Former Santa Cruz Patch editor Brad Kava believed in the promise of the format. Photo by Chip Scheuer.
Last Wednesday, the new owners of Patch.com pulled the plug on over 300 of its remaining editors, including Santa Cruz's own, Brad Kava, who ran Santa Cruz Patch for the past three years.
“I never worked so hard in my life,” says a recovering Kava. “You know, a lot of 18 hour days. But I never loved a job so much either. The first thing I did in the morning was log onto Patch, and that was the last thing I did at night. And you know, it was out of love.”
Acquired by AOL in 2009, the platform of 900 hyperlocal news sites struggled to make a profit, and lost over $200 million before a majority stake was finally sold to Hale Global on January 15. But even after 2013's wave of layoffs—which cut the employee number down from 1,000 to 450—last week's drastic downsize came as a shock, especially after CEO Charles Hale promised a Patch experience “full of innovation and growth.”
“It didn't make sense to me that someone would buy it and then break it down,” says Kava. “I thought that if they bought it, they believed in it and wanted to build it even stronger.”
For someone who's just lost his job, though, Kava's reflections are extremely positive. Sure, Patch expanded with reckless abandon—and who wasn't skeptical, really? But somewhere between Patch's rapid and abundant sprouting, its short-lived bloom and ultimate fizzle, Kava became a believer in the future of hyperlocal news.
“I thought we might not break through in Santa Cruz,” says Kava. “Because Patch was originally designed to be in places that didn't have other media. But we did. And it was growing, and would have kept growing.”
When Kava became editor in December of 2010, the site had 7,000 unique monthly visitors. The month of his termination, Kava reported over 100,000, and maintained an average of 50,000 monthly visits for most of its run. Writing three to seven stories a day, he put Santa Cruz on the map every time a story was picked up by a national news source—which happened often.
“The genius of Patch is they really made us feel like we owned our Patch, so I felt like I was working for myself, I felt like an entrepreneur, really building something,” says Kava. “They never questioned our content. They said 'we trust you to reflect your community, what you think is important is what's important.'”
So while east coast Patches wrote about Little League, Santa Cruz Patch published columns like David Jay Brown's ever-popular “Catch the Buzz,” which explored the science and benefits of psychedelics, among other illicit things. “I believed in it so much I paid him out of my own pocket when the money ran out,” says Kava. “Which is one of the craziest things I've ever done,”
But Kava's 22 years as a Mercury News reporter gave Patch an edge on serious, investigative stories too: He investigated and exposed the lack of Harbor Police patrol on the night of a brutal rape at Kind Grind—winning a San Francisco Bay Area Press Club Award. At the same time, he encouraged writers like myself to write about seemingly trivial items, like Seabright's two dollar “Wow Wow” Tuna sandwich. “So what's great journalism? Turning people onto something in their community they didn't know about,” he says.
While Hale Global's plans for Patch remain secret, they appear to be keeping all 900 Patch sites online—with only 100 or so employed. “So, hyperlocal is gone,” says Kava. “I think what they want is for the community to take it over, to be bloggers. That was always one of their goals. But I think what they gave up is serious journalists, and editors who could sort the content into what was really local, and what was true and what was important.”
In his eyes, Patch was the best of a daily and weekly combined, and he dreams of continuing on with a similar news site. But, he says: “I'm a journalist, not really a business man.”