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Summary:

AOL is reportedly planning to expand its hyper-local journalism project, Patch.com, to hundreds of towns and cities over the next year. But can the Web giant fulfill CEO Tim Armstrong’s new-media vision when so many others have failed so completely in the past?

AOL (it recently gave up the all-caps moniker) is planning an ambitious expansion of its hyper-local Patch.com venture, the one that it bought from a group of investors — including AOL CEO Tim Armstrong — last year, according to a report by Business Insider. But can AOL find success in hyper-local journalism when so many have failed?

The report quotes an internal company memo that describes AOL’s plans to expand Patch to “hundreds” of local news sites by the end of this year from some 30 today, with the goal of being “leaders in one of the most promising ‘white spaces’ on the Internet” (a phrase that got under the skin of former journalist and new media consultant Ken Doctor). Patch has already expanded considerably since it was acquired in June of last year, when it had operations in just five towns and cities in New Jersey and Connecticut.

For at least a decade now, local journalism on the web has been viewed as a kind of can’t-miss, slam-dunk success just waiting to happen. And yet, it has stubbornly missed and generally failed to happen on any number of occasions, including via the efforts of numerous startups backed by actual journalists — such as Mark Potts, a former Washington Post scribe who co-founded Backfence.com in 2005 (it closed in 2007), and digital journalism veteran Dan Gillmor, who started and then later closed a site called Bayosphere (you could argue that CitySearch and Microsoft’s Sidewalk were similar failed experiments back in the late 1990s).

That’s not to say there aren’t hyper-local journalism efforts that are working — Howard Owens, for example, a former executive with the regional newspaper chain Gatehouse Media, seems to be doing well with The Batavian in upstate New York, and journalism professor Leonard Witt has been expanding his “representative journalism” model, which I wrote about at the Nieman Journalism Lab. There’s also a new startup called Oakland Local, founded by former AOL VP Susan Mernit, that seems to be growing rapidly, and there are some other interesting experiments going on as well, including Outside.in and Placeblogger (and Everyblock, which was acquired by MSNBC).

But the field is littered with the bodies of those who tried and failed, including the Washington Post’s Loudoun Extra project. Why did Backfence and other local news startups fail? Any number of reasons, in most cases — a failure to find enough local advertising, lack of sufficient marketing, a dearth of compelling content. In a post after Backfence died, Mark Potts did a great job of listing some important factors in doing local news well, including the need to engage with and listen to the community, and the fact that “[I]t’s not news, it’s a conversation.”

Many hyper-local efforts have been largely automated, in an attempt to keep costs down, but as a result much of the content seemed homogenized and stale. Both AOL and a similar effort from the New York Times called The Local — which is relying on journalism students to power one of its local sites — are trying to avoid this problem by hiring people to work in each of the local centers they’re covering.

That approach can get expensive very quickly, however. And while there may be plenty of out-of-work journalists around due to newspaper industry layoffs, are there enough talented writers and reporters to staff all of the local sites Patch.com has in mind? If not, then the company will quickly have to come to grips with the wildly varying quality levels that “citizen journalism” can produce (each Patch site has a single professional journalist who works with volunteer and freelance staff). Some feel that whatever happens with AOL and its expansion, it can’t help but be good for business.

A Patch expansion would be a tangible sign that Armstrong is starting to put some muscle behind his vision of a new journalism model, one which involves Patch.com on the hyper-local side and Seed.com on the user-generated side (Seed, which is being directed by former New York Times writer Saul Hansell, contracts out content to freelancers in the same that Demand Media and Associated Content do). The AOL CEO started building the foundations of that model even before he arrived at AOL, by investing in Patch.com when he was still a senior executive at Google, through his private investment company Polar Capital (he also invested in Associated Content).

Can Armstrong succeed where so many others — including experienced journalists — failed so miserably? He’s certainly devoting an awful lot of AOL’s money to the attempt. If he too comes up short, it will be the biggest blow to hyper-local yet.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Clappstar

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This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com

  1. I think I read this in “Made to Stick” but I think the key thing is to put LOCAL people’s names in the paper. People want to be known and they will be your most public advocate. If you could cover people moving out and people moving into the neighborhood as news that might pick up coverage.
    Like I said, EVERYONE WANTS their name in the paper, if you can do that enough and in every local article, you might find success.

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  2. Thanks for linking to my blog post, Mathew.

    I truly believe that competition is always a good thing, as it forces organizations to step up their game. That might mean an independent hyperlocal site folds because of Patch’s presence. It might mean Patch goes the way of the dinosaur, with indie hyperlocalists laughing all the way to the bank. Either way, I like to think the neighborhood benefits from multiple news sources and improving quality in reporting. Score one for democracy.

    Without having read Patch’s content, I feel the network’s already got two strikes against it: the subdomain URLs and standardized web layouts. That lack of individuality is a big turnoff to hyperlocal audiences.

    I wish AOL well, but they’ve got quite a learning curve ahead of them.

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    1. That’s a good point, Jennifer — the subdomains and the standardized layouts are a bit of a red flag, in that they make the sites look homogenized and cookie-cutter. Understandable, but I would argue not a good road to go down.

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  3. I’m not sure AOL’s success or failure with Patch will mean anything for hyperlocal. There are plenty of hyperlocal sites springing up on a local basis (which makes sense), and a good number of them are becoming sustainable businesses. Not large businesses, but perfectly viable ones.

    We’re on the path to that with Berkeleyside, where we’ll be introducing advertising soon. Look at Baristanet and West Seattle Blog and you’ll see there can be plenty of revenue for a local operation.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Lance — and thanks for mentioning Baristanet. I should have included them as an example of a site that is not only doing hyper-local well, but has been doing it for years.

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  4. It’s clear to me not being an indie hyperlocal news operation is a huge hurdle to overcome for AOL or even much more modest companies keen on spreading a model around a whole region or country. A key ingredient of the hyperlocal approach is intimacy. That just doesn’t come with the automated approach. I don’t think plopping a paid journalist in a bunch of communities, who may not really know those communities, is the answer either. The very reason that there was an opportunity for the hyperlocal site my wife and I started a year ago was that the existing media neglected a 30,000 population portion of a 150,000 population county that had its own identity as a community. A cookie cutter approach never would have picked up on that nuance. The future of hyperlocal news is hyperlocal ownership as well, like Howard Owens, who you mention here, or westseattleblog.com, us and others.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Darren — and good luck with your site.

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  5. Thanks to Lance for mentioning us. Why do people who purport to write authoritatively about hyperlocal “failing” not seem to be aware of those of us who are succeeding? It’s a simple formula. It’s hard work. It’s humongously fulfilling. It cannot be done by Big Media. And what you list in this post as “hyperlocal journalism” includes efforts that are NOT “hyperlocal journalism.” Placeblogger and Outside.in are aggregators. Different missions so I won’t lump them together – Placeblogger is a directory of sorts. Outside.in and Everyblock organize content that SOMEBODY (hellooo!) has to generate, otherwise they’d have nothing to aggregate. True, successful “hyperlocal” (hate that word, especially as it continues to get misused) news MUST spring from its community. We have several successful operations covering a large chunk of the city of Seattle. ALL of them bootstrapped – for some reason, it’s not glamorous to invest in people who HAVE figured out how to make it work, while all sorts of crazy pie-in-sky ideas get VC falling on them like rain. Come out here and see how it’s done. Us, for starters: 8.2 million pageviews a year, in blog format with few jumps or other pageview-pumping tricks, doing news around the clock for a community of 70,000 or so people. 2 fulltime employees and lots of paid freelancers. Fully financially self-sustaining. Not a cent of investment, grants, loans from Gramma, no side jobs for either of us. Our site is in its fifth year, by the way (third year as a business).

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Tracy — I wasn’t aware of West Seattle Blog, so I appreciate you and Lance bringing it to my attention. Next time I write about this topic I will be sure to include you :-) It sounds like you are doing very well.

      And you are quite right about Placeblogger and Outside.in being aggregators (I should have mentioned Topix as well in that category). That is quite different from a site like yours that actually creates the content, although they have value too.

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  6. There are already a lot of local focus sites. I hope they can do it better. Good luck Dino.

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  7. [...] AOL and Hyper-Local — Good Luck With That – GigaOM Story about Patch.com that mentions Oakland Local [...]

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  8. Matt, already thanked you on Twitter for the mention.

    I’d just like to echo the comments of Tracy and Darren.

    People who think they can build the Patches of the world haven’t a clue about the history of newspapers.

    Newspapers were not started by chains. And chain ownership is by far a greater cause of lost readership for newspapers than the Internet (as readership the decline started well before the Net came along).

    Those who might find a working online model for news will be independents, who are not constrained by group think and template-driven sites and one-size-fits-all business models.

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  9. Not all efforts have failed .. and not all are classified pure “journalism” — local really applies to the value that the online news, information, events, and advertising might deliver to attract its local audience and generate content, readership, and revenue. The latter is, of course, the barometer of “success” from a financial perspective. Disregarding the purist journalist community out there, the value of “local” from a viable ecosystem is what drives the audience and advertisers … and Hometowntimes.com has successfully addressed that with the technologies and franchise business model that drives traffic to its advertisers (from beyond the local site) and readers with content provided by both advertisers and reporters. And of primary significance is the community stakeholder that the Hometowntimes.com franchise business model provides.

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  10. [...] hyper-local news operation, Patch.com. That’s because while AOL is trying to generate its own custom content for dozens of small cities and towns in New York state and elsewhere, Outside.in is happy to take [...]

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