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So What Do You Do, Brian Farnham, Editor-In-Chief, Patch?

At the helm of the rapidly growing, hyperlocal network, Farnham dishes on laissez-faire management, plagiarism problems, and building an audience

- November 10, 2010
AOL has some lofty goals for its expansion into content creation, including becoming the number one employer of journalists. A large part of this plan involves the growth of Patch, its network of community-focused sites. By year's end, the company expects Patch to have spawned into 500 towns across the nation.

But with this quick growth has come criticism as local bloggers question the site's editorial oversight, while some Patch editors have complained about long hours. Then, throw in a couple plagiarism complaints for fun and dumping on the set of community sites has almost become in vogue. That hasn't forced Patch editor-in-chief Brian Farnham to pull off the breaks, and, in fact, he seems to take the small setbacks in stride. After all, he's just dealing with issues established media companies handle everyday. At least, that's how he likes to look at it.

Name: Brian Farnham
Position: Editor-in-chief of Patch
Resume: Started out as a fact-checker and writer for New York. A year later, joined, Microsoft's online city guide, to write movie and tech reviews and to edit the book review section. Freelanced for New York publications and wrote a book about, a site that received $100 million in funding from CBS. Moved back to print in 2000 as associate editor for Details; promoted to deputy editor four years later. Named editor-in-chief of Time Out New York in 2006 and editor-in-chief of Patch in 2008.
Birthdate: Sept. 14, 1971
Hometown: New York, NY
Education: AB, Bowdoin College; MFA, Columbia University
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday Times: "I read it online or iPhone, so no section per se; [I] usually start with Frank Rich."
Favorite TV show: Modern Family
Guilty pleasure: Apocalyptic sci-fi novels
Last book read: The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
Twitter handle: @brifar

What's it like managing such a large network?
It's a combination of awesome and intimidating. The growth that we're experiencing right now is phenomenal. We're hiring about 30 people a week to hit our goal of 500 plus markets by the end of the year. And, obviously, most of those are journalists -- the editors that we are hiring to run these sites. So, given the recent events in the industry and all the news and reality of the economic downturns, but also newspaper woes and people losing their jobs or taking buyouts, it's obviously incredibly gratifying to be able to be apart of something that's growing that industry. So it has kind of been a thrilling ride so far.

How much interaction do you have with the community editors Patch currently has?
Well, in the early days I had a lot, right. We had a handful of sites, and it was pretty much me and a couple other people managing them, so I was very hands-on, and loved that. And then as we grew, I became less and less hands-on, but that was always the plan. The way we are structured is we hire regional editors who oversee 12 local editors, which is what we call them. So we have a local editor, [and] then there's a regional editor managing 12 of those bundled together. And then just under me, we have four editorial directors who oversee large swaths of the country. So everything kind of rolls up to them, and then to me. I have contact with them through a variety of calls and meetings that we do.

"All of our content is produced locally, right, so it's in no way a farm. It's really a network of independent media outlets."

Do you welcome the title "content farm?"
No, I don't think it applies to us at all. Content farm generally applies to the sites that, well, the mainly the ones that have big networks of disaggregated freelancers who sort of opted in to be tapped when things are needed. We're not that at all. All of our content is produced locally, right, so it's in no way a farm. It's really a network of independent media outlets is the best way to think about it.

Patch has come under fire for its lack of editorial oversight for unseasoned journalists. What's your response to those cries?
Yeah, you know I think that is kind of an unfortunate stereotype really of our people. We have now, a couple hundred editors. The average experience for the editors is nine years of journalism experience. So it's not as if everyone is right out of school. I think those things have been overstated a bit. Yes, there have been this and that incident, but not as many as I think some of the echoing in the blogosphere makes it seem like. Every newspaper or media company that deals with journalism and human beings deals with mistakes at some point. The real thing is how quickly you respond to those and correct them and how transparent you are about them. So that's what we are really concentrating on.

Are the stories fact-checked before they run, or do the writers work on an honor system?
They are fact-checked by the reporter or editor. So any freelancer who writes for us, the editor is editing that copy. That's not going live without someone seeing it. And when the editor writes something, usually the regional editor is looking at it beforehand again, but not always. But the editors all know to fact-check their own work.

How does Patch get implanted in a new community?
The most important I'd say, just because it's sort of the first and most powerful, is whenever we launch a site, we send a team in -- a three-person team of freelancers, and the local editor is actually a part of that. What they're doing is building up our directory. We go around to every organization, every business, every park and government agency and we hand-collect that data. We put it into structured fields. We take numerous photographs. And then we build up that database and it becomes a really rich yellow pages for us.

"The local editors are all basically chief marketing officers of their sites. They are the ones figuring out how to promote it day-to-day."

But then after the launch... We just do a lot of grassroots outreach of the editor constantly. The local editors are all basically chief marketing officers of their sites. They are the ones figuring out how to promote it day-to-day. So we help them with the overall strategy, but they are really the ones out there pounding the pavement, handing out flyers, and just meeting everyone they can.

How do you manage your relationships with the local blogosphere, especially since you and the other top editors are spread so thin?
We tell everyone that the local editors are masters of their domain. So that includes the content and the markets themselves and the people in that ecosystem, whether they be bloggers or the weekly newspaper, radio station or whatever. That means that we want them to sit down with the bloggers and share content and figure out ways to work together. We look at it as we are coming into a new market, and we are not going to assume we know more than [the local people] do or that we are bigger or better experts for that community than they are. We have an open linking policy if we didn't get something we want to point our users to it, and hopefully other sites want to do the same.

In light of the plagiarism accusations, what guidelines or rules has Patch put in place to avoid them?
We put a number of rules in place before. We definitely had a zero tolerance policy for plagiarism. Everyone knows what not to do. I think, the incident you are referring to, one was actually a freelancer; it wasn't a full-time editor. And you know, the other was an unfortunate mistake. It was really kind of, I'll say understandable just because of the way sometimes [things] happen online where you will have a photo that in this particular instance was actually a public domain photo. It was a police mug shot, and you know it was definitely the wrong thing to do to take it. It shouldn't have happened, but you know, I think there is a lot of gray area online, I'm not saying that this is an excuse, it's something you have to navigate. But these things, every media company in the world, again, deals with these mistakes, and it's something you see from time to time. And the best you can do is use them as lessons, and remind people what the standards are, and move on.

Patch has received a lot of heat from the blogosphere regarding the pay and hours of community editors. But why would a journalist want to work at Patch, and what's there to like about the gig?
I think there's a lot to like. I don't want to speak for all the editors, but having talked to a number of them, I know that one thing I hear is first it's ownership. It is really a chance to sort of run your own ship. And a lot love that. And the other thing is the flexible schedule. We try to structure the jobs so that people can find the time they need to take off whenever they need it, and we certainly put a lot of things in place to help people, whether it's a freelance budget so they can pay people to help them... You are getting a site, and it's your job to fill it. And we are not telling people what they should write about. In fact, we always say, 'You are the local expert, you tell us.' And I think the majority of our editors really get that. They really love the autonomy that they are given. They're also marketing, and they're also learning to sort of run this small business to some degree. So there's many aspects of it that they can sink their teeth into. I think it makes it, obviously, fast moving, but it's also really interesting.

Besides being local, what is Patch's editorial niche?
Our philosophy is that we are not a news site. We are really a community site that's got news and information and that the entire purpose is to digitize small communities and to give them experience online that people in bigger cities kind of take for granted. I figure niche, if anything, is really creating a complete hopefully comprehensive experience of the community online in a way that that community would recognize and doesn't feel like it's being served from somewhere else.

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Ryan Derousseau is a freelance writer in New York City, You can find him on Twitter at @ryanderous.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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