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Top Editor of AOL’s Patch Venture Resigns

Brian Farhnham, editor of AOL’s hyper-local journalism venture, will exit May 4; company said it would not replace him

Brian Farnham, editor in chief of AOL's hyper-local Patch venture, has resigned.

The editor announced his departure in a company conference call on Wednesday. The top editor, employee No. 4 for the venture in its ealy pre-AOL days, said his last day will be May 4.

In a blog post, he said that he was "leaving for an assortment of reasons, but I'm glad to be able to say that none of them is negative."

A Patch spokeswoman said that no one would replace Farnham. "We couldn't if we tried," she said.

Also read: Arianna Huffington at TheGrill: Growth Not Waylaid by AOL Troubles

CEO Jon Brod, a long-time friend of Farnham's, praised him for his contributions.

"There would be no Patch without Brian," Brod wrote on Farnham's exit note.

Yet Patch did hire Rachel Feddersen as chief content officer in Februrary, as criticism of costs associated with the costs have grown. 

Arianna Huffington's influence over the sites has grown since AOL acquired Huffington Post and installed her as the company's top editor; she has pushed for more, unpaid bloggers, and sites in key primary states. Freelance budgets have been continually slashed for the past year.

It is unclear whether Huffington still oversees the community-focused journalism initiative. While the New York Times ran a piece suggesting that Huffington has gained more power within AOL, Business Insider published a retort, claiming that Huffington had actually lost control over sites like Engadget and TechCrunch.

When TheWrap spoke with individuals familiar with the situation, they described it as status quo but did suggest a streamlining of operations was taking place.

Patch is a pet project of AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, who invested in it in 2007, when he was a top Google exec. At the time, Armstrong was frustrated that he could not get community news for Greenwich, Ct., where where he resides with his family.

Also read: AOL Extends Tim Armstrong's Contract Through 2016

AOL then bought Patch in 2009 shortly after Armstrong took the reins at the Internet giant and the company has poured tens of millions of dollars into the venture, opening hundreds of sites around the country. Each includes listings and news about city council meetings and sporting events, and relies on a local editor in each community and freelancers that receive modest compensation.

But it is not yet clear when Patch might begin to recoup those costs. The company has ramped up the number of unpaid bloggers and slashed freelance budgets amid rising media criticism of the venture for its impact on AOL's bottom line.

Armstrong has addressed those critiques on earnings calls, insisting in February that some Patch sites were already profitable and that many more would be soon.

This is also something Farnham addressed.

"I've never worked for a company that has been as scrutinized, criticized, and coal-raked as this one," Farnham wrote. "As [Brod] likes to say, you'd think we were creating toxic waste, instead of, you know, free useful information."

Farnham suggested this criticism was a sign that members of the media and Wall Street analysts found it both "really interesting and potentially threatening."

While acknowledging that there is a great deal of work left to do at Patch, Farnham said both the revenue and content sides of the business are "killing it."

Farnham will join the company's Advisory Board and Brod said he might wrote a blog post from time to time.

Farnham's resignation note follows.

This isn't goodbye…

As you heard on today's All-Company call, after four years as Editor-in-Chief of Patch, I'm moving on. My last day is May 4. I'm leaving for an assortment of reasons, but I'm glad to be able to say that none of them is negative. I love Patch, and I plan on staying very connected as an active alum, most specifically as a member of the advisory board we're continuing to build. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful that I can maintain this connection, and I'll be there anytime Patch calls on me.

Taking leave of Patch ain't easy, but let me try to boil down why I'm doing so: it turns out I really love creating things from scratch, and while Patch is in a continual process of truly fascinating evolution and only a toddler of a company, it has definitely left "scratch" in the dust. So I'm heading off to explore some other startup opportunities. But not before I take a good, long nap.

Patch has never just been a job for me. It's been a very personal experience. Jon Brod, who co-founded Patch and brought me on (as employee #4!), has been a close friend since college, twenty years ago. I turned 40 while at Patch. My two children were born while I was here. (In fact, I had to hastily leave a meeting to attend my son David's birth.) I didn't make this decision lightly, and I wouldn't be able to pull the trigger if I didn't feel Patch were in good shape and in great hands. One of several bittersweet feelings I'm having right now is the fact that Patch is enjoying such palpable momentum as a business. We've always joked that Patch is a bus we're building while it runs at top speed — well, it feels like we've stopped wobbling and fishtailing from the fast start and now we're cruising.

There's still a lot of work left to do, of course, but I have to say I love how that work is getting organized and knocked out – especially on the revenue side. Mark Josephson and his team are killing it right now. And on the content side, same thing. I've only worked with Rachel Feddersen for about six weeks now but I have loved the ideas and focus she has brought to Patch. I've already learned a ton from her, and I'm sad to have to give up that partnership. She and I are touring around Patchland as I write this, and we're having a blast.

Allow me this indulgence of a paragraph: I've never worked for a company that has been as scrutinized, criticized, and coal-raked as this one. As Jon likes to say, you'd think we were creating toxic waste, instead of, you know, free useful information. We have critics on Wall Street, critics in the media, local critics, national critics, the business press, the journalism reviews, bloggers, etc. There are so many that I've come to think of them as a single large, screechy, off-key band called BI and the Haters. It's music to kill yourself by.

The good news about that? I think it's safe to say that we wouldn't be constantly deboned by all these critics if we weren't doing something really interesting and potentially threatening. People associated with, dependent on, or invested in existing systems don't like bold new attempts to re-imagine those systems. That's just the reality of a business like ours.

But if you ever find these noisome types getting you down and you want to escape it, just turn toward the community you work in. Because our users don't sing this tune. They just get us. They may sometimes chide us for certain ways we've executed things (or not executed them), but has any user ever complained to you that they don't understand why we exist? There's a reason we get thousands of emails from users about how we've improved their lives. We're trying to make communities better, stronger. If you're on the receiving end of that mission, what the hell is there to complain about?!

We have a lot to be proud of. We have accomplished some amazing things together. Historical things. Seriously — no matter what happens from here on, any future history book about journalism or online media has to discuss Patch. How many more companies are you going to work for in your career where that will be true?

Here's what I'm most proud of: the people we've hired. We're staffed with some truly inspiring talent, on all sides of the business. Especially among you editors, whose work I obviously know best. I'm not bullshitting when I say I've learned from you every day. The job we gave you is hard. You have to be a certain kind of fearless to take it on. You don't just have to accept that the job will never be easy; you actually have to like that about it. And you have to be passionate. And man, you are.

And the editors I've gotten to know who fit this bill are just kickass people, on top of being pros. If I may offer some advice to you as an editorial team on my way out the door: if you're still inclined to think of yourself as a journalist, stop — you're selling yourself short. This job gives you the opportunity to practice journalism while being something much greater. And if you're too concerned with living up to some rarefied notion of what a capital-J Journalist should be, you won't explore what else you can do with your position in your community.

I know it may seem like you're constantly being asked from on high to do this and that requirement or hit this or that goal, but in reality very little is actually prescribed about your role. Having created the job out of whole cloth, we have always looked to you to show us what can be made of it. So don't just write. Don't just report. Get into your communities. Figure out what being in the driver's seat of this remarkable local platform can really let you do.

There are a ton of people I need to thank. Tim Armstrong is #1 on that list. Patch is his vision, and I've never worked for a leader with more energy and bravery to push the ideas he's passionate about. I have to thank Jon Brod for trusting me to help create this company from nothing four years ago. I have to thank Warren Webster, who bleeds green and has been a calm, essential leader for Patch since the beginning.

If I name anyone else, I run the risk of leaving out someone just as deserving — Patch has an extraordinary team of leaders and I love that I consider so many of them friends beyond our working relationship. I will miss being in the foxhole with you guys.

I do want to single out the Editorial Directors here — Marcia, Sherry, Tim and ADC. You four were my rocks. You each bring something unique to the table and lead your teams in your own way, but it's the fierce caring you all exhibit that I've valued most. Couldn't have done anything we've done without you. Not even close.

Most of all I'm grateful to each and every editor at Patch. Being able to say I led a team of hundreds of wickedly smart, dedicated editors is an honor that will be tough to top in my career going forward. Thank you, and keep up the amazing work. I'll be watching.

A final note: This thing we've been trying to build here can't be fueled by timidity or complacency. Those of us who were here in the beginning followed Tim's lead and tried to be fast and bold. That's still very much needed. So, to be blunt, don't be afraid to fuck up. We weren't.

In the next couple of weeks I'm going to get out into the field as much as possible to say face-to-face goodbyes. For those I don't get to see, thank you, good luck and let's stay in touch. It has truly been an honor.