Seeing value in very local news

Posted on March 04, 2011 by Janet Coats

From a content perspective, the conversation about AOL’s decision to buy the Huffington Post has focused on the national audience HuffPo brings to the party.

But AOL has its own little content initiative that Arianna Huffington will be charged with managing as well. is AOL’s entry into the very local news market; the company has launched Patch sites in more than 800 communities, with a goal of reaching 1,000 by year’s end. It’s spent more than $50 million in the process – so far.

AOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong was a co-founder and investor in Patch before he came to the company, and he led AOL’s acquisition of the startup. He views Patch as an important player in the effort to rebuild local news coverage following the retreat of newspapers hobbled by the double-whammy of the Great Recession and the migration of ad dollars online.

Many have tried and failed in the very local news space. The kind of news that makes these sites successful with audience – very geographically targeted – means that the advertising has to be very geographically targeted, as well. It’s tough to scale a local news site, although far from impossible. Howard Owens runs The Batavian in Batavia, N.Y., and he has built a site that is successful from both a content and a sales perspective. Howard would tell us that there's no magic formula -- just a commitment to making ad sales as an important a part of your enterprise as developing content.

Patch has attracted all kinds of attention, not a lot of it positive. It has been criticized over issues of quality. It has been criticized as a corporate 800-pound gorilla that will crowd out local innovators. It has endured a couple of embarrassing plagiarism incidents.

But AOL’s very high-profile commitment highlights the importance of the local space., not only from a news perspective but from an advertising one. Yahoo! and Google both have efforts of their own to attract local ad dollars, as does the news company.

And perhaps most exciting, there are hundreds of truly entrepreneurial news efforts in communities around the country, run by publishers who have a passion for informing and engaging communities.

These entrepreneurial publishers are on the front lines of community journalism, and their perspective on corporate efforts such as Patch are valuable ones. That’s why Tram Whitehurst, a master’s graduate at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, has been collecting their views about the importance of very local news efforts and about how Patch fits into that ecosystem.

Tram has been working with Lisa Skube, a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at Missouri, as part of her effort to build a connection and facilitation tool for journalism innovators. The Patterson Foundation has enabled Lisa’s work, and we are working with her to nest the tool with an established innovation community for testing.

Tram has put his very interesting research into Patch and community journalism into a report, available here. It’s good reading for those who are curious about the evolution of community news – and Tram’s work is a direct result of The Patterson Foundation’s commitment to understanding and enabling innovation in local news.

The efforts of these innovators are worth supporting. As Tram’s report notes: “These editors operate mission-focused sites. They see their work as essential for their communities, and they take that responsibility very seriously.’’

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