What's Next for Patch.com?

Columnist Christine Wolf, Evanston Patch's freelance opinion columnist, shares her perspectives on writing for a hyperlocal news source and how it has strengthened her ties to the community.

Last month, AOL announced the sale of Patch.com to Hale Global, a technology investment firm. As a Patch freelance opinion columnist for the past three years in Evanston, Ilinois, I wonder what happens now. Hyperlocal news has been a game changer for me professionally, but -- more importantly -- it’s also connected me deeply to my community. Judging by the comments I receive every day – online and in person – I hope Hale Global recognizes the full impact and tremendous, untapped potential that hyperlocal sites can deliver in communities across America.

Just Minding My Own Business…

In January of 2010, I started a blog on Wordpress. I wrote about things I figured no one (except my family and friends) would care about, like the antics of my three kids or my dreams to become a published children’s author. In one blog post, I described my older son’s “creative” methods to raise funds to buy an iPad (he rented out his bedroom to his financially sound sister). Aside from a chuckle from the grandparents, I wondered how my posts would resonate with anyone.

I was a 40-year-old mom with three school-aged kids. I’d just started a one-year-break from teaching kids to write a book. At that time, I traveled a well-worn and limited path through my community: drive the kids to school…stop at the grocery store/dry cleaner/gas station… drive home to manage the house and write…occasionally sneak in a walk with a friend along Lake Michigan…drive back for school pickups…run the kids to various practices and lessons…then drive home again for dinner/homework/bedtime. My most meaningful community connections were in the grocery line or with neighbors and the families of my children’s friends. I didn’t follow local politics. I only knew one alderman (mine) and couldn’t begin to tell you the names of the others – or where their wards’ boundary lines were. I didn’t follow community affairs or pay attention to city government. We subscribed to The Chicago Tribune and local newspapers like The Evanston Review and The RoundTable, but I never read them consistently. My life felt full, but I hadn’t realized how narrow it actually was until a phone call changed everything.

Will Someone Google “Hyperlocal News Source”?

A regional editor for Patch.com stumbled across my blog while searching for freelance writers in Evanston. During our initial phone call, over Labor Day weekend in 2010, I learned that Patch.com was a hyperlocal news source and was asked to write an opinion column about the goings-on in my community.

Excuse me, a what? What’s a hyperlocal news source?

I learned it was a new form of journalism that works in real-time, online. I was told it would bring news and opinions to readers with more immediacy than traditional media. That it allowed readers to interact with the source through comments and contributions.

But I’m not a trained journalist, I thought. I’m not even a writer. I’m just a mom and a teacher on a hiatus. Is this for real? Who do they think I am? They want my opinion? On what…whether the parking’s better at Jewel or Whole Foods?

“Just write about what you notice,” the editors told me. “Look around and write about what you see and hear. Business openings, restaurants you like, dogs splashing in the waves, school issues…it’s all fair game. Just write with feeling. Write from your heart. And remember, it’s an opinion column.” And so, I took the leap. Overnight I became a working writer with the flexibility to cover whatever moved me. I got to write from home. I was paid through a Paypal account. Communication with colleagues was almost always online unless a one-on-one meeting was scheduled. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I was excited to figure it out. 

“Please,” I cautioned the regional editor about a month into it, “go easy on me. Remember, I’m not a journalist.”

“You’re writing a column and sharing it with others,” he’d said. “That’s journalism. I hate to break it to you, but you are a journalist now.”

How Do I Do This?

My initial contract with Patch had me writing 10 columns per week, each one with a 500-750 word max. For perspective, that’s 2-3, 8.5x11” pages of double-spaced typeface. I was on a quest for content but I couldn’t do it alone. I realized very quickly that I had to reach out for ideas.

First, I sent an email to every person I knew in town, including former teaching colleagues, friends and neighbors. I’m writing for Patch.com I’d said. If you ever have an idea for a story, please let me know.

The ideas trickled in (thank goodness), but I knew I had to pound the pavement to keep the pipeline full. I also recognized how much I had to widen my path. It occurred to me how narrowly I lived.

We were in the throes of the recession, so whenever a new business opened I salivated. For example, when a new cupcake shop opened, I stopped by to introduce myself. The owner wasn’t there so I left my name and email address on a napkin –quickly realizing I needed business cards. I made some at home and cut and pasted the Patch logo. I wanted to feel legit.

In my early days with Patch, I wrote a series of columns about a young man’s suicide two blocks from my house (Column #1, Column #2 and Column #3). The writing itself was bumpy and unpolished, but I think my true feelings came through. The young man had apparently gone to the local playground in the middle of the night with two pipe bombs and an Airsoft gun in his duffle bag, allegedly to deter anyone from carrying out his mission. In the aftermath, as helicopters and news crews invaded my neighborhood, I wrote about what many of us felt: fear (before we knew what had happened, rumors ran rampant – were there more explosive devices around the local school?); shock (why did he go to a playground near a schoolyard?); and guilt (why hadn’t we helped this young man before he took his own life?). As my editor updated the site with information as it came in, I gained a true appreciation for hyperlocal journalism. Everyone wanted to know what was happening, and they needed to know it now.

Time Flies…

The site needed content and I was a boots-on-the-ground writer in Evanston. If I had an opinion, Patch had a place to share it. When my kids saw me hunched over my keyboard, they whispered to my husband, “Dad? Is Mom Patching again?”

To be honest, it really wasn’t that hard to find topics to write about. Evanston’s a fascinating place to live, with a population of 75,000 on the western shore of Lake Michigan and the northern border of Chicago. Our residents are transient Northwestern University students and generations of lifelong Evanstonians; young families seeking their first suburban homes and billionaires in lakefront estates. We’ve got more voices than any one city government can satisfy and more restaurants than any one human can sample in a year. Writing about my community became a journey in discovery…though not all of it’s been fun.

A Quick Introduction To Trolls

Early on, I wrote a column about a soon-to-open handbag store called “Flee”. Peeking in the windows, I noticed products inside were touted as Fleebags. I wrote that, while I thought the bags were adorable, that the branding was less than flattering – and it wasn’t long before the Internet trolls came out to play. Here’s one comment:

While I usually find Christine’s articles to be helpful regarding ongoings and such in Evanston, I certainly don’t understand her seemingly uncalled for attack on a new business opening here in Evanston. We want to encourage small businesses to find a home in Evanston, not rip them apart before they’ve opened their doors because they might have a cutesy or whimsical name. But since she did call the products adorable, the rest of the article is justified, correct? So in keeping with the theme, while the author looks adorable, I have a hard time with her name. Definition of Christine: Christine is a feminine name of Greek or Latin origin. It is derived from the word Christ, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah”. Definition of wolf (wlf) n. pl. wolves (wlvz)
1.a. Either of two carnivorous mammals of the family Canidae, especially the gray wolf of northern regions, that typically live and hunt in hierarchical packs and prey on livestock and game animals.
b. The fur of such an animal.
c. Any of various similar or related mammals, such as the hyena.
2. The destructive larva of any of various moths, beetles, or flies.
3. One that is regarded as predatory, rapacious, and fierce.
4. Slang A man given to paying unwanted sexual attention to women.

Maybe we should call the author a destructive larva messiah? After all, she races, zips, charges, attacks, blitzes and storms around Town. But that wouldn’t be nice, accurate or fair, would it.

One reader, in particular, commented on almost every column I wrote for over a year – always with a tie-in to his views on the U.S. government. Whether I wrote about about good-deed-doers, new businesses, schools, traffic problems, Christmas lights, off-leash dogs, homeless vets or the local university, he consistently linked his comment to (what he felt was) Obama administration’s annihilation of our country. At times, my husband had to physically pull me away from the computer so I wouldn’t respond to his passive-aggressive commentary.

Other readers with agendas left comments on my columns about smaller-than-acceptable parking spaces and new business openings. I had to train myself (and my husband) to disengage from these individuals when the comments tried to goad me into responding.

“Oh, you write for Patch?”

As I continued handing out my homemade business cards and hearing back from more community members about ideas for columns, my confidence grew. More and more Patch sites were opening around the country and – despite constant format changes – my column continued. Apparently, more people were visiting the site…and that made me happy. Maybe, I reasoned, this Patch gig will ultimately help to build my writing platform…I’ll need one if I ever want to get published as a novelist. The irony was, I spent more time “Patching” than I did working on my novel. When my editor announced that her freelance budget was cut, I was only too happy to slow down. How hard could it be to write just one column a week?

The Column That Changed It All

When fourteen-year-old Dajae Coleman was shot and killed two blocks from the local high school, I didn’t think I could or should write about the event. He’d been a freshman classmate of my oldest son, and his murder shook everyone in our entire community. And, constant references to gang activity in the area made me question how to write about a topic that scared the hell out of me.

Until the day Dajae was shot, September 22, 2012, I’d known about incidents of gun violence near Evanston Township High School but I’d never known anyone touched directly by it.  

As news of Dajae’s murder quickly spread through the social media channels of students and parents, I was in disbelief. This wasn’t supposed to happen in my town, to my kids’ friends, to an innocent boy walking home before curfew.

At Dajae’s candlelight vigil, I held my children closer, and I openly wept as I passed Dajae’s mother at the funeral. How did this happen, and what will stop it?

In the days following the incident, I found comfort watching our community come together. We all talked more, asking friends and teachers and civic leaders how best to address the tough questions that had no answers.

As my column’s deadline approached, I searched for any uplifting story to write about – anything other than a beloved honor student fatally shot in a case of mistaken identity. But as I drove past the spot on Church Street where Dajae died and as I remembered the teenagers sobbing in a packed funeral service and as I remembered the words “Look around and write about what you see and hear,” I remembered my promise to write with feeling. Since the only feeling I had was that my son was alive and another mother’s wasn’t, I decided to write this column.

The Power of Voice

I’ve made countless mistakes with my column. I’ve overwritten…overstated…and at times I’ve grossly underestimated the impact my words have on readers. When I learned the elementary school superintendent had abruptly resigned, I wrote this column bidding good riddance – only to face a backlash of comments about it being “fluff,” “shallow,” “unfortunate,” “disturbing,” “offensive,” “ignorant of the cultural dimensions and codes a black professional needs to deal with,” and, well, this one:

Ms. Wolf,
Well it appears you naive hypocrisy and dishonest political correctness has reflected itself in one of the most idiotic and self serving opinion piece I have ever real. Dr. Murphy was, is and will continue a extremely professional and committed educator to all the students, Black, White Hispanic and Asian of Evanston. Your simplistic need for a touchy feely superintendent is one of the most ridiculous needs for you and the other so called nice white liberal Evanston residents. As a Black man who has worked and continues to interact with white authority figures. He has to exhibit a professionalism and distance not necessarily required by his white counterparts. And please DO NOT SAY IT'S NOT ABOUT RACE . It's always about race. You and your minions who want a nice soft and touchy feely Black leader can review the actions among your white counterparts in their reaction to Barack Obama. So forgive me if my response is not particularly sensitive to your misguided feelings of wanting someone YOU felt comfortable with. The question is raised, Do you want a Superintendent who is a committed professional to the school system or do you want a date. If you want a date who is sensitive to how he makes you feel, go to MATCH.COM.

I’ve been learning as I go…in a very public way. I am not a trained journalist, nor have I ever portrayed myself as such. However, the education I’ve received in three years with Patch encompassed so much more than deadlines and writing. It’s been about learning sensitivity…about opening my own eyes as much as those of my readers’. It’s been about trying to balance authenticity and sensitivity. It’s been hard. Gratifying. Confusing as hell. Surprisingly intimate. It’s been a juggling act, heartbreaking and totally exciting. One thing it never was: boring.

Looking ahead…

Patch’s business model for hyperlocal journalism never made enough money for its investors, but it succeeded in pushing the needle forward on community engagement. It encouraged me to widen my path, meet more people, and learn skills I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ll always carry a heightened sense of community because I was a journalist for Patch.

Founder Tim Armstrong created Patch.com when he couldn’t find enough local news. Despite the January 15th sale to Hale Global, Armstrong reportedly maintains his belief in the future of online news.

For now, I’m unclear about the future of this Patch site…and my columns. Will they be archived or simply disappear? If so, I’ll need to preserve them somehow. As journalism evolves, I need to learn the best way to “scrapbook” online columns…

Whatever becomes of Patch and Hale Global, I hope to see a continued evolution and even more authentic connections created as a result of this purchase. Hyperlocal journalism is truly unique in its ability to offer prismatic focus on community issues –as long as there are many voices in the mix to paint a well-rounded picture of our neighborhood experiences.

Tea February 06, 2014 at 08:03 PM
Quite frankly, I'd like to see some of these editors gone. They encourage too much prejudiced news and "freedom of speech" BS. Very hateful comments from readers and the editors seem to enjoy the chaos and ugliness!
Lonson Williams February 06, 2014 at 08:56 PM
"My initial contract with Patch had me writing 10 columns per week, each one with a 500-750 word max. " Lol. This comes at about the 700 word mark. This is also about the time I stopped reading. The whole piece was about 2600 words. With an even slimmer editorial staff at Patch, I guess this type of interminable narcissistic nonsense will become even more prevalent.
Dan February 07, 2014 at 03:36 AM
Dan February 07, 2014 at 04:07 AM
Christine Wolf: You write with feeling and this is a plus when it comes to community news. It provides a theme of sensitivity and a "voice" that defines a unique region that should serve as a modal in some measure for towns throughout America. Every region has a theme-often times difficult to describe, and I assure you Chicago and its suburbs is a sociologists paradise in its 77 neighborhoods in Cook county and microcosms therein. You feel it when you are emerged in it....you know it when you see it. It is as is often taught to writers a "voice", like a singer, take Gordon Maccray,(Oklahoma) or an author, Edgar Allen Poe or an actor like Michael Douglas in the Wallstreet movies.....we know it is them and only them when we hear and see. That is what makes Evanston and it residents unique. Beautiful college kids carrying on in the most humble way imaginable; people running retail businesses in a somber manner; occasional gorgeous smiles as, for example, patrons and staff at a retail outlet notice a couple ducking under a canopy as the rains comes barreling down; my desire to transform the whole town into a Bollywood set for a day. Local news writers show us in detail the uniqueness of a Region. Where in Evanston diversity is welcome, the old and modern mix in resedential splendor and old world charm intertwined with technology is constant - one feels as if they are on the set of a movie or television filming like the paper chase or Love Story, where beauty abounds and recently primitive scum bags try to thwart it, in Evanston. The theme of any region is what is key and the vibes one derives from Evanston is very very positive. Education is contagious and the cafes abound with people that appear young and culturally aware, one just imagines something brewing that is erudite and worthy of international news having been hatched in Evanston. There is a place for Patch.....the quality should be recognized.
Grumpy Old Man February 07, 2014 at 07:25 AM
Tea - If you don't like freedom of speech, I would suggest you stop reading, stop tuning in to television or radio, etc. If you don't like a comment, respond to it or don't read it. I have seen many comments which I believe are defamatory and off color. They say more about the poster than censorship ever could. Too many comments about derogatory comments are based on viewpoint and a blatant attempt to "shout" it down. Having such comments and the freedom of speech is one of the prices we pay to live in a free society. I'd rather have some derogatory, defamatory, off color than not have the right to speak. Yes, I know, the use of false names makes it difficult to obtain recourse. That is one reason I try to keep my comments civil and avoid true defamation (defined by an objective, not a subjective standard - the old saw One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter - applied in a different context makes the point). You can always, by the way hit the flag as inappropriate which if reviewed and found to be so can cause the posted comment to be removed, itself a form of censorship but unavoidable. I trust Patch would use some judgment in responding to such requests and not remove a comment on the basis of what appears to be a personal whim. But, that is a subject for another day.


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