About 2-1/2 years ago I discovered, quite by accident, a local news site called Patch. After looking at it more closely, I realized the Patch site I had come across was one of about 900 Patch sites reporting community events, local news and even local business openings and high school sports news. It was all under the corporate umbrella of AOL, although I later learned it began as an offshoot of Google, which eventually sold it to AOL.
As a Public Relations person, I saw Patch as presenting a wealth of new opportunities for client news placements, especially in the face of so many other local media placement opportunities disappearing. I've watched with dismay as local dailies got bought by big publishers, who then shut the locals down or merged them under the umbrella of what became a regional paper, while they laid off much of the local reporting staff. And at the same time, the other major local news and information source -- local radio -- has undergone change that has too often eliminated local news.
So Patch was a PR person's dream -- a media outlet that was genuinely interested in covering truly local news that many other "local" media outlets just couldn't bother with.
Some Patch sites were really good, and others were mediocre at best, with local editors who simply picked up and reprinted verbatim whatever news releases they received.
AOL had been losing money on this venture from the start, with some reports saying the loss is between $200 - $300 million. The company closed down several dozen Patch sites last summer, as it laid off about 350 people -- almost a third of the total Patch workforce, which included editorial and ad sales. And it looks like the Patch experiment will be coming to an end, possibly as soon as the beginning of the new year as AOL is finally taking its losses and pulling the plug.
Media pundits are placing blame all over the place. Some say AOL expanded Patch too quickly. Others say it never seemed to have the "passion" for local news that was needed for it to click with local readers and advertisers. Some insiders are saying AOL had too heavy a hand in things and made it difficult for the local people to establish Patch as a local brand.
The closing of Patch will hurt local news coverage, but maybe only for a short time. As more journalists get laid off from daily newspapers closing down or reducing their publication frequency from daily to a few dayus a week, some reporters may see an opportunity to be entrepreneurial and start local news sites. There's no big start-up expense like buying presses, newsprint and delivery trucks, after all. And some local "traditional" media like radio stations and community papers, dailies or weeklies, may see similar opportunities to enhance their local news coverage and generate added advertising revenues by selling the local news sites on their own or as add-ons to ads they sell in print or on the air.
There is a natural hunger for local news and information, since what happens down the street often impacts us more directly and more immediately than what happens across the country or across the ocean. I think whatever gap is left by the demise of Patch will eventually be filled, possibly in a better way.
Let's hope so.