AOL’s Patch.com, with editor in chief Arianna Huffington, is on the aggressive move: it’s right now in about 800 communities, with a goal of 1,000 by the end of 2011. Huffington wants to make the Patches a keystone in coverage of the 2012 election, and AOL is investing heavily in them, so they’ll want a significant return. Patch isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
But I don’t think Patch is the best model for local news coverage. In the interests of transparency: I’ve been editor and publisher of Altadenablog in Altadena, California since October 2007. In 2010, AOL contacted me to see if I wanted to run the Altadena Patch. I turned them down, and Altadena Patch went online in October 2010 with another local editor.
One of the reasons I turned them down is that I had a different vision of a locally-owned and focused website — we don’t even accept national advertisers. Now that we’ve been operating side-by-side for several months — and the Altadena Patch is one of the better ones — I’m more convinced than ever that local news needs to have local ownership — the cliche is “it needs to have skin in the game.” The metaphor I use is the ham and eggs breakfast: the commitment of the chicken is different than the commitment of the pig. As a resident of Altadena and someone who runs his business here — I’m the pig!
Here are four questions to ask when Patch moves into your town:
1. Remember that AOL is in this to make money. Nothing wrong with that — so are we. However, AOL has identified small local business as a revenue source for the large corporation. AOL is in your town to have local businesses buy ads so the local Patch can ship bucketloads of money to New York City to feed AOL executives, shareholders, and now Arianna Huffington. On the other hand, with a locally-owned news website, the money paid by advertisers gets spent in town.
Question: is removing money from your community in the best interests of your community?
2. If I go to a Burger King in Pasadena, West Covina, Texas, or Maine, I know exactly what I’m going to get. The chain sells a uniform, predictable experience. But if I want to show a visitor my town, we don’t go to Burger King — we go into the local coffee shop or restaurant, the one that’s not part of a national chain. Like any franchise, in order for AOL to make money, they’ve got to operate on economies of scale — so each Patch more or less looks and operates like every other, running on the assumption that every community has exactly the same needs and interests. For example, AOL says that moms drive most spending in a household, so they have a lot of mom-pandering articles and contests — and most of the Patches we’ve looked at push Mom-grabbing ideas like “Mom of the Year.”
But what works for a chain restaurant doesn’t work for local news. Your community is unique in its history, issues, interests, and the people who live there — Patch makes the assumption that Altadena is like Newport Beach is like Rochester NY is like Great Neck NJ and can fit in the same box.
Question: Can a website that looks and acts like a thousand others properly serve your unique community?
3. Question: Do you want the voice of your community to be the one AOL gives you?
4. As a related question: the Huffington Post has always tended toward a particularly political point of view. It’s the brand that Arianna Huffington has set up. Arianna has been very good at promoting and protecting her own personal brand. Now that Patch is a branch of the Huffington Post, will it follow the HuffPo direction? If uniformity of look and coverage is very important to the Patch model of news, what does that mean to coverage and opinion on local issues? And what kind of outlet devoted to local news publishes an editorial by Arianna Huffington?
Question: is it a good thing for 1,000 different communities to have their news and opinion coming from (and controlled by) the same source?
My answer to all of these questions is “No,” which has only become firmer with time. LIke our community, we are unique and strive to reflect our community’s uniqueness. The news we cover, the issues we choose to handle — even things like our type font — have all been improved by reader input, which we reflect on our website. Patch — or any other fauxcal site with an out-of-town central command — can’t say that.