David Carr all but writes the obit for Patch today. One could quibble and say it’s not quite dead, that Aol plans partnerships for the ill-fated ganglion of local sites. Fine, but it’s still not wrong to look back and ask what went wrong.
Before he started Patch — and before he went to Aol and brought it along — Tim Armstrong called me into his office asking me to advise Patch. I was listed as an official adviser but never was; I just offered what advice I had for free, over coffee, as I did for many others working in hyperlocal. Patch didn’t take it anyway.
I still believe in Armstrong’s vision that local communities need local information. But now I fear that its slow, tortured fall could — in the words of a friend — bring nuclear winter to hyperlocal. Radioactive hyperlocal cooties. It shouldn’t be. The problem with Patch wasn’t Armstrong’s vision about the value of local information. It was execution.
1. Patch did not get its business model in shape before multiplying its mistakes times 900. The essential business assumption — that having one reporter and one sales person in a town is inexpensive — is right, as many mom-and-pop hyperlocal blogs have demonstrated and as we modeled at CUNY. Patch wanted to scale that. But it went about that the wrong way.
2. Patch could have been a network of independent local sites. That’s what I advised, using the model of Glam, which Samir Arora built into a top-7 internet property not by creating and buying and owning content but instead by building an ad sales network and technology platform that now serves 4,000 independent and sustainable sites (triumphing over iVillage). Patch could have been the local version of that, but in the model of old media, it wanted to own everything. I heard executives there vow to kill the queen of hyperlocal, Baristanet. Now the queen has the last laugh.
3. Patch never played well with others. It was secretive and aggressive. In the NJ News Commons — an open network that I helped start (with aforementioned former queen Debbie Galant and others) — a few dozen sites across the state are now sharing content and audience (and soon, I hope, advertising) using Repost.US and BroadStreetAds. Repost enables sites to make their articles embeddable on other sites. It also enables sites to blacklist other sites that can’t take their content. Most sites I know wanted to blacklist Patch because it had been so nasty to them. In an ecosystem, what goes around comes around to bite you in the ass.
4. Patch sold advertising on its sites in the old-media model. The local advertisers I talked with said it was too expensive and, given the audience, didn’t perform. What Patch could have done was sell not only a network of local sites with more audience, but also a menu of digital services to local advertisers. Our research at CUNY shows that local merchants need more than ads; they need help with their digital presences in Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and so on. That’s what I’d like to see local sites working on now.
5. Patch was patchy in its editorial quality. This one amazes me. Patch had staffs of editors. It could have trained its local reporters in a system like About.com’s. It could have templated basic coverage — e.g., here are the 10 things you must do when a big storm hits. Some Patches did good work. Some were dreadful. In my first meeting with Patch, I also advised them to get some life, some humanity in what they did. But they thought they were a technology company, that the secret to their success would be their proprietary content management system. No, the secret to success in hyperlocal is passion: caring about your town. That’s always what Patch lacked.
After the fall of Patch, some will say again that hyperlocal has failed but they’d be wrong. Hyperlocal works in town after town. What doesn’t work is trying to instantly scale it by trying to own every town in sight. That was Patch’s fatal error: acting like an old-media company.
Hyperlocal works on a hyperlocal level. It’s damned hard work, as any hyperlocal proprietor will tell you. Last week, I went to the first Christmas party for the NJ News Commons and like a proud Frankenstein, I scanned a room filled with people who work hard to cover the towns and topics they care about. This term, I had two hyperlocal sites from New Jersey in my entrepreneurial journalism class at CUNY and they both need help to get their marketing and revenue strategies working. Next term, we have a handful of would-be hyperlocal entrepreneurs and we’ll work hard to get their model right. Hyperlocal is a matter of fighting for the next hill.
Hyperlocal will scale — as it is only beginning to in New Jersey — by helping these independent sites in a larger news ecosystem bring together their content, audience, advertising sales for mutual benefit. Patch could have been that network. Instead, it thought it could own — it could be — the ecosystem. Nobody can do that.