Future of Content

February 7th, 2014

Why Patch Dried Up: Is Hyperlocal Over, Or Was It AOL?

Throughout Patch’s dizzying ride from buzzy idea in 2007 to an AOL property operating 900 sites in 2013, the fractured hub of hyperlocal news has been an easy target for critics everywhere.

And yet, when AOL stepped away from Patch in January, selling operational control and a majority of its stake to Hale Global, many writers, editors, and readers in the news industry took a punch to the gut. Patch was, after all, a passion project, and during its tenure, plenty of people felt the passion.

“When I started in November of 2010, I believed in what Patch was doing,” said former editor Tran Longmoore. “I think [AOL CEO] Tim Armstrong and all the newsy types who signed up believed they were doing something important.”

If the old newspaper model doesn’t work and AOL couldn’t make digital work, is local news simply not viable? Or did AOL’s corporate missteps turn Patch into a barren field incapable of producing revenue?

Too fast, too soon

“I actually thought there were a lot of good things about Patch and AOL,” said media consultant Leela de Kretser, whose clients now include Contently. “I thought they had a chance. What they suffered from was getting huge really quickly and not really defining their editorial voice.”

Offering notably low pay for journalists didn’t help either, leaving Patch with a huge staff of inexperienced reporters and local news veterans unfamiliar with the digital realm. The narrow focus on overall growth couldn’t be adapted for regional branches with different needs, resulting in a messy farm of broken infrastructure.

With such a widespread network, De Kretser said it would have taken a very strong editorial command center to manage Patch’s many needs. “By the time they realized they needed that, it was too late.”

“As things spiraled downward, some of us just decided to ignore the stuff coming out of New York City [where the company was headquartered],” said Longmoore, who left Patch in 2012 to launch his own local news site. “Oh, there’s a new mandate? Good to know. I’l look into it in two months if New York still remembers.”

With such a widespread network, De Kretser said it would have taken a very strong editorial command center to manage Patch’s many needs. “By the time they realized they needed that, it was too late.”

Too big to be small

Regardless of AOL’s growth strategy, is local news inevitably doomed to fail when you try to scale it globally?

Longmoore certainly thinks so. He pointed to AOL’s corporate structure as the primary reason Patch didn’t work. Advertising reps were known to offend local businesses by mispronouncing the names of cities when soliciting ads.

“You have to build and nurture relationships to sell ads,” he said. “I don’t think corporations can do local. They’re too detached.”

Longmoore said the local publications also suffered from an editorial disconnect. When revenue pressure was on, orders from corporate called for more clickbait, à la localizing Justin Bieber headlines over covering more local news.

But De Kretser, the former Editorial Director and Publisher of community news site DNAinfo.com, doesn’t believe a company like AOL failed to make Patch work only because of its scope. “I think it could have been a nice fit for AOL,” she said. “I didn’t see AOL getting involved as the death of Patch.”

The revenue problem

When it comes down to it, AOL just couldn’t generate revenue from Patch.

“At the moment it’s not working to try to be a national brand in what’s inherently a local market,” said Dan Gillmor, professor of digital media literacy for Arizona State University. “I don’t know how to make local advertising scale without a lot of human sales people going out there with the purpose of paying for journalism.”

According to De Kretser, the hyperlocal world was plagued by a myth that local advertisers would pay more for online ads than their national competitors. “I believe people will pay for local advertising, but not banner advertising,” she added.

That’s not to say Patch didn’t experiment with sponsored content. For example, they created a site for the fictional city featured in the Disney movie “Planes.” But overall, static ads accounted for the bulk of Patch’s visible advertising. As other publications embraced paywalls, micro-payments, underwriters and sponsored content, Patch’s alternative revenue status fell short.

A hopeful future

Kinks in local journalism’s revenue equation must be fixed, but some still believe the market for hyperlocal can still thrive. De Kretser thinks intelligent, well-informed people truly care about local news as much as national headlines. “What they find most interesting are the lives they’ve made for themselves in their neighborhoods,” she said. “That’s an amazing audience for advertisers.”

“What they find most interesting are the lives they’ve made for themselves in their neighborhoods,” she said. “That’s an amazing audience for advertisers.”

Perhaps nothing speaks louder about the hope for the future of local journalism than Longmoore’s actions. Even after his dismal experience with Patch, launching his own local publication indicates those with a passion for local news aren’t going to stop until they make it work. And that, said Gillmor, is exactly the way it should be.

“I expect there will be a lot of local enterprises that spring up in the coming years, and people have to be satisfied with a smaller revenue base for a smaller company. I don’t think that’s tragic,” he added. “I’d rather see a lot of smaller enterprises doing local news.”

Gillmor’s wish may ultimately be coming true. With other publications across the country like New York’s Daily Voice and Chicago’s DNAinfo.com hitting their strides, local journalists can still enjoy the fruits of their small-town labor as long as they learn to ration the harvest.

What’s the deal with the Content Strategist? At Contently, storytelling is the only marketing we do, and it works wonders. It could for you, too. Learn more.


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