Hyperlocal news down, not out amid AOL retreat

August 23, 2013 by Rob Lever
An Ipad user views AOL's "Editions" news viewer on a Patch page showing local news from Fairfax, Virginia, on August 21, 2013. Hyperlocal news, the Internet's version of community journalism, has taken a blow with major cutbacks at AOL's Patch, but it may not be time to write its obituary.

Hyperlocal news, the Internet's version of community journalism, has taken a blow with major cutbacks at AOL's Patch, but it may not be time to write its obituary.

Scores of hyperlocal news sites are operating across the United States, and some say the idea still has promise, and could even thrive with the retrenchment of corporate-run news operations like Patch.

"Because Patch has been limping along losing money but supported by AOL, that has prevented other people from coming in and doing independent local sites," said Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern University journalism professor and author of a book on community online journalism.

AOL said last week it was cutting an unspecified number of jobs at its Patch hyperlocal news operations, while consolidating or closing some Patch sites.

Media reports said the cuts could affect as many as 500 people, or 40 percent of the staff. Patch has some 900 local news sites across the United States. Earlier this year, EveryBlock, a hyperlocal website backed by NBC which operated in 19 cities, was shuttered.

"I think that for hyperlocal to work it has to be driven at the grassroots level, it has to be someone with the passion at the local level. These are people pounding the pavement trying to sell ads to every pizza place and tattoo parlor," Kennedy said.

Those sentiments were echoed by Scott Brodbeck, founder of the Arlington, Virginia, ARLnow.com and newly created BethesdaNow.com in Bethesda, Maryland, two communities in the US capital region.

"I think we're definitely in the early nascent stages of local online news," said Brodbeck, who started a one-man business heading editorial, Web and advertising functions, but now has a handful of employees.

"Independent, local people are able to be profitable but it's not easy."

Brodbeck said the Arlington news site started in 2010 has grown to 180,000 unique visitors, and has enough local advertising to pay employees and turn a profit.

"To get advertisers you need to get the readers," he said. To get readers, he said, "We are reporting on things local TV and the (Washington) Post would not be reporting on."

The newly formed Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, with more than 100 members, said hyperlocal has a future, and urged journalists losing their jobs at Patch to start their own sites.

"Patch is failing not because local news isn't a solid business, but because they're not local," said Dylan Smith, chairman of LION and head of a site in Tuscon, Arizona.

"Local news organizations must be of their communities, not just in them to ship profits out of town. Local news must respect readers: know what they want to know, know what they need to know, and provide it quickly, accurately and comprehensively."

Ken Doctor, consultant and analyst for the research firm Outsell, said however that Patch is not dead yet, and still could be a force with several hundred local sites.

"Half of the sites may be close to profitability," he said. "It's been a rocky road but this (reorganization) could be a foundation for the next step."

Doctor said Patch's woes illustrate that ad revenues are insufficient to support news operations, and struggling metropolitan dailies should seek out ways to charge readers an add-on to a digital subscription for community news.

He sees this as possible at a newspaper like The Washington Post, which was just bought by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

"It makes perfect sense in Washington," Doctor said. "The Post still has a large number of subscribers, and they are affluent. And we know that Bezos understands how to segment customers, so it fits him. And they could get more readers at a lower price point."

Doctor said that the quality of the operations is more important than whether they are corporate- or local-owned.

"Some of those (independent) sites are excellent and some are mediocre," he said.

"If you have a great blogger in the community, that person may be able to do better job than Patch. But some of the Patches are better than some of the independent sites. It's not about being independent, its about how well it's done."

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