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Local Patch editors among those to lose jobs

The editors of many local Patch websites were among a large number of employees reportedly laid off by the news company Wednesday, under a national "restructuring" by its new owner.

Investment holding company Hale Global agreed to assume majority ownership of Patch from AOL earlier this month.

The exact toll among Maryland's sites remained unclear, but several local editors confirmed — some on the condition of anonymity — that they had been let go. Some employees still were waiting Wednesday to see what the conditions of their severance would be, and if it would include a non-disclosure clause.

The Patch website lists 48 sites in Maryland, though earlier layoffs in August diminished the amount of local news content on many of those sites.

Danna Walker, a regional Patch editor for Maryland, declined to comment Wednesday, as did John Watrous, a Hale Global official who helps lead business development. AOL did not respond to requests for comment.

The layoffs were announced during a conference call with employees on Wednesday morning. Jennifer Donatelli, editor of the Catonsville Patch and Elkridge Patch, said she had no idea what the call was for when she dialed in.

"I just feel like the wind got knocked out of me," Donatelli said. "I was having the best time. It's just a kick in the teeth."

Donatelli, 40, of Brooklyn Park, was offered her job at Patch just three weeks ago. She took it immediately, quitting a job with benefits at Sam's Club and another part-time freelancing gig at another local newspaper.

"My background has been in community news, so I really thought Patch would be a good fit and I would be able to learn new skills about writing on the Internet, maintaining a website, working on Facebook and Twitter," she said. "When they offered me the job I was just jumping up and down."

The Patch brand, consisting of roughly 900 hyper-local news and community websites nationwide, has had ups and downs in recent years.

"In its heyday, a couple years ago, it was an invaluable source for its communities and for its elected officials," said Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, who has blogged for Patch, using its sites in his district to share information with constituents.

The Perry Hall Patch had "its finest hour" in August 2012, Marks said, when it kept local residents informed as news trickled out about a shooting at Perry Hall High School on the first day of school.

"I think their coverage really helped bring the community together," he said.

A year later, however, AOL laid off a substantial number of employees as it closed some Patch websites and cut its work force by 10 percent. At the time, it was unclear who among the Maryland staff lost their jobs, but many of the sites in the state began producing less local content.

"It was clear that the resources had dwindled," Marks said. "I used it very heavily until about 6 months ago, and then it became obvious that very few people were reading it anymore and a lot of the news was recycled from other sites. But I will miss it."

On Jan. 15, AOL announced Hale Global would assume majority ownership of Patch. In a statement, CEO Charles Hale said his company was "committed to bringing users, local businesses, writers and advertisers together into a Patch experience full of innovation and growth."

With no word from Hale or AOL, Wednesday's layoffs raised questions about the future of the Patch websites if there's few people to produce local news for them.

Donatelli has always loved journalism, and in the past few weeks, she had been thrilled to start covering events and getting to know the Catonsville and Elkridge communities, she said.

"I had done some really great stories I was proud of," she said. She'd recently written a big piece about a World War II veteran living in Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville.

On Monday she'd helped a colleague, Andrew Metcalf, of Columbia Patch, cover the reopening of the Mall in Columbia after shootings there over the weekend. She'd put in long hours, tried hard, she said.

"I loved working for Patch, and the Maryland team was just so dedicated and so professional. We're all trying to keep in touch with each other once they shut down the company email," she said.

"I really was looking forward to getting to know the communities," Donatelli said. "I'm not going to have that chance now."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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