Where Does Arianna Fit Into AOL’s New Patch Plans?

Arianna Huffington Up Close

AOL (NYSE: AOL) has hired a new Chief Content Officer in its latest attempt to reboot Patch, the network of hundreds of sites that offer “hyper local” coverage.

The appointment of Parenting.com’s Rachel Fishman Feddersen comes at a high time when AOL CEO Tim Armstrong is promising impatient shareholders that Patch is “not a pet project” and that he will turn around the sites that reportedly lost $100 million last year.

While a turnaround strategy is clearly in order, there’s a big wild card here. Namely, what role will Arianna Huffington now play in the Patch properties?

Recall that Huffington talked up Patch when AOL bought her site last spring and that she later told Vogue that “going local” was one of two things that made up her “Zeitgeist” (who says things like that?).

Huffington has also taken a hands-on role by promoting a “Local Voices” opinion feature and by launching 33 new Patch sites in states at the center of the Republican primaries.

The appointment of Fishman Feddersen suggests, however, that Huffington wants to distance herself from Patch. In response to an email query, a Huffington Post spokesman simply referred me to a Reuters (NYSE: TRI) story which said Fishman Feddersen will report to Jon Brod, President of AOL Local, Mapping and Ventures and a founder of Patch.

In the meantime, Huffington appears to have turned her attention to other projects like a video-streaming service and international editions of the site in France, Italy and Quebec.

As for Patch, which lost two senior sales people last year, AOL’s Armstrong said that 2011 was the high watermark for investment and that this year will see “meaningful improvements on the economics.” Industry veteran Jim Romenesko reported yesterday that the turnaround plans includes consolidation, slashing freelance budgets and an editorial emphasis on “easy, quick-hitting, cookie-cutter copy.”

Patch’s original mission — to provide news coverage for underserved areas — has long seemed more like a journalism school dream (albeit a commendable one) than a business plan. Armstrong claimed these local markets were the last “white spaces” on the internet but the ad dollars simply have not appeared.

The new appointment looks like Patch’s last kick at the “hyper-local” can before the sites become “hyper-regional” or simply vanish altogether.

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