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The Huffington Patch?

By design, Minnesota’s 18 Patch.com city sites are unpretentiously local, but late Sunday night, they got a jet-setter boss who once shared a bed with Al Franken.
Arianna Huffington, an impresario of the digital left, will take over Patch and all o

By design, Minnesota’s 18 Patch.com city sites are unpretentiously local, but late Sunday night, they got a jet-setter boss who once shared a bed with Al Franken.

Arianna Huffington, an impresario of the digital left, will take over Patch and all of AOL.com’s media ventures, which include TechCrunch, Engadget, MovieFone and Mapquest. AOL will pay $315 million to acquire the Greek diva and her Huffington Post.

Once upon a time, the web commentariat pelted Huffington’s vanity project with rotten fruit; now AOL is the one locked in the stocks. For example, Huffington Post alone has 20 million unique monthly viewers; Patch.com’s 500-plus local sites have about 3 million.

To be fair, Patch only began expanding significantly last year; AOL has committed $50 million to the investment that’s now in 18 states and D.C. Now that the struggling dial-up king has forked over $300 million in cash and $15 million in stock for HuffPo’s cost-efficient brand of unpaid celebrity comment, aggressive aggregation and occasional news, what’s left over for local sites whose staff-written, custom-tailored content is, for the most part, the opposite of aggregation?

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Patch has only been in Minnesota since November, and though I’ve found my local site promising, some local editors have already had their freelance budgets cut days before the HuffPo sale was announced.

Word is that’s only a first-quarter “shift” in the toughest ad quarter and a snapback could come in April; still, going backwards so soon out of the chute has some Patchsters concerned. (As do AOL’s recent financials.) Getting a new boss won’t reduce the anxiety level any.

Will Huffington, whose site only recently became profitable, goose Patch traffic with babe shots and other mindless eyeball-attractors as she does at her eponymous site? AOL’s recently leaked strategy document is scarily realistic about the need for cheap content; HuffPo seems to fit; Patch doesn’t. An interesting part of AOL’s staff memo notes:

The Huffington Post is core to our strategy and our 80:80:80 focus — 80% of domestic spending is done by women, 80% of commerce happens locally and 80% of considered purchases are driven by influencers.

HuffPo, the memo notes, is an influencer site. Patch is supposed to a beachhead into the local ad market that Google doesn’t (yet) dominate. The same Minnesota editors facing budget cuts were told that each Wednesday, non-breaking news coverage should focus on moms specifically and parents more generally. What can Huffington’s minions add to sharpen the point?

I also wonder how Huffington’s strongly liberal “brand” might harm Patch in strongly conservative exurbs, though maybe that link never gets made at the reader/advertiser level.

While the local Patch sites are too business-boostery for my taste, I’ve been impressed with how reporters huff it to government meetings and community events and get me the civic details, often before competitors. That sounds fatally unhip in a digital world of Groupons, Yelps and yes, HuffPos. But already, a fair number of local journalists pull down badly needed AOL paychecks, and their hopes now rely on a very strange bedfellow indeed.