Ah, hyperlocal, you tempting, tempestuous goddess of low-cost content and possibly imaginary profitability, have you once again lured a national company into our fair Twin Cities?
Sure looks like it. Patch.com, AOL’s entry in the “local, local, local” derby, is recruiting for “Regional Editors in the Minneapolis/St Paul area.” According to the e-pitch, a regional editor manages 10-12 local editors who in turn manage contributors covering “everything from breaking news, business openings/closings to schools and local government.”
A Patch spokesman declined to comment, so we don’t know when exactly the Twin Cities sites will arrive. But if you want to see what an established Patch site looks like, you can check out Hoboken, New Jersey’s, which include sports and restaurant listings, plus a few classifieds.
Patch’s national ambitions were declared earlier this year, and our creamy demographics no doubt make us a natural target. AOL’s entry comes just a couple of months after another national provider, DataSphere, entered via KSTP-TV‘s website. As with DataSphere, you’ll see city- and neighborhood-specific sites under the Patch umbrella.
We’ve certainly been a place where big national hitters, with more potency than the declining AOL, have failed. Remember Twin Cities Sidewalk? (Microsoft prefers you didn’t.) But some national player might just figure out if hyper-local can work, as a business at least.
Seeking a bit more insight into Patch, I turned to ex-PiPress managing editor Ken Doctor, now a nationally prominent media analyst and author of “Newsonomics,” a book about the new media economy. Here’s his tart take on what AOL is up to, and why the Twin Cities might be a particularly tough market:
CONTENT: Fairly competent community coverage of the kind found in many community weeklies. Lots of one-source stories, profiles, but lots of them. The organization of the sites — cookie-cutter across the nation —makes it intuitive for readers to find what they want, whether Sports, Schools or Local News. Patch is starting to use more directories in its products, for schools, how to fix local problems, etc. If it could go the route of Everyblock, now owned by MSNBC, or partner with it, that would be a major plus.
It seems surprisingly weak on social networking, something that should be a staple of a community product that’s gone viral.
As a reader, you get the sense that a number of earnest young people are churning out community coverage, but you don’t get the sense the community’s into the site, even on the early Northeastern sites that have been up awhile.
ADVERTISING: This, of course, is the key, and early indications don’t look good. Selling hyperlocal advertising is tough, and the sites don’t show much uptake. Local ad selling doesn’t scale much, though, some regional selling is possible. National advertising — given a more national footprint — may be a key goal, though it’s hard to see AOL getting a significant rate for, say, Pepsi advertising (how running on its home pages) across the country. This is non-targeted advertising for Pepsi, unless it starts targeting local promotions.
BUSINESS MODEL: The keys here are cost reduction, through the templating and common content management system. That’s good — similar to the Backfence idea of 5+ years ago — but it’s just a foundation. On top of that, AOL, through Patch and [content management platform] Seed, is finding and harnessing the talents of younger, lower-paid journalists, taking advantage of the new Pro-Am era. That keeps costs down. But, revenue is still hard to find, both local and national in the challenged and changing ad environment. AOL has talked about partnering with local non-profits to make Patch go. In areas like the Twin Cities and others with competing hyperlocal sites that are more truly local, that will be difficult.
The publishing game here is critical mass — of content, of community interaction, of audience size sufficient to make advertisers pay attention. No one’s broken the code yet. Even the most successfull hyperlocal sites, likeWest Seattle Blog, throw off just enough money to employ two deeply embedded community journalists, who work 12+ hours a day.
For AOL’s Tim Armstrong, with dreams of reinventing content creation, Patch may be just part of a bigger game, but it could be just business quicksand that others have so far found it to have been.