A new Patch?

AOL's hyperlocal startup is building something new, but the details remain closely guarded

At AOL’s second-quarter earnings call on Wednesday, CEO Tim Armstrong hinted that changes are afoot for Patch, the hyperlocal news venture he dreamed up and then purchased in 2009, once he ascended to AOL’s top spot. The new product, he said:

allows us to continue to do news and kind of directory listings continue at high scale, but add the ability for the community — a much higher level community involvement in a very precise way on the Patch platform. So in essence if you take the town as a campus, where people don’t move, they have specific interests, they like news and information, they like the directory listings. There is also an ability for to us mimic the way that people in towns basically live their lives, including commerce.

Nobody I reached at Patch (where I used to work) would specify what “a much higher level of community involvement” means, beyond spokeswoman Janine Iamunno’s assertion that it’s part of a continuing evolution to connect users—in this case, with one another, rather than just with local news and information. A new platform has been in the works “for some time,” she said.

But she declined to tell me what that new platform or a shift toward user interaction would look like. (We know that, at GOOD, on a much smaller scale, that shift in focus from content creation to “community” meant firing its editorial employees and then posting job listings for curators and community managers.)

The local editor position, the base-level job responsible for running a website that covers one or two towns, has changed drastically since it was explained to Patch’s original recruits. Former LE Sean Roach recounted in CJR’s March/April cover story:

The Patch idea was sold to me on the following premise: The backbone of the website’s offerings would be local news and information, with the goal being the digitization of a community—your town, online. Patch aimed to be the community newspaper and more, a hub for local businesses and a forum for community conversation: everything a local news outlet should be.

To that end, Patch advertised for and hired hundreds of reporters as it expanded throughout the country in 2010, but the job became increasingly less like reporting and more like overseeing a forum, with soft content dictates from on high, the introduction of HuffPo-style community blogs after AOL bought it, and a reported decrease in each site’s freelance budget.

Shortly after I was hired as a local editor in fall 2009, LEs started spending their first month-plus of employment creating business listings for their towns, a task previously outsourced to freelancers (all I had to do were the “prime” listings—schools, government agencies, churches, and the like, which usefully allowed me to cultivate sources). So at least the beginning of an LE’s employment already doesn’t resemble journalism by any traditional definition. And if the future of Patch is connecting users to one another, it sounds to me like the LE job will evolve even more, toward some sort of digital community moderator role and away from reporting the town’s news. That new role will be a fine job, I’m sure, but it won’t be journalism.

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Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg. Tags: ,