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Uncertain Future for AOL’s Patch

hyperlocal picBy now, most media pundits and journalism wonks have all but concluded their somewhat premature postmortems on what exactly went wrong at Patch, AOL’s network of local news and information sites.

Although the company’s problems had been mounting for several years, the combination of major layoffs and a recent story in the New York Times that led many to believe Patch was “winding down,” served to put the already embattled company squarely in the media’s cross-hairs.

Some of the most frequent criticisms and causes cited for Patch’s failure to achieve profitability include the now-obvious rapid growth and expansion that could not be supported by the company’s unproven business model that in many cases had sites up and running months ahead of advertising support.

David Carr, who wrote Patch’s pseudo obituary in the NYT, used biblical references, calling Patch Tim Armstrong’s “white whale” that got away. New media expert Jeff Jarvis detailed Patch’s failings as did most major media outlets who all lambasted AOL execs for acting too much like “old media,” for wanting to scale Patch too quickly and own all there was to own in hyper-local.

Asked about Patch and what it portends for the future of hyperlocal, Jim Brady, president of Online News Association and former editor of Washingtonpost.com, emphasized caution.

“I think one thing we need to be careful about is using the success or failure of any one entity as a bellwether for a particular type of journalism,” Brady said.

“Every product is different, so I don’t think what happened to Patch tells a larger story about hyperlocal, any more than failure of Friendster said anything larger about social media as a whole,” he added.

And, despite all the autopsies of the past few weeks, Patch is still afloat, albeit in very troubled waters.
Starting in August, Patch initiated layoffs that would ultimately result in the jettisoning of nearly 40 percent of its workforce, close to 500 employees, including journalists, salespeople and others.

So, conclusions that can be drawn so far are that hyper-local didn’t fail but AOL and Patch’s execution was flawed. Some media experts even said that the network’s choice to all but ignore cities in favor of affluent suburban communities was in and of itself a fatal flaw.

Several former local editors agreed that many of Patch’s problems were the result of too much, too soon coupled with dwindling freelance budgets and unfocused advertising sales reps who were often not local but regional reps who had difficulty selling to local businesses.

Mitchelle Stephenson, a former Patch local editor in Edgewater, MD, commented back in August on jimromenesko.com, that “In the end, poor execution killed Patch more than the idea of it.”

As a former freelance writer for several Patch sites on Long Island, I have some of my own insights on what was ailing Patch. For starters, it looked to me that the local editors were asked to do way too much, including many tasks which seemed more like marketing and promotion than editing and writing.

In addition, I felt that much of the editorial focus was too superficial, with an overemphasis on calendars and lists and “best of” stories that seemed more entertainment than information.

Officially, AOL would not comment beyond what Armstrong has already said during his December UBS conference call where he talked about the “optionality” of Patch and that looking at the coming year the property would likely have a “partnership” around it.

And, even more telling was a recent internal Patch memo leaked to Businessinsider.com and sent to employees from the company’s COO Leigh Zarelli Lewis. The memo essentially told employees to stay put because talks with “potential partners” were ongoing.

So, what exactly does Patch’s future look like? Will it be partnered with a major media company? Sold outright to investors? Downsized even further and possibly allowed to grow “organically” as many said it should have done from the get go?

What do you think of Patch’s future and hyperlocal in general? Tell us in the comments or tweet us @10000words.

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