Boston Business Journal
February 19, 2014

When Susan Petroni learned on Jan. 29 that she would lose her job as Framingham editor for the Patch network of news sites, the news didn't come as a big shock.

After all, Patch had been such a big money loser that AOL CEO Tim Armstrong ended up selling control of Patch to a firm with no journalism background. In its announcement of the deal last month, new owner Hale Global focused on the local residents and businesses that could use the Patch sites to share content. There wasn't much attention paid in that statement to professional journalists.

So Petroni was ready when the bad news did arrive, amid hundreds of layoffs at Patch that day. But here's what did surprise her: The CEO of Hale Global called her up within a few days and offered her a job covering Framingham for Patch again.

Petroni's story is certainly unusual: Residents of Framingham were so upset about her sudden departure that they deluged Hale Global with emails and the Framingham Patch site with comments, calling for her return. But there's a bigger story here. To many of the doubters— and it's fair to say I was one of them — Petroni's rehiring offers some hope that Patch can still deliver on its initial promise to wring out a profit from pairing up community news and commentary with hyper-local advertising.

To be sure, the Patch bloodbath hasn't been pretty. Nearly 500 Patch employees lost their jobs last year, and then several hundred more lost their jobs in January. Plenty of former Patch editors are collecting unemployment checks now. And many of the Patch community sites — there are more than 80 in Massachusetts alone — are virtual shells right now.

But Patch is growing again. A top editorial executive with the New York company tells me the firm is hiring four or five editors to join the company over the next 10 days. (This executive didn't want me to use his name because he's not an official spokesman for Patch.) Some will be rehires, he says, and some will be new to Patch. Currently, the company has about 125 employees, he says, and most of them work on the news side of the business. The hiring will be methodical and careful, focused on key communities.

The plan is to strengthen the Patch network in places where readership — and, presumably, ad support — has been particularly strong. That means a focus on key East Coast states — including, yes, Massachusetts — as well as parts of the Midwest and California. And even though Petroni's case is unusual, it indicates that the leadership of Hale Global, a small tech-oriented turnaround firm, wants to keep Patch's journalism alive.

Petroni returned without fanfare to the Framingham beat today with a tough story — the roof of a barn had collapsed, killing two cows and injuring others. But people noticed: The bulk of the comments on her Eastleigh Farm story remarked on her return.

Petroni joined Patch as the Framingham editor in late 2010, at a time when the site under AOL's ownership was expanding rapidly — many would say too rapidly. Petroni tells me she is coming back as an independent contractor, not a payroll employee. But Petroni says she prefers it this way because she can limit her attention to Framingham, the town she loves, as staff editors would be expected to cover more than one town. Petroni says she has become part of the community with her husband and daughter, after moving there nearly 14 years ago. She picks up story tips at the local swim meets; her readers email her pictures of the latest crash on Route 9.

Petroni says she's heard from residents who have received emails from Hale Global CEO Charles Hale, reassuring them that Petroni would be coming back. That's encouraging to her, she says, to be joining a company where the CEO takes such a hands-on role with responding to readers.

It's an open question whether Patch can turn other potential disasters, like what played out in Framingham, into successes. It's hard to even know for sure if the model for the Framingham Patch will succeed over the long haul. But there's no question that the community is engaged in Framingham, and that's an important first step.

Jon Chesto
Managing Editor, Print-
Boston Business Journal