inquirer newsroom where I earn a decent living as a newspaper reporter, the work I love for a newspaper that I also love. Over the years, I've earned enough money to buy a home, raise a family and send my sons to college. I've had health insurance, sick pay and vacations. Most of the time, I had a pension. Obviously, there have been changes in our business and some of the most wrenching, and interesting, have come because of the Internet. That's why it was so interesting to report on Flying Kite and Patch, two variations on some old journalism themes.

Patch was particularly interesting, because it reminds me of my first job at the Inquirer in 1982. Our plan was to circle the area with hyper-local sections called Neighbors. We were very thorough. We even printed school lunch menus! I had four Montgomery County towns to cover and the reason the Inquirer hired me (besides my incredible writing, extreme intelligence, top-notch reporting and good looks) was because I had spent the previous six years working for a small Montgomery County daily. It made good journalism sense, but it was also part of our marketing plan. Over the years Neighbors evolved and changed.

Patch seems very similar, except it is online.  Like the Inquirer's Neighbors sections, it is targeting suburban communities. Patch has 59 criteria that it pushes into an algorithm to select communities. Patch looks for communities with a lot civic engagement as expressed by voter turnout and school quality, Patch president Warren Webster told me. It adds up generally to affluence.  

Like the Inquirer's earliest efforts, it is breaking those communities into very small groups. Our earliest Neighbors covered about 20 communities. My towns were Abington, Cheltenham, Jenkintown and Rockledge and we were part of a group that included Ambler and Warminster, among others. Each Patch site covers communities between 20,000 and 75,000. There is one Patch that only covers Roxborough, Manayunk and Andorra. Another covers Ardmore, Merion and Wynnewood -- period. Up next, Mount Airy. Patch organizes 12 sites into a cluster to share certain resources and news.

In the Patch model, the editor, who must live in or near the community, earns $35,000 to $45,000 a year. Judging from their bios, they have about the same experience as I did at my first out-of-college job as editor-in-chief of the Welcomat, now the Philadelphia Weekly. I supervised a staff of 0.5, an 80-plus-year-old retiree who worked part time typing the listings on a manual typewriter. At least we had our own typewriters. My pay was $145 a week, which translated to $7540 a year, somewhat less than the Patch editors earn, when adjusted for inflation. 

The pay raise I got when I landed at the Inquirer nearly seven years later put me ahead of the Patch editors, even without being adjusted for inflation. Obviously, as a representative of the region's premier newspaper, expectations were high, but I also had more back-up than the Patch editors have. Photographers, besides taking pictures, provide an extra set of eyes at an event. Editors edit, an obvious help, while giving advice and counsel. I work in a newsroom with my peers who could lend a hand or some encouragement or just provide comic relief from the strains of reporting. (Why were we all wearing sponge shark hats? I can't quite remember, but it was hysterically funny at the time.)

The Patch editors are expected to report, write, edit, take pictures, take videos, hire freelancers and manage a budget. Excellent training, but a lot of responsibility for $17 to $22 an hour, assuming a 40-hour week, which is highly unlikely, given the nature of the work. They work at home, which has advantages and disadvantages. They have tremendous flexibility and probably, a satisfying sense of ownership. 

The future for me in journalism was a move from the Welcomat, a weekly, to the North Penn Reporter, a small daily, and then a big leap to the Inquirer. At the Inquirer, I dabbled in editing, but returned to my true love, reporting, remaining confident throughout, and even now, that our 180-year-old newspaper would continue to publish. What is the upward path for the Patch journalists? The AOL-funded company is hiring like crazy, but will this experiment last? Can anyone count on anything lasting? 

Not sure, but I love all the thinking. Eventually new models will emerge, and all the various players will settle, at least for five minutes, into some kind of pattern. As a reporter who covers workplace issues, I hope that the people in my industry, and in all industries, can work safely and earn enough to raise a family without struggling every minute and with some hope for the future. It's exciting, it's worrisome and it's gratifying. With any luck, I'll be able to report on it for a long time.