Patch, yes it is still around, updates its iOS app, maintains its slimmed down local news sites
With far few editors, and advertising sold by national teams, Patch websites are an odd mix of aggregated content and promotional posts
Investors and media reporters can’t beat up AOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong anymore over the company’s investment in its local news project, Patch. Too bad, really. Critics seemed to be having fun doing it.
Lost in all the criticism of Patch under AOL’s management was what the winning formula for profitable local news is. Small newspapers will tell you it is intense commitment to the local community, involvement, and knowing one’s readers and local businesses who advertise. But that is not what AOL, and now Patch’s new ownership want to hear. The goal was to make a business out of a network of local news sites without the same level of commitment small publishers must achieve.
Patch is now owned by Hale Global, which is still looking for a CEO, if the “About” page is accurate.
With AOL, Patch was about launching as many local news websites as possible, hire a lot of local editors, and try and see enough national advertising would eventually come in to supplement the local ads being sold. Today, the strategy is to sell national advertising fast enough to make up for the local ads that may disappear thanks to the mass layoffs Patch endured earlier this year. To try and maintain those local ads, Patch is using phone rooms located in Boston and NYC.
The company claims to be profitable already, though there is no way to confirm this now that it is private. The strategy is to limit costs severely, running the network of local sites with the minimum number of people possible.
For instance, in Illinois, the editor of my local Patch website lives in Wisconsin. (A Google search turned up bad information on the editor mentioned in the last sentence.) As local reporting would be impossible, the editor depends on aggregating content from other news sources.
Another strategy appears to be to have the news pumped into the properties by a national desk that identifies stories and targets them to the appropriate Patch property.
Several Patch sites appear to have become largely controlled by a local business that uses the site to promote their services. One Wisconsin site, for instance, only contains stories from someone labeled as “Tammy” who posts “opinion” pieces that may, or may not, actually be paid posts – it’s hard to tell.
Had the old Patch sites been run in the same fashion there is no doubt that media critics would have had a field day at Patch’s expense. But Patch pretty much lives under the radar these days. One media mention recently was in the NYT where Leslie Kaufman wrote a piece that I was sure had to have been part of the NYT’s native advertising program.
The key to success at Patch is obviously to attract enough readers that national advertisers will be attracted to the news sites. The problem with that, of course, is that to attract local readers who have to have something to offer them, like real local news. AOL couldn’t find the secret sauce, and so spent far more than shareholders felt was reasonable. It may be that the goal now is to maintain Patch in its trimmed down, bare bones state until a buyer comes along. After all, the NYT once bought About.com. Maybe there is a PE owned company out there willing to take a flyer on Patch.
By the way, the iOS app update today is about “Compatibility alignment with new Patch web interface” – whatever that means.