The financial problems that face Patch.com, a large national network of hyperlocal news sites owned by AOL, have raised doubts about the success of this model.
Even so, I still believe there is a promising future for community journalism online, not only in the United States, but all over the world.
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This week, David Carr wrote in The New York Times what some called practically an “obituary” for the network of hundreds of sites: “The hunt to own the lucrative local advertising market, [Tim] Armstrong’s white whale, is over. But Patch did not go quietly — hundreds of people lost their jobs over the last six months — and neither will Mr. Armstrong, the chief executive of AOL.”
Even before Carr’s article, experts have been pessimistic about the future of hyperlocal journalism after what has happened to Patch over the past few months, pointing especially to the difficulty of making money under that business model.
Rem Rieder wrote in USA Today in August: “Hyperlocal is like a lovely river whose dazzling, sun-drenched surface gives no inkling of the rocks below and the danger of shipwreck.” [Disclosure, Reider is also the former editor of American Journalism Review]
My view? I think some of Patch’s missteps occurred in its approach to content.
I agree with Tom Foremski who wrote in ZDNeT, which covers global information technology trends, in 2011, that for hyperlocal to work, the content needs to be truly local.
“Local ads need local content and that local content can’t be machine aggregated, it requires feet on the streets: selling ads and collecting the news,” he wrote.
Patch failed to have real feet on the street, and the content shows it.
On a recent day, I found no real local news related to the area on College Park Patch. For example, the site ran a news story about data stolen from Target on Black Friday, under the title: ‘Massive Data Breach’ at Target May Involve 40 Million Customers.
The story was not localized. Why didn’t the editor try to find data about the number of shoppers who went to Target in College Park on the day of the breach, or find other ways to make the story local?
I would describe the stories on this website as “office-made.”
You cannot succeed in hyperlocal with this kind of news.
In hyperlocal you need to be different. People will be more interested in your news if you are talking about them, about other people or places they already know and pass by every day.
Within that formula, I believe there is a future for hyperlocal models, both in the U.S. and internationally.
Hussein N. Zaky (firstname.lastname@example.org)is deputy chief of the foreign news desk at the Al-Akhbar newspaper. He was a Middle East Fellow at International Journalists’ Programmes in Berlin in 2011, and served as a mentor and trainer at “Media Neighbourhood Project” organized by BBC Media Action and the European Union in 2012. He holds Humphrey/Fulbright scholarship for graduate studies at University of Maryland.