Shakeups at AOL’s Patch Alter Hyperlocal News Landscape

Media Deserts Project Map
The Media Desert Project identifies communities that lack access to fresh news and information. Users can search by zip code and analyze community demographics.

The layoffs at AOL’s Patch sites across the country are altering the hyperlocal news landscape, and Ohio University’s Dr. Michelle Ferrier is tracking those changes using an open wiki at http://aolpatch.wikispaces.com. Ferrier is associate dean for innovation in the Scripps College of Communication and a researcher/entrepreneur in the hyperlocal arena.

Using crowdsourcing through social media such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus, news reports, and even emails from former editors, Ferrier is compiling the changes on a wiki that anyone can edit. The work is part of a larger research project called “The Media Deserts Project” that is mapping the national media ecosystem to find places that lack access to fresh news and information.

“AOL’s Patch strategy has been an important part of the experimentation in hyperlocal online news,” Ferrier said. “We need to understand what makes a community site sustainable and how we can structure these operations differently.”

The Media Deserts Project uses geographic information systems to map changes in daily newspaper circulation. Additional layers in the map will use the AOL Patch data along with other research on independent hyperlocal online news sites to provide additional intelligence on news coverage. The research team from Ohio University and Ithaca College is working on a public version of the map that can be used by regional leaders and residents to create local solutions.

Shakeups at AOL’s Patch Alter Hyperlocal News Landscape

Hyperlocal Online News Sites: Are They Meeting Community News and Information Needs?

The rise of online news sites in the past seven years has been one response to the changing legacy daily newspaper environment and the relative simplicity of online publishing technologies. However, many of these news startups may not be reaching all the residents in their geographic reach or representing their region’s population accurately, according to an analysis in May 2013 by Elon University students.

Are these entrepreneurial ventures filling in the gaps in legacy media or providing news coverage to regions previously untapped by mainstream media? Do the sites serve their geographic and demographic audiences? The research, conducted under the guidance of Dr. Michelle Ferrier, evaluates hyperlocal online news sites, their content, their geographic reach and how well these sites serve their region’s residents with fresh news and information.

Earlier ethnographic research conducted in the April 2013 by Dr. Ferrier on hyperlocal online news publishers found that only 5.5 percent of hyperlocal online news sites were founded or run by people of color. Census data from 2010 shows that minorities make up 28 percent of the U.S. population.

Research Findings

According to a national analysis of more than 100 hyperlocal online news sites and state-based topical sites, 59 percent of the sites represent the demographics of the regions they cover. Many of the sites’ online readers reflect a Caucasian majority, which oftentimes is not reflective of the total regional population. In a more detailed content analysis of the sites homepages, only 40 percent of the sites accurately represent the full range of the residents in their geographic region either on the demographic factors of ethnicity, gender or both.

The sites were ranked most favorably on providing news and information to its geographic audience, with 62 percent of the sites receiving favorable rankings.

Students compared 2010 census data with site-specific demographic data and conducted a content analysis of the home pages of the sites for 14 days. A more detailed analysis of the sites used in the study can be found on the project wiki at: http://hyperlocalonlinenews.wikispaces.com/.

The student work is part of the Media Deserts Project, a larger research initiative to provide a climate map of the media ecosystem. The Media Desert Project examines daily newspaper circulation, hyperlocal online news and weekly newspapers to provide a picture of where fresh news and information is lacking. The second stage of the student research will map the geographic reach of these sites to determine if news innovations are providing news and information in media deserts. A video describing the Media Desert Project can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nK9OqINpyys

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is the associate dean for innovation, research/creative activity and graduate studies for the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University. 

Hyperlocal Online News Sites: Are They Meeting Community News and Information Needs?