Hyperlocal news has been touted as a big player in the future media landscape, largely in the US but also in Europe. Going very local means you can not only offer news that is often exclusive, as opposed to trying to compete with ubiquitous national news, but also very relevant to users' every day lives, providing essential information about the community. Plenty of small, independent sites have sprung up over the last year or so, and several news organisations have created additional local products. One company that's taking a particularly aggressive approach to growth in the hyperlocal arena is AOL, with its launch of Patch, a growing network of community news sites, each manned by one full time editor and a handful of freelancers.
AOL has traditionally been an Internet provider and an online portal, rather than a content-generator, but recently it has significantly expanded its content offerings, having launched both Patch and Seed, a so-called 'content farm.'
The Editors Weblog spoke to Brian Farnham, who came on board in Patch's early days as editor-in-chief, about how the sites operate and how they fit in to the community, and their goals.
The Patch team has started to expand by choosing areas where there is a strong sense of community. Suitable communities are chosen by an algorithm, which takes into account "a bunch of different factors," Farnham said, such as where top high schools are located, as this is seen as indicative of a town that "cares about itself." The algorithm spits out a ranked list and then staff will do more research, including speaking to local people, to establish whether this is actually a place with a cohesive community. "We're not looking for sprawling communities without a sense of identity," Farnham said.
Currently, more than 400 sites are live, and the company aims to have 500 by the end of the year, which currently means hiring 30 people a week. Having started in New Jersey in February 2009, the sites have now spread all over the US. Each covers a community of between 20,000 and 50,000 people, and each has a dedicated full time editor.
Twelve communities are grouped into a 'region' and the local site editors have the support of a regional editor, who is a hands on manager. There are four editorial directors for different areas of the country and they work for Farnham, who oversees the editorial organisation. "We think of the New York HQ as a kind of back office for the real work going on in the field."
Good communication, however is "of the utmost importance" to create a sense of shared culture among the editors who all work very independently all over the country. There are regular conference calls and Farnham said that he and his team are trying to come up with more ways to keep editors in touch.
Editors are briefly trained in New York, and then work from home, equipped with a laptop, an iPhone and an aircard. "We realized that you couldn't do this in a short cut way, you had to have a full time journalist who could be out and about every day," Farnham said. They are given a freelance budget, and often share specialized freelancers with other nearby community sites: a sports editor, for example who can help drive coverage between sites.
Patch has been criticized for requiring long hours from its editors for low pay, but AOL chief Tim Armstrong recently stated that 75% of those who work at Patch are paid as much or more than at their last job. He admitted that hours are long, as "this is a start up," Lost Remote reported. It is early days yet for Patch but as yet, people seem to be still signing up.
How to up community involvement
Most editors are already integrated into their local communities, and "we definitely look for people who have experience in covering a community," Farhham said. They quickly get known, he added, and more importantly, they become trusted. "They are there, putting in the time, week after week."
Members of the communities can interact with the sites in various ways, as well as actually becoming freelancers. "It's a constantly evolving area for us." Once they have signed up as members, users can input content straight into the events calendar and community announcements sections: the latter of which provides space for births, deaths and marriages for example, something which might well be paid-for in a print publication. They can comment on any article and post photos.
Another way to contribute to the site i via a new feature called 'The Shout' a "Facebook-esque" activity stream on the homepage that displays members' site activity but also invites further comments, providing a "What do you have to say?" box.
Crucially, although the site is community-orientated, no members can post an article directly to the site. To have an article published, it is necessary to become a freelancer. The majority of freelancers are paid, Farnham said, but there are some who "do it for the love of it."
Content: more than news
There have been no great surprises about what content is particularly popular, said Farnham: it is crime, schools, sports, and on the non-news side, people like to read about their neighbours. .
During the recent US midterm elections, Patch's traffic jumped to three times its normal level. "We were in a position, just by doing what we do, to serve a real need" for coverage at a very local level, Farnham explained. People look online for news during an election, and "there really aren't those sources online to drill lower than a Congressional level." He emphasized the political balance in Patch's reporting, which he said people sometimes found unexpected.
As well as the news content, Patch seeks to provide information that members will use in their every day lives. "We really look at this as a platform that digitizes small communities in every aspect," Farnham explained. Efforts to accomplish this include Patch's directory, a kind of yellow pages of the local community. "We literally go over the town and create a directory of everything," he said.
Farnham spoke of the potential of Patch to provide coordinated coverage around national events, by asking all the editors to look at one specific aspect of the way an event affects their community, and then bringing this together to provide a national snapshot of trends. "The best example so far is an ongoing project we have around education: we have a coordinated project involving people looking at the issues with schools in their communities" he said, and "those things over time are going to roll up into a more complete picture of the state of education."
He expects that this will expand to include election coverage: "I think next year you'll see an even more rolled up view, in addition to those local angles."
On one level, Patch is extremely local, and on the other hand it is a national brand. Farnham doesn't believe that this situation leads to incongruities in Patch's message, saying that as long as the sites are serving their communities, this is what counts. The hope is that that the reputation of the national brand will prompt people to associate positive factors with Patch: quality, comprehensiveness of coverage, an unbiased view and a platform to serve that community.
Patch's impact on other local media
AOL announced in August that Patch expected to be the biggest hirer of journalists in 2010 and as so many in the industry are losing their jobs, this must be welcome news to many in the industry, as is the simple fact that somebody is investing in journalism. Patch's business model, advertising-based, is yet to be proven but for now, it seems that AOL has the money to take the risk.
Patch has, however, prompted concern regarding its effect on local newspapers: staff have been leaving local papers for jobs at Patch, and the fear is that the sites will put already-struggling local publications out of business. (Patch CEO Tim Armstrong was asked at a recent conference, "Is Patch evil?") Farnham was adamant that this is not Patch's intention, and said that in fact, he sees significant potential for partnership opportunities with existing news organsations.
There is also concern that Patch will quash local independent bloggers, but Farnham believes that all can coexist. "I think the irony of all this is that when we go into a community, if there's a lot of online media that's actually good for us," he said, as it is easier to enter a community where people are already used to finding information online so we don't have to educate them. "The more active an eco-system you have for users, the more they'll look for stuff online."
Patch's goal for the immediate future is not only growth in terms of numbers of sites, but to continue to grow the product once the editors have plugged themselves into the communities and engage the users more so that it becomes "something that's sticky and addictive for the community," Farnham said. "That's the real mission - where Patch becomes a complete destination for people on a local level."