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How I Got Patched In

I knew I was likely to draw a response when I wrote last week, not admiringly, about the Occupy Wall Street movement. But with a column whose modest readership is scattered coast to coast, I did not expect to see dozens of comments from neighbors in New York.

I neglected to consider Patch.com.

My daily commentaries, or sometimes those of my co-workers, appear every business day on our firm’s website at www.palisadeshudson.com. A few larger outlets, including Wall Street Pit and Henry Blodgett’s Business Insider, regularly pick it up, and I am also a contributor to EzineArticles.com, Morningstar.com and Google News. All of these secondary distributors draw audiences from all over.

About once or twice a week, depending on the topics we write about, we also submit columns to the Scarsdale Patch site, which serves the community near our suburban New York headquarters. Items that appear in Scarsdale sometimes run on other Patch sites in the lower Hudson Valley.

AOL acquired the Patch network of hyper-local news blogs in 2009, reportedly spending $120 million to expand the business. My guess is that to have any chance at commercial success, Patch needs to supplement a small editorial staff with content from unpaid contributors like me, and to generate a lot of community interest and discussion. With enough penetration in these highly targeted audiences, Patch can try to sell ads to restaurants, hardware stores, groceries and other local businesses.

It might be working. At the start of this week, my Occupy post had not elicited a single comment on our firm’s site, nor were there any responses on Business Insider or Wall Street Pit. But Patch had 75 comments and replies between last Tuesday, when the column first appeared, and Saturday night, as the holiday weekend wound down. The postings were aggregated, so readers in various suburbs such as Port Chester, Nyack and Peekskill could all talk to one another. And boy, did they talk.

Some of the talk, naturally, was about me or directed at me. “You really believe that your ilk bear no culpability in the slow motion train wreck that lead [sic] to the Occupy protests?” inquired Observer512. Actually, I’m not sure I believe I have an ilk. It is certainly a small one if I do. However, I accept partial culpability for the train wreck, if only because I voted for Obama in 2008 in exchange for a friend’s promise of a chocolate cake. My defenses are that the alternative was McCain/Palin and that the cake was homemade.

Sandy Oestrich felt strongly enough to resort to all caps. “IF OCCUPY IS SO INSIPID, THEN WHY HAS THE CORPORATE OPPOSITION ACTUALLY BUDGETTED THE LARGE NUMBER OF $850,000 SO THE MEDIA (maybe THIS one?) will trivialize it?” Five minutes later, Sandy apparently made a discovery. “Aha, the writer of this silly piece is part of the 1%. CEO of financial planning etc. How much of the $850,000 was he paid to write it???” I can authoritatively answer that question. I was paid zero of the $850,000, or any other sum. Could somebody kindly tell me where to send a bill for punditry services rendered?

But mostly, the Patch readers conducted an articulate and civil discussion with one another. There were thoughtful disagreements about Ayn Rand, Friedrich von Hayek and the Citizens United case. They stepped through the Russian revolutions of March and October 1917, bemoaning the Bolshevik overthrow of a provisional government that succeeded the Czar. One writer posted a lengthy extract of notes from William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony, about the Pilgrims’ reasons for abandoning communal farming in favor of family plots.

What strikes me as remarkable about the Patch debate is that it happened. Americans increasingly self-segregate our political discussion into red zones (Fox News) and blue zones (MSNBC and, despite its contrary claims, CNN). The national audience is large enough to support this. But on the local level, it is unlikely that there is going to be a liberal Patch and a conservative Patch. Neighbors who disagree still have to talk to one another, if they choose to interact at all. And even though it has leaned Democratic pretty much since Nelson Rockefeller left the scene, Westchester County is diverse enough, and its population well-informed and broad-minded enough, to generate a civilized exchange of views even while the turkey is in the oven and the in-laws are on the way.

I doubt that my commentary changed anybody’s mind, or that the Patch readers’ responses did either. That is not how debates like this usually work. Still, such discussions are productive for a couple of reasons. By remaining polite and focusing on issues rather than on personal attacks, we give ourselves a chance to absorb new information that does not necessarily persuade us immediately, but which give us a broader frame of reference for the future. And by conducting this debate in a forum that attracts a diverse audience, we expose that audience – the people who read the postings without joining in the discussion – to all sides of the issue. Like jurors, they can weigh the testimony and then make up their minds. It is difficult to do that on an outlet that attracts a predominantly like-minded group of readers or viewers.

I don’t write commentaries because I feel a need to persuade people to my point of view. I do it so people who know me, including my colleagues and my firm’s clients, are aware of my thoughts on matters that I think they might care about. I also do it so people who don’t know me can get a chance to know me. On a personal level, I have met some fine people through the commentaries. On a business level, people have to get to know me before they can trust me, and they have to trust me before they will do business with me.

I want to be thoughtful, reflective and fair-minded, and writing the commentaries requires that I try to be those things. Getting Patched into Westchester gave me a chance to share with neighbors who seem to want to be those things, too.

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