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?
Increasingly, 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.