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Patch retrenchment on hyperlocal sites is bad news for community coverage

The future of news media on the Internet just got a lot more hazy. Patch, a hyperlocal news site owned by the digital giant AOL, is cratering.

Ever since the traditional newspaper business started spiraling down over the last decade, analysts and new-media acolytes have been preaching that hyperlocal journalism is the future. Hyperlocal refers to news organizations focused intensively on a small geographic area.

The Star Tribune, a few times a year, might cover something that happened in your neighborhood. A hyperlocal site would cover your neighborhood every day, in as much detail as possible, with items like this one about owl attacks near Lake Harriet.

Hyperlocal sites typically employ a small number of paid journalists but rely on citizen contributions to fill out their sites. Community members are encouraged to post news items and photos, and to generally spread the word about community events.

For months, reports have been surfacing on journalism websites about poor management and negative business results at Patch. Last week, the company itself acknowledged its problems, announcing that it would cut 40 percent of its workforce (roughly 500 people). It will close up to 40 percent of its news sites or find another media organization willing to take them on.

Patch got special attention from the very top. Tim Armstrong, chief executive of AOL, was one of Patch’s founders and has been its most ardent public supporter. But Armstrong was finally forced to concede that not enough advertisers were willing to pay for a network of sites offering small-potatoes news.

A similar story played out a few years ago with TBD.com, a hyperlocal site focused on the Washington, D.C., area. Despite an all-star news staff featuring some of the nation’s most respected names in digital news journalism, TBD lasted only two years before closing down in 2012.

This isn’t good news for people who like to be informed about the community they live in. Traditional newspapers are in deep and seemingly permanent decline; even though the Star Tribune remains a strong metro paper, it employs a third fewer journalists than it did a decade ago. And if hyperlocal sites aren’t a viable business, then who’s going to tell people what’s going on?

Patch logoIncreasingly, the answer will be sites that are directly supported by their audiences, like this one. They may not have the reporting horsepower of the old-style newspapers, and they’ll often have a definite ideological bent. But with traditional mainstream media struggling and hyperlocal media proving to be unsustainable, citizens will have to find the places best able to deliver the information they need.

It’s a shame to lose a general community agenda. For all their faults, the old-line media used to serve up topics for widespread discussion. If something was in the Star Tribune or the Pioneer Press, or covered on Channel 4, a lot of people knew about it. It became something we all considered in our discussions with friends and neighbors.

Today, that community agenda is fragmented, and is likely to grow even more so. The news organizations that succeed will be those that offer information people are willing to pay for. The alternative is a news media consisting of a steady diet of celebrity slideshows interspersed with “weird tricks to lose belly fat” ads.

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Comments (8)

This is a shame

I'm a big fan of Patch, and sometimes contributor to local sites.

It's a shame but isn't also an artificial problem?

Seems to me the problem is the financial requirements of investors. If these news outlets were privately owned by individuals they'd be making money wouldn't they? AOL? You gotta be kidding me.

Enter Facebook

Communities are just groups of people like a college campus, a high school, or church.

With their advertising model, if Facebook were to promote neighborhood pages, they could micro-sell their ads to the corner pharmacy, hardware, liquor store, etc.

Who better to tell you the power is out but will go back on in 2 hours than the neighbor who got through to the power company on the phone? Who better to tell you about the fender-bender on the corner than the neighbor looking out their window? Who better to tell you the rumors you heard over the back fence are false then the subject of the rumor?

Now if your neighbors could just learn to spell....

inevitable

I know Patch cut back drastically, but are there any local Patch editions left in the metro area? I know some f the suburbs had editions, but I was never aware of anything for the city of Saint Paul.

At least in the metro, each city is served by a newspaper, along with a variety of community newspapers (like the Villager in in St. Paul). Also, many neighborhoods have started Facebook pages, which serves as a vehicle for chit-chat and important local news (like the East Side beating).

Thus, it was never clear to me what niche was served by Patch. And that was apparently a problem with advertisers as well.

local source for very local news

you may want to check out the neighborhood pages at www.tcdailyplanet.net . They are a mixed bag. Some of a lot of great content. Some have no content. Over 99 different neighborhoods--all 18 St. Paul Neighborhoods and all 81 Minneapolis neighborhoods. (No suburban coverage yet).

Pre-Patch local papers

Decades before Patch, there were a slew of local newspapers. I used to deliver one: The Richfield News. But, even in the '60s, the economics for local papers was difficult. Eventually, Sun Newspapers bought many of the once-independent local journals but even consolidation (and content syndication) didn't offer an attractive enough platform for advertisers who found better value advertising in the larger daily newspapers, and readers whose interests now extended far beyond once-local borders.

The Facebook-ization of America

Would these envisioned hyperlocal Facebook sites require one to be a member of Facebook in order to read them? Given the privacy concerns many have over handing over their personal information to Facebook (whose record on privacy issues is pretty sketchy) I would hope one would not be required to put their personal information at risk in exchange for the simple ability to read "the local news".

TBD.com

Thanks for the kind words about the TBD.com news staff, an extraordinary group I was privileged to work with. I should note, though, that it's a stretch to call TBD a "similar story" to Patch. Allbritton Communications never really gave Jim Brady's strategy at TBD a chance to work. The sales staff was restructured and the TBD sales reps left before we even launched and we never had our own sales staff after we launched. Allbritton then abandoned the editorial strategy after six months and began firing staff. Patch has a much different story and has been given an actual chance to succeed. We never had that at TBD.