Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On the Patch (unedited)

Oh joy, the savior of community journalism has arrived here in the Twin Cities. We now have Patch! “Hyper local” media will never be the same.

What’s Patch? It’s the parent name of a billion local websites being rolled out across the United States by AOL. You remember AOL, don’t you? AOL was the way we connected to the Internet 10 years ago. Nobody dials up AOL from a home phone any more, so AOL quickly became a footnote in Internet evolution.

But not so fast, AOL somehow determined the best way to make a name for itself 10 years later is to fund thousands of city-specific websites. Basically the Patch websites are local media outlets. There’s no television station or newspaper, just a website to host Patch’s hyper local journalism.

Don't be fooled into thinking Patch has reinvented the wheel. It hasn't. Patch is doing the same thing newspapers, radio stations, magazines and television stations have been doing for centuries, they’re simply delivering their product via the Internet.

Hyper local is a fancy was of saying community journalism. It sounds impressive and cutting edge, but it’s just another way of saying we don’t cover the state, nation or world, we cover your city, just as a newspaper does.

In an era when newspapers and broadcast outlets are stretched thin and hemorrhaging advertising revenue, it’s hard to imagine a truckload of community news sites are going to be financially viable. Newspapers have been giving away their news content for years via the Internet, and earning a fraction of the advertising revenue they use to because of it.

People don’t read want ads when they want to buy a car or a house, they go online to shop. Newspapers have tried to capture that web traffic through their websites, but they were a little late to the party, a variety of online destinations have already filled the online niches.

And I can’t say that I blame the realtors and car dealers of the world for nearly abandoning traditional media. Why spend money on an expensive ad in a Sunday newspaper (and believe me, it’s expensive) when you can dump that money into an up-to-the-minute website with your current inventory? Once Internet access went from being a luxury to a necessity in American homes, newspapers quickly found their delivery model – dead trees – out of favor.

I have no idea how Patch intends to turn a profit. They plan to hire dozens of journalists to chronicle happenings in every community they stake a claim to. And they're paying decent wages for people who are basically newspaper reporters who pimp their content via Twitter and Facebook. Each reporter is issued equipment for the job, (a laptop, digital camera and police scanner are among the goodies you're issued, I think.) And there's a freelance budget to help pay for high school sports stories and other content the one-man show in each community cannot produce. Add in the cost of management for each region, and a sales staff to sell ads for each site, and there's a lot of overhead for a business that isn't selling a product, memberships or subscriptions.

It's fascinating to watch Patch try to convince people they want to spend their free time reading community news through the Internet. I'm skeptical, I doubt Patch will succeed. But nobody has tried to set up a nationwide community news network as ambitious as Patch. Perhaps they're breaking ground, just as eBay, Netflix and MySpace did.

But if I was betting $1,000 on whether or not Patch will succeed, I'd bet against it.

No comments: