Commentary

Patch & The Slippery Slope Of Hyperlocal Content -- Unless You're On Facebook

According to news reports, this is the day that a lot more than one single, misbehaving creative director will get fired from Patch, AOL’s foray into the hyperlocal content business. Reports are it will involve a haircut(buzzcut?) which lops off 500 of its 1,000 person staff, with perhaps 20% of the roughly 900 sites total going the way of – I’ve got it! – dial-up Internet connections.

Which is too bad – not only for the people getting laid off, but because many Patch sites are already suffering from a paucity of relevant content, a gap that could, or should, be filled by social media. That is, if Patch could find a way to be truly creative about this costly content production business.

I’ve been watching Patch closely the last few years – and briefly wrote a column for my local Patch site for which I even got paid(!). What I’ve noticed is that, on the two Patch sites I visit every day, the connection to the community seems to be lessening, while, meanwhile, there is an explosion of hyperlocal content production – though unmonetized – in social media.

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My reference points for these observations come from the Patch sites, and local social media sites, I frequent most: those about Pelham, New York, which is where I live, and New Canaan, Connecticut, which is where I grew up. The two towns are about 35 minutes apart; Pelham, a town of about 12,000 people, lies directly over the New York City, and New Canaan is a town in New York City’s exurbs of about 19,500, which is geographically about 12 times the size of Pelham.

The two towns have their similarities, but they also have big differences, as any two communities, even ones only 35 minutes apart, would. Obviously, different people run the town governments; we have different downtowns, different tax codes and different issues concerning our school systems. Yet, as time -- and too many Patch editors to count -- have marched on, their Patch sites have become alarmingly similar.

Today both sites, under the heading “Around Town,” feature a story about a nationwide salmonella recall involving pet food; both sites also share a piece, under the category of “Dining/Entertainment” about how Midnight Run – an organization that provides clothing and other everyday items to homeless people – is seeking  donations. (You tell me -- is that dining or entertainment?) Both prominently feature a link to a piece of native content – only marked as such after a user clicks -- involving the band boy-band One Direction. There is barely any hyperlocal advertising, and seemingly, no self-serve advertising product that would make the process less labor-intensive for Patch, and frictionless for advertisers.

In short, there are not enough reporters (i.e. content producers) to make Patch truly live up to the hyperlocal moniker, and not enough advertiser interest – or staff to reach them – to make these Patch sites a must-buy. Hyperlocal is a slippery slope; news about your neighborhood, your town, your school district, is invaluable, but if the focus widens even a little, so-called hyperlocal slides into irrelevance faster than, well, yesterday’s newspaper. The only way for Patch to maintain this all-important relevance, without help from the free local content provided by each community’s citizens, is to hire more journalists. Its financial constraints are forcing it into doing the opposite, and down the slippery slope it may go.

If a Patch editor had the time, he or she could have built a great feature around retailers in New Canaan goneby; it’s been a consistently popular thread in one of the New Canaan Facebook groups I belong to. Any truly hyperlocal site about Pelham would have covered how Pelham’s schools fared on the reading and math tests administered in New York State during the last school year. Because scores dropped precipitously across the board as New York strived to meet Common Core Standards, this is a hotter topic than usual in a school-obsessed town. There has not been a word about it on Patch, but there’s a post and discussion 44 comments long -- and full of helpful resources -- on Facebook.

It’s enough to make one think that the best place for Patch is Facebook. Instead of hiring journalists, hire community managers whose job is to run discussions, and solicit and aggregate content from the locals, who are already creating content anyway, and kick out the occasional troll. Do community outreach to local advertisers, educating them on the extreme traction of locally focused social media sites, and training them on self-serve advertising. Voila! You’ve got a successful hyperlocal content play.

OK, maybe not quite that fast. But you get my point. Patch may have seemed like a good idea when it got started, since so many local newspapers have struggled in the digital age. However, its heavy reliance on old methods of content production put it decidedly behind the times.

1 comment about "Patch & The Slippery Slope Of Hyperlocal Content -- Unless You're On Facebook".
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  1. Al DiGuido from Optimus Publishing, August 16, 2013 at 3:14 p.m.

    The concept of providing hyper local content is a great opportunity. Patch never created a format and design that was exciting and engaging to their audience. Having been in publishing and digital media for most of my career..I found the overall design of the content to be incredibly poor. Patch should have been formatted to look like and read like a local newspaper. Advertising looked like an afterthought. In their race to create a scalable model..they lost any real enthusiasm and engagment in their delivery. NOW, with the rise of tablets and the desire for more engaging content on them..Patch could be transformed in a real way and provide local advertisers a new way to engage with their customers with a new tablet based design. The "old" Patch gave the appearance of the early days of email newsletters. Everyone in the market..has moved beyond that look and feel. Patch is a solid business idea...however it's more than just supply content that makes it work...It needs to be packaged better and merchandized better than that.

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