Is AOL's Hyperlocal Patch the Next Big Thing in Local News?

| About: AOL Inc. (AOL)
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You've got to love it.

Patch, AOL's (NYSE:AOL) new push to provide local news is expanding -- rapidly, according to a memo that Silicon Alley Insider's Nicholas Carlson says he got from inside the reborn content-is-king AOL. Among the revelations:

  • Patch will move beyond its 30 or so local sites to hundreds. From its roots in contentiously hyperlocal Maplewood, New Jersey and other communities in New Jersey and Connecticut, it is planning on hundreds of Patch local news sites by the end of this year.
  • Hiring is apace, at at least one J-School... NYU's.
  • The goal: "To be leaders in one of the most promising 'white spaces' on the Internet."

There you have it, newsies. Local -- not long ago the domain of newspaper, TV and radio behemoths so dominant that barriers to entry made competition seem unthinkable -- is now open territory, a vacuum to be filled by a combination of youthful journalistic energy and state-of-the-art technology.

In hyperlocal, where others see too much cost and too little revenue, AOL believes that Patch can be a real business. Take a look at Patch, and you see lots of meat-and-potatoes coverage, on a par with community weeklies, though not much advertising.

Read through the comments on the short Business Insider post and you pretty much see the usual arguments -- some well-made, others less so -- trotted out about these new forays (Examiner, Demand) into content-farmed "journalism."

We see the complaints of writers about difficulty being paid, even for pieces accepted; a reminder of how fast and far we're moving from arguments about Guild business rules in daily newsrooms to the basic labor practices of, well, getting paid for the work you do, even if it is a pittance. We see debates on the quality of the work. And, of course, on how much of a business model is there, given a decade of failed efforts to tap revenue from local user-gen.

I come away believing there are three points for us to remember as this new phase of testing web content creation models goes forward:

  • It's not young vs. old (or experienced). Among the raging comments are those about the relative youth of the Patch staff. Let's not blame young people for trying to get into, and make, a new business. They're playing the hand they're dealt. Mixing valuable experience with youthful, trained passion should be a plus, witness the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism's push with MissionLocal and now with the Bay Area News Project, for instance.
  • It's not about editors or technology. AOL, Demand, Examiner and others are smart to use technology to fundamentally know what readers and advertisers want and use that data to guide decision-making. For those of us who care about journalism, it's not a question of using such data or not, it's how we use the data. Data-driven journalism isn't journalism; the element of judgment and public service must always be part of the equation. As non-journalism companies increasingly create more content, their practices deserve lots of scrutiny. Similarly, traditional editors and reporters can't bury their heads in the sand; it's not 1990 anymore.
  • It's not about news or features. It's easy to decry all the "feature stuff" new sites and companies are creating, saying it's not news. Newspapers, though, have always been a compendium of news and features. Let the features -- family life, personal finance, health, sports and hobbies -- go, and the related ad revenue (those topics are what people spend money on, not on City Hall) goes with them.

So that's the throw-down challenge in a nutshell: After being called "white space," respond with what you can do best, learning from the competition, and beating it to the punch.

Disclosure: None