Could Patch Find New Life as a SaaS Platform for Local Publishers? | Street Fight

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Could Patch Find New Life as a SaaS Platform for Local Publishers?

20 Comments 18 December 2013 by

PatchIt’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?

SONY DSCTom 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.

  • http://www.yourarlington.com/ Bob Sprague

    As publisher of YourArlington.com, a local-news site in Arlington, Mass., since 2006, I find your suggestion has upsides. I write from a town where Patch is a competitor and does not appear to be going under. While I would have to think long and hard about joining forces with them, as would my partners in two neighboring communities, what would be the first step. With whom should I speak?

  • http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/ Ned Berke

    “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.”

    What? Can you qualify this? At this point, I feel like there are more plug-and-play CMSs than there are professional publications.

    I don’t think Patch has a future licensing out its CMS. And, even if it did, it was be small beans for AOL.

    • Tom Shevlin

      Hi Ned,

      Believe me, I realize there are any number of CMS options out there, and I don’t believe that a Patch-powered site is an end solution for everyone.
      But the key here is revenue generation.
      Other than perhaps City Portals or Metropublisher, I don’t see many options for local publishers to be able to tap into the kind of integrated ad network that AOL could provide. And that’s the real key here: in order for small newspaper chains or independent pureplays to thrive in communities regardless of their local merchant base, the focus needs to be on connecting these smaller players into a pipeline where they could receive both the technical and financial support that many operations – even legacy newspapers – lack.
      As for AOL’s interest, I don’t see the upside in licensing fees. Rather, their win would come in the form of millions of new ad spaces that would flow into their network.
      Remember: AOL’s business is based on search and display advertising, and they’re doing some encouraging things.

      For many, Google’s DFP solution might suffice. But Google doesn’t come with a built-out publishing platform that Patch would.
      As a hyperlocal publisher myself, I’ve been very skeptical of Patch from the beginning, and know firsthand the inherent flaws in its business model.

      But I also know the difficulties of bootstrapping and coding your way to relevance in a given market. What AOL has created has much more flexibility than most publishing systems that I’ve come across. And that could allow for journalists to have more freedom to pursue what they should be doing: covering their towns in a a way that they deserve.
      Partnering with a LMO, I think, would put Patch out to pasture.

      • http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/ Ned Berke

        “I don’t see many options for local publishers to be able to tap into the kind of integrated ad network that AOL could provide.” — This is what I’m not buying. If their ad network is able to pay the bills so journalists can “pursue what they should be doing: covering their towns” then Patch should have worked out fine. The problem is that AOL’s ad network is no more effective at bringing in meaningful CPMs than Google or any other crap, search-based ad network. The key to local advertising is to sell it locally, and that’s exactly what AOL failed to do and what local publishers need to do if they’re going to raise enough money to cover their towns.

        • Tom Shevlin

          I think we’re actually on the same page here. I’m not suggesting that publishers rely solely on the AOL ad network, but rather use it as a supplement . Coupled with AOL’s ability to provide new options for engagement and cross-platform publishing, I think you’d have the makings of at least an attractive option for local publishers.
          Still, all that hinges on your faith in AOL as a company to deliver new, quality products. If that’s in doubt, then there’s probably little hope for the Green Sprouts network…

    • http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/ Ned Berke

      Tom – I’m responding here because of SF’s shitty threaded comments implementation.

      Anyway, I wasn’t going to say AOL can’t innovate on tech, as they’re in a do-or-die situation, and that can bring out the best in a company. But then I went to take a look at AOL’s ad offerings (advertising.aol.com) to see what’s so special about it and what it could offer publishers that any other cruddy network couldn’t. That’s when I got this page (see attached image), which seems to speak for itself.

      I do believe publishers need to rely on as many forms of passive revenue as they can, but I’m just not seeing the argument here on why either Patch or AOL is better positioned to deliver that to local indie pubs. Your article says they’ve got a better CMS and an integrated ad network, but in your comments you disregard both.

      Then there’s “Coupled with AOL’s ability to provide new options for engagement and cross-platform publishing” – Now this I’m interested in. What new options for engagement, and what cross-platform publishing? Are you saying that they’d pluck news written indie pubs using their CMS and use it on their other sites? Or even just promote it through their AOL homepage and in e-mail advertising like they did with Patch? That’s not a bad angle… but, then, all of my least informed and most obnoxious commenters have AOL e-mail addresses. Not sure if I want more. :)

  • http://www.timwindsor.com timwindsor

    I don’t see anything to support your argument that Patch is an unrivaled technology platform. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. Patch has so far not done a good job of leveraging the AOL advertising reach and, as an editorial and content platform, the Patch CMS remains many generations behind even WordPress.

    • Mel Taylor Media

      tim windsor = smart

  • http://locable.com/ Brian Ostrovsky

    Hi Tom, we completely agree that a network approach which combines authentically local publishers with national resources, optimized technology and the like is critical – this is what we do with Locable.

    What we have learned over the years is that 1. you need the right technology (WordPress etc doesn’t cut it), 2. you need more than technology (training, support, etc and it needs to cover revenue activities as well as content), 3. revenue comes in many shapes and sizes and the technology needs to simultaneously support some revenue activities and drive others.

    This collaborative network approach is what Locable is about and our publishers are thriving.

    You can read our take on Patch at http://locable.com/lessons-from-patch-coms-demise-nearly-every-industry-has-local-distributors-why-not-the-internet/

  • Guest

    Patch needs to get rid of the reckless stories left on sites that were reported with inaccuracies and carelessness before even thinking about moving forward.

  • Fran

    Putting patch in the hands of people like George Norcross and Philly.com would be a horrible mistake. Patch is a careless outlet for greedy politicians who pay into advertising in exchange for defamatory stories that are used to shame people on the internet. The stories are bogus and paid for by dirty advertising money. ITS A PONZI SCHEME. PATCH SHOULD BE UNDER A FEDERAL INVESTIGATION FOR ITS PRACTICES.

  • Fran

    Political community stories geared to defame their opponents and those they seek vengeance on. Norcross and Patch should be under a FEDERAL INVESTIGATION.

  • http://twitter.com/mordyk Mordy Kaplinsky

    I wondered why they didnt deploy this model for Patch in the first place, which is really the strength of how any web company operates and scales without incurring heavy costs. Glad to see someone else thinking along those lines, although frankly I dont think the laissez faire approach is in AOL’s DNA.

  • Waiting patiently

    Well, this isn’t a discussion without the brilliant thoughts of Howard Owens. So, Owens, what say you? Enlighten us here, and make sure to include a plug to your website. Copy and paste this for West Seattle Times, too, please.

    • West Seattle Blog

      You mean us? Only thing I have to say is that the line suggesting that involvement with AOL – in any way, shape, or form – would be “empowering” made me LOL. – Tracy

  • Mel Taylor Media

    WordPress is the platform that should be a top consideration for any indie publisher.

  • John Ferber

    it’s amazing how so many people will jump on tim’s back and harp about patches perceived lack of success.. He took a moonshot, kudos to him, they don’t always work, in fact most don’t, but most important to try and fail then never try at all…. how about giving him some credit for all the good things him and his team have accomplished during his tenure…. oh I forgot positive news doesn’t sell as well..

  • Jim

    “platform unrivaled in the local news space” Did the author really write that? Some basic research on this Internet thingy might surprise you.

  • GoBirdGo

    Sounds good in concept. It would take years to recruit and establish a national roster of entrepreneurs to publish on their platform. AOL does not have that luxury.

  • lChester

    admit it, Patch sucked. Sharing revenue? Are you kidding? National ad play extremely poorly on hyper local site, hence why the revenue at Patch was so dim. The local guys really are competing with Local PRINT, and thats getting easier by the day




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