Post #10: The myth of hyper local – why AOL’s Patch.com is fatally flawed (sorry to say)

Patch is a collection of local town sites (e.g. smallville.patch.com) which report the news of each town and some stories from adjacent towns that have Patch sites. Each town is supposed to have an editor/reporter/photographer but cost-cutting at the money-losing Patch has led to cutbacks so increasingly the editors are regional.

The revenue base is local advertisers plus some national ones sold by Patch’s central office in New York. Sponsors like Allstate and Citibank are on my local Patch, along with the every popular “5 Hosts That Don’t Suck” and a site selling male Testosterone supplements. (In fairness, the “5 Hosts” Google ad was on the front page of the NY Times this morning too).

The first problem is that there isn’t enough interesting hyper local news to attract a regular, repeat audience. It’s mostly boring. Other than a few boys sports (e.g. football) the only readers for stories about high school sports are the parents of kids on the teams. Even topics which might provoke interest (e.g. taxes) don’t generate enough regular stories to attract repeat viewing. In any event, people don’t define their news interests by an area as small as a single small town.

The whole concept of “hyperlocal” needs much more thought than Patch has given it. In fact, all media, particularly newspapers, have to rethink what local means and how to serve it online. “Local” used to be a religion in local media as a means to differentiate themselves from national competitors. But is it better to carry a local story that’s of little interest than a regional, national or international story that’s much more interesting? Not when you have a choice, which online delivery makes possible.

The second problem is that no matter how you define it, covering local stories and taking pictures is expensive, even with the lowly paid positions that Patch offers. When you do it on the cheap, it’s pretty obvious.

I’ll confess that I really wanted Patch to succeed even though my media gut said it wouldn’t. So this is not an “I told you so” column, it’s a “sorry to see” column. I think there were a number of workable approaches to hyper or regional local that might have worked but this was not one of them

There’s no bigger believer in the power of local than I am, having spent many years in local radio and TV It’s the reason why I think the big local brands in media still have time to reclaim their share of the audience. But Patch’s hyperlocal is not who they have to fear.