The post mortems have already begun on AOL’s Patch, the hyperlocal online news network that recently announced sale of its majority interest to turnaround firm Hale Global. While the pundits have cited slow ad revenues and awkward implementation as main reason for the experiment’s demise, Patch’s history – and the future of hyperlocal online news – is much more complex than these reasons alone.
What would a retooled Patch look like? It’s easy enough just to call the whole Patch experiment another failure and chalk it up to lack of revenue. But a detailed post mortem will show so many ways $400 million could have been spent differently.
And Patch insiders are in the best position to help us understand whether local online news is dead or whether the implementation was flawed… Or something else entirely.
I’ve been tracking the changes to AOL’s once 800-plus sites since August 2013, when AOL first announced major layoffs and closings of its sites. The wiki is a crowdsourced document, where I solicit leads on changes in Patch status and also work through each site URL to check the current status. I’ve also talked to more than a dozen current and former Patch employees who have graciously given of their time to help answer the question “What the hell happened?”
But the wiki does not help us understand how AOL’s Patch, one of the most funded and highly watched experiments in local journalism, has reached this point of selling off its site as assets and leaving its platform on autopilot.
I have been following AOL since 1991, when they first started selling access through AOL Online. I was part of a nonprofit team that built our first web presence on AOL Online and enrolled our millions of members on the site. I have also developed a regional hyperlocal news network for a daily newspaper, started two independent hyperlocal sites of my own, and received foundation funding to develop a franchised model of hyperlocal news.
As an academic, I’ve researched hyperlocal online news sites to answer the question of whether hyperlocals are serving community news and information needs. What I’m most interested in is how in this changing media ecosystem we can ensure that we have total community coverage…that in the age of newspaper/print retreat, some model of news and information is serving local audiences with fresh news and information.
I’ve also watched as other experiments into the network model have failed – BackFence, EveryBlock (in its prior incarnation), VillageSoup, Neighborlogs (a shared platform model of hyperlocal publishers) for a variety of reasons. So the question of sustainability in this area of media innovation is key. Can we learn from Patch in order to build a better future for localized news and information? Can hyperlocal online news survive? In what forms – as independent sites, chains of related sites or a larger distributed network?
Between August 2013 and December 2013, I conducted a dozen in-depth interviews with former and current Patch employees – from local editors, to regional editors and other AOL insiders. I’ve compiled my interviews into a series of posts that focus on several key aspects of the Patch business model and its implementation:
- Structure: Organizational structure, vision and mission, business environment, competitors
- Talent: People involved, expertise, working conditions
- Launch Strategy: Town characteristics, growth, marketing
- Revenue: Local sponsorships, banner advertising, national ad buys, HuffPo influence, investor influence
- Content: Vision, metrics, categories
What I’ve learned from this case study is that there is a future in hyperlocal online news as part of a diverse media ecosystem of news of different forms. As one former editor said:
“My sense is that the Patch model – retooled significantly — probably needs to be part of a mix of options that would include larger for-profit networks, loosely linked for-profit independents, go-it-alone independents and foundation-funded sites.”
And so we begin with their voices.
Dr. Michelle Ferrier is associate dean for innovation at the Scripps College of Communication, Ohio University. She is a pioneer in new media, particularly online communities and hyperlocal online news. She can be reached at ferrierm(at)ohio(dot)edu or on Twitter @mediaghosts. This series will preview here weekly at michelleferrier.wordpress.com.