In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, a big news event for hyperlocal publishers, we asked Patch‘s chief content officer Rachel Feddersen to give us the scoop on how the AOL unit managed its own business during the storm.
The Patch team is mostly based in the field — in over 900 communities around the country — but our headquarters is in Chelsea, part of NYC’s blackout zone. When my colleagues and I weren’t able to commute to the city during the storm and in the days following, we just joined our field work force. In general, we’re all very accustomed to working remotely and switching modes quickly and frequently; we all travel a lot to offices across the country, and as a massively distributed workforce, we’re built to be nimble.
Because we stay in close touch as a matter of course, this is a very united team despite the distance between us, with a real sense of mutual support and teamwork. Those Patchers who weren’t affected by the storm reached out immediately and continuously to help. Very basic nuts-and-bolts tasks such as editing, aggregating, promoting — they can all be done remotely.
We know from past experience that reserving hotel rooms for local editors before the storm hits is the way to go. This keeps people safe and dry, helps protect their families, and it also lets the team focus on their work.
And overall, the work produced has been pretty astounding. Even with the very real physical constraints imposed by the storm, we’ve published over 10,000 Sandy-related articles and blog posts at latest count. 10,000. But major community news is the kind of thing our editors specialize in. When it comes to the challenges of lack of power, lack of Internet, lack of cell connection, our mission to serve our communities is a huge motivation to make it work — drive around the fallen trees, find a way to the highway, find the gas station that’s open, and keep on going.
So other than the really frustrating lack of Internet connection, and the exhaustion of trying to get work done while caring for family and property, and searching endlessly for gasoline, the week was fairly seamless in terms of actually getting the work done.
It’s not that we expect our editors to put forth a consistently superhuman effort in the teeth of the elements; we know from past experience that reserving hotel rooms for local editors before the storm hits is the way to go. This keeps people safe and dry, helps protect their families, and it also lets the team focus on their work — which is exactly what they want to do when a story this big hits their community in such a huge way.
Of course, all the planning in the world didn’t stop the power from going out at some of the hotels in the affected areas. But, we had resources available to keep searching for and booking hotels as we needed them, which was good, since some of our editors had to move around a few times. Managers created on-the-ground plans to alleviate local editors who needed to take care of personal issues – some experienced minor home or automobile damage, others were ordered evacuated from their towns. And as I mentioned, we turned to our colleagues elsewhere; we implemented backup systems where editors from non-impacted areas pitched in when an editor here lost power or access to our CMS.
Our editors rose to the occasion over and over and over again. We’re seeing unflagging commitment to getting the information out to the readers in every way possible. Despite the fact that the storm was a major disruption to their own lives, they’ve reported nonstop on the storm and its aftermath. Most editors live in the towns that were impacted, and they’ve been leveraging their relationship to their communities to produce excellent work. This is one of those times when it’s made abundantly clear what an honor it is to work with this editorial team.