Patch Takes a Page From Arianna’s Playbook

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Of the many innovations that Arianna Huffington has introduced to the Internet over the past decade, none has irked professional writers more than her site’s reliance on legions of unpaid bloggers who supply commentary in exchange for the prominent “platform” that her site gives them. But as many scribes as it may have pissed off, it’s also true that HuffPo leveraged that strategy into a $315 million payday.

Now AOL is bringing Huffington’s freebie content strategy to its Patch network of hyperlocals. Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici reported yesterday that Patch Editor-in-Chief Brian Farnham has tasked his 800+ editors each with recruiting five to 10 local bloggers to contribute unpaid content for their respective sites by May 4th, when the network’s new blog platform launches.

“Our goal in bringing bloggers aboard is to add as many local perspectives as we can to our sites,” a Patch representative said in a statement. “From day one, Patch has been committed to connecting our readers with their communities — and with each other — and adding so many new voices to our sites is not a change in direction, but additive to our original, and steadfast, strategy of offering our users the most robust and interactive sites we can. Aside from the blog, to which we hope thousands of people will contribute, we will also continue to operate and build a journalistic enterprise with hundreds of paid, professional journalists.”

The statement went on to clearly reiterate that Patch remains “100% committed to professional journalism” and assure that the sites aren’t planning to replace its editors with unpaid bloggers: “We believe Patch is a platform that should have many local voices. Blogging is a platform for those community perspectives that would otherwise not have a forum. This will open the door for everyone to contribute, alongside our professionally produced news.”

West Seattle Blog‘s Tracy Record doubted the move would likely result in quality content: “On the local level, you cannot cover the news competently with unpaid volunteers who have no stake in site ownership,” she said.

In our first couple of weeks of interviews with hyperlocal bloggers from cities and towns around the country, one common theme that keeps popping up is a deep skepticism about Patch’s efforts. Many view the network as yet another big corporation messing with local mom-and-pop businesses — a Barnes & Noble that swoops in to wipe out the indie bookstore down the street and send local dollars back to corporate headquarters.

But the real question is whether Patch can create a sustainable business model by leaning on the backs of freebie bloggers. Maybe these contributors won’t be putting out the quality local journalism that lots of people are looking for, but it’s a model that’s worked for Arianna before. Maybe it will again.