It’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on at AOL headquarters these days when it comes to Patch, the company’s erstwhile, overly ambitious experiment in hyperlocal news. By most accounts, it appears that AOL boss Tim Armstrong is still betting that a large media organization like Gannett or Tribune will toss Patch a life preserver and breathe new life into what has proven to be a costly-and-at-times-fractious foray into community journalism.
It’s possible that a large media company may be able to provide AOL with a deal that could satisfy shareholders, who for two years have been asked to tolerate massive losses and negative press. But this kind of deal will only prolong the inevitable.
In a column on Monday, The New York Times’ David Carr referred to Patch as Armstrong’s “white whale.” He may be right. Like any other number of high-profile efforts to scale community newsgathering, Armstrong was right to recognize that the local space is a potential goldmine for anyone who can crack it. Unfortunately, the granddaddy technology company lost its way, expanded too quickly, and turned the project into a big mess.
At its core, AOL remains a tech company, not a content creator. With Patch, it has a platform that is simply unrivaled in the local news space, and one that other local publishers could quickly adopt, and adapt to their individual communities.
So for Patch to succeed – and I believe a version of it still can – AOL needs to embrace those whom it had sought to compete against. Local publishers – especially those with strong entrepreneurial streaks – have proven that hyperlocal pureplays can work given enough grit and substance. Could you imagine how empowering it would be to these local entrepreneurs and journalists to have the backing of AOL behind them?
At this point, the best path forward is for Armstrong to realize his noble goal of delivering high-quality community news might just be to simply throw open the gates and recast Patch as a publishing platform for small and medium-sized publishers.
By doing so, AOL could position itself not only to become synonymous with hometown news (for whatever that’s worth), but more importantly to capitalize on the millions in local ad revenue that has begun to slowly migrate from print to the web.
Controlling both local content management systems and their ad delivery network, AOL could easily become the go-to platform for thousands of independent news outlets and entrepreneurs who possess the two most important ingredients to community journalism: passion and boots on the ground. It could also fill a gap for regional players who are woefully ill-equipped to contend with the quickening pace of digital innovation.
Patch as a technology platform is unrivaled. As a source for local news, it’s an afterthought.
By handing over the keys to enterprising publishers rather than attempting to find a new suitor eager to tilt at windmills, AOL would become a positive disruptor rather than the dreaded one it represented to smaller outlets with meager IT budgets when it first came on the scene.
Currently, the marketplace for plug-and-play content management systems is woefully limited and what’s out there is more often than not sadly outdated.
A local news outlet powered by Patch could become the industry gold standard. While local journalists are out in their communities doing what they do best: churning out news on local businesses, personalities, and municipal affairs, AOL could experiment with content and ad delivery systems to distribute that content across platforms.
On the revenue side, publishers could be given the option to upload their own ads, or benefit from local, regional and national ad buys purchased through the AOL-owned Advertising.com. Both sides could profit through a mutual revenue sharing agreement that would come with each licensing agreement.
Before Armstrong folded Patch into AOL, he had predicted a revolution in the way people interact with their communities, and in many ways he was right in recognizing the gaps in community publishing. I believe there’s still a window for Patch to succeed, and the upside in local is still great. The question is: will Patch fade out in its current form, or can it pivot to become the disruptive change agent that Armstrong intended it to be all along?
Tom Shevlin publishes a local community weekly newspaper in Newport, R.I. and believes that Patch still has a place in local journalism. He lives in nearby Little Compton, R.I. with his wife, Michelle, and bird dog, Peter.