Stretching the Definition of ‘Local’ With Patch-HuffPo

“Hair removal is just one of those things in life that women choose to participate it (sic). Sure we can let our hair run wild but, our dating prospects may not be as bright on the horizon. When it comes to hair removal we are classified in four groups: waxers, shavers, creamers (hair removal creams such as Nair), and women who let it hang loose. I decided to visit a new salon, Maisie Dunbar Spa Lounge, in the area that had a special on waxing.” — Silver Spring, Md., Patch (see video below)

Nothing is more local than one’s legs, or at least leg treatments. But does an eyebrow-raising topic coupled with a local venue qualify as “hyperlocal” content — and does it even matter, so long as the clicks are there?

The latter might be the case at Patch, as some of the network’s programming has turned toward the model followed by The Huffington Post and various (successful) content “farms” that draw readers in with off-topic sex appeal then deliver them off-site — thanks for the clicks and ad views! Apparently Patch is not the only AOL property being tooled by Arianna Huffington and her corps: AOL itself has dipped into such urgent topics as how men who fake orgasms should masturbate more. Titillating for sure, and likely a clicker, but is this really helping anyone (not least the online business that oversees Patch)?

Changes internally hint at what’s to come, as do comments from Patch editors who I spoke to. One recent change includes Patch co-founder Jon Brod, who got a bit of a haircut, going from being responsible for HuffPo Media operations to just focusing once again on Patch. But, as noted, this does not necessarily mean a turn toward hyperlocal-only focus.

Full disclosure here:  I was in charge of editorial for AOL’s 1.0 hyperlocal network called Digital City, later dubbed AOL Local. And I can tell you on many occasions I (and the co-conspirators I worked with) dramatically stretched the definition of local in the interest of driving traffic.

For example, let’s say it’s 1997 and the re-release of the Star Wars trilogy was hitting theaters soon, celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the first film. Surely fans were just as excited in small towns as well as large, or in general. So how do you “localize” Star Wars? Simple: secure the AOL keyword “starwars,” create a directory of theaters showing the re-edited trilogy, create games aimed at connecting people geographically around going to the theater and fill the message boards with fans waxing about when they saw the first release — where they were, what it was like, etc. And that’s what we did. The content was mostly user-generated, segmented by region and grew long beyond the release of the new films. But was it local?

In the early days, editors at the local level had a great deal of control over editorial voice and direction. That began to change as we turned the corner from a disparate band of individual city sites connected by little more than ethos to a contiguous network that the sales group could sell to national advertisers. Managing that change is very difficult. It’s a hard task to create relatively equal quality across a network while also assuring local personality, as Patch clearly is discovering today.  But again, that HuffPo influence… it could mean less hand-wringing is in store for editors around localization and more about simply sexing things up.

One of the problems could be the growing pains of a fairly layered operation (Patch) getting pressed together with an army of SEO/editorial experts who don’t necessarily care about local with a capital L. Especially following Patch’s incredible feat of getting over 800 towns covered in so short a time.

I talked to a couple of Patch local editors (not the Silver Spring editor), to get their perspective at the ground level. One in particular had several interesting points to make, which I’ve laid out below. Others have talked about how there seems to be a scrum shaping up between the Patch team and the HuffPo noobs.

Now while we wait for the budgets for the new quarter it looks like it will bring more emphasis on “trending topics” and tailoring content to what people web-wide are searching for, not necessarily what is going on in our Patch ~ Patch Editor

What are the criteria for hiring Patch editors? I assume quality varies greatly.
Officially: two years of experience and a journalism education. But there are a great many who were hired right out of college. Yes, quality varies wildly — from sites that break news and do some good things, are updated often and become a real part of the community to the item you found about leg waxing.

Patch seems to have gone through several phases, as though reacting to every months’ unique visitor quota. Is this accurate?
In the first quarter of this year the focus was on stay-at-home moms with day-parted content, following what seemed like a brainstorm at the upper levels of the editorial or marketing staff. That lasted a few weeks and then died off quickly because there was no unique visitor explosion, and it generally created confusion.

Then came Q2 and the well-reported drive to get free local bloggers writing for each Patch — at least 10 per site. The predictions were for 8,000 “Local Voices” in total but we ended up with not nearly that many, and a lot of those who were secured write about universal topics, or cooking and exercise.

Now while we wait for the budgets for the new quarter it looks like it will bring more emphasis on “trending topics” and tailoring content to what people Web-wide are searching for, not necessarily what is going on in our Patch. The Huffington Post influence is gently suggesting adding this content to drive UVs.

So it sounds like since HuffPo came into the picture there is even more layering of editorial decisions, creating a gulf between people “on the ground” and those making decisions. Is this accurate?
Indeed. Ariana says one thing and the other top brass say another. There are many mixed messages, which I think makes it hard to accomplish things, overall.

And while local advertising was once the exclusive goal of Patch — with national advertisers practically forbidden — I hear things there are changing.
They are taking national ads now.


While this last comment is not significant on its own, it does suggest Patch’s hyperlocal philosophy (or even the very model) may not be working as planned. National advertisers are fine, if you can satisfy their demand for foot traffic to local brick-and-mortars. As has been argued elsewhere, perhaps hyperbolically, many methods, such as branding campaigns, are ill-fitted for hyperlocal.

But I suppose if Lady Schick wanted to sponsor leg treatments at the local level across the nation then they have their venue. But is that Patch? Is that our hyperlocal future? Perhaps Arianna knows…

Rick Robinson’s Turf Talk column appears every Wednesday on Street Fight.

  1. Mark
    July 6, 2011

    Rick, looks like you are right on the money this this one. This reflects what we’ve seen in NJ Patches. We earlier thought it was a growing reliance on more generic copy that could be shared among Patches instead of more expensive local-oriented copy. As for Patch’s ‘hyperlocal’ business model — local mom and pop companies didn’t have much cash to advertise in print. Why would that chance for digital?

  2. TR
    July 6, 2011

    First time I ever saw an ad on a Patch site, it was a Pepsi ad – and I checked a few others, which displayed it too. And this was more than a few months ago.

  3. July 6, 2011

    To be fair, how is this different than what mainstream, legacy news organizations do? I see this kind of “local” content all the time there as well. And they take national ads too while arguably needing the revenue less than Patch.If you’re going to ding Patch, ding the rest of the media that has made this kind of content a common practice for years. 

    Also, how is this different from taking a popular national topic and “localizing” it by talking to local experts, business owners, legislators, etc? How many times have we read an article along those lines in our local paper? Admittedly, hair removal is a banal topic to do it with. Foreclosures or, say, unemployment would be better. But Patch has already said they’re there to serve local residents and local advertisers. They seem to place the two on equal footing though of course we can easily say that the advertisers are more valuable since they’re paying Patch while residents are reading everything for free. So yes, the topics likely to be covered are going to be advertiser-skewed, not public-interest skewed. If residents don’t like that, they won’t read and there soon won’t be any eyeballs to feed advertisers, right? 
    Perhaps the problem, if you can call it that, is the way Internet search engines work. If using SEO-friendly headlines wasn’t rewarded with pageviews, no one would do it.

    1. TR in W. Seattle
      July 7, 2011

      Here’s the thing. It’s NOT different – and that’s the problem. There is NO need to waste precious resources localizing national stories, or doing something on, say, a health or parenting issue that has probably been amply addressed on a million specialty sites. The whole point of a Patch or a WSB or a Baristanet or a Batavian or an Altadenablog (etc.) is that there are neighborhood stories that have forever gone untold – and we are here to help ensure they are told. I have so much stuff backlogged and waiting to be reported/processed at any given time, if I had more people-power, we could have 40 stories a day instead of a dozen or so. (Yeah, I should probably get back to work instead of taking the time out to write this comment. But it’s 11:47 pm, I can take a break.) I don’t have the time to waste on an unnecessary “local angle on regional/national story” – unless it is TRULY something we would tell no matter what, such as a local tie for a key figure, NOT the standard “so, what do YOU think?” stuff. We have forums for that. P.S. As for SEO – that can be amply deployed by owning your unique local search terms, naturally, geographically, synergistically with your community interests, not looking to be the next Vi*gra/Bot*x/whatever search grabber that oh BTW happens to be based in a hamlet of 10,000 … 

      1. July 7, 2011

        Hey, I agree with you 1000%. I was just saying that tons of media does this, not only Patch. Do I also think they shouldn’t bother and should focus on their core competencies? Yes. Do I think it’s likely to happen in the immediate future while print still needs to sell ads alongside the gardening, parenting and health stories? Sadly, no.

        As for your lack of manpower, have you tried finding people in the community who might be able to help tell all the stories you want to cover? It’s not an easy task, but can pay off.

        1. July 7, 2011

          That is SUCH a myth, that you can get free consistent reporting help 🙂 – our support group of 70+ other local publishers knows that’s unfortunately impossible for most. We have some decent freelancers but since we can’t hire them fulltime, they have other jobs and availability is sketchy. God bless the folks who do send contributions like coyote photos, breaking news pix, Little League championships, burglary reports, “hey I saw,” etc., but to steal the brilliant Cory Bergman’s quote, you need to “put a layer of journalism” over them all, you can’t just open the doors to direct postings with no editorial involvement and expect to have any credibility. And that takes time too. But we’ll get there. I’d buy a lottery ticket if I could find the time …

          1. July 8, 2011

            I never said it had to be consistent 🙂 That’s extremely rare, to be sure.  It’s a revolving door and a publisher just has to keep at it. 

            And no, of course you can’t have direct postings without oversight. I could actually envision a situation where that might work for vetted, registered users, but it would still require a level of moderation that most site operators probably won’t have the time for.  

  4. July 6, 2011

    If you want to see generic copy shared across Patch sites in the metro Atlanta area, check out the mess the Decatur Patch editor got himself into when he published inaccurate information about the Peachtree Road Race (held 7/04). The errors were pointed out by @PatchPatties and he published the first corrections page I’ve seen on a Patch site: Unfortunately, since the flawed article was posted at several Atlanta Patch sites, only the originating site got the correction sheet or the comment with the corrections.

  5. Patcher
    July 7, 2011

    Sure, like other news websites don’t have a lifestyles section that discusses trivialities like waxing ( The thing that kills me is that every media analyst is foaming at the mouth waiting for Patch to fail and completely not giving a crap about the 800 plus journalists who would be out of work as a result. Of course Patch could fail. So could every newspaper in the country. In case you haven’t noticed, the internets killed the chance of people willing to pay for news.

  6. Rick
    July 7, 2011

    Another factor which explains the wide variation in editorial approaches is the Patch regional editors (who typically oversee a dozen or so local editors) have very different views of what is “local” and what type of features might drive traffic.

    Overall, Patch local editors do a lot of things well, but one place where they struggle is in coverage that goes beyond the event itself. You’ll see a lot of city council stories that faithfully report what happened. What you won’t see so much are stories that put the news in context or flesh it out to the second or third level. That filing isn’t due to a lack of journalism chops, but primarily because you just have the time to do it.

    And btw….40 stories a day? Unless you’re posting every random news item and blog submission, it’s difficult to see how most towns really have that amount of real news.

  7. July 22, 2011

    Just referenced this article in a blog post about how large companies are failing at local. Great work that your team is doing, constant source of inspiration to us.

  8. awriter
    December 31, 2011

    I freelance for a Patch site in a suburban community that has two local papers. I always thought the local papers, who basically print press releases, lacked personality. Our Patch Editor works tirelessly and has really created an engaging site that features newsworthy local stories. The community has embraced the site, whether this translates into a profit remains to be seen. The few times “trending topics” have been thrown on the site it seems like it was coming out of left field. We have an artist who does a weekly “Art & Music” column and who also initiated a series of “Where Are They Now?” stories about local grads working in the Peace Corps or past Intel winners, etc. I have my own column focusing on ordinary people who are committed to very worthy charitable initiatives such as raising thousands for cancer research. If our Patch becomes yet another snarky “trendy topics” site it would be a shame.

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Street Fight Daily: 07.06.11