By Paige Cornwell
The Working Press
When AOL launched Patch, its hyper-local and community-specific news outlet, with just three websites in New Jersey, some doubted whether the model would survive.
Three years later, there are more than 800 Patch sites around the country, and the company’s co-founder, Warren Webster, hopes to eventually have one in every community.
When it first launched, news organizations including The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times questioned how Patch’s network of local sites would affect traditional outlets that were hurting from the recession.
“I believe that Patch is one part of a larger industry transformation, and, in my opinion, a positive force in that transformation,” Webster said by email.
Patch is changing the nature of local journalism by building a community-specific news source run in an people who live in the places they cover. Reporters cover events that larger news organizations might skip, such as school board meetings.
“[Patch] set out to find a new way to provide news, information, commerce and conversation to small communities who were increasingly underserved by declining traditional business models,” Webster said.
The websites were serving 12 million users as of last June, according to a news release.
One key to its success so far is that Patch took risks, and media outlets took notice, said Holly Edgell, who oversaw 12 area websites as a regional editor in St. Louis from July 2010 to this past February.
Patch reporters used social media websites like Twitter to circulate information, encouraged users to submit comments and photos, and worked from wherever they had their laptops, rather than from a traditional newsroom.
“I think it caused people to sit up and take notice that there is a new kid in town, and this kid is trying things and using all available tools that a news story can have,” Edgell said.
A few months before Edgell started at Patch, when there were fewer than 50 sites, a Los Angeles Times reporter wrote that “it’s hard to see how even a regional or national quilt of Patches … will succeed where many other local news start-ups have failed.”
News outlets questioned the project’s sustainability.
Webster said Patch is on pace to be profitable by the end of 2013.
In January, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong told analysts that Patch would reach $50 million in revenue this year, but has invested at least $160 million, according to Business Insider. Patch generated revenue of $20 million last year, according to Reuters.
“When you grow as fast as Patch has grown since 2009, there are inherent challenges in managing a large, distributed organization, and finding the balance between local autonomy and the benefits we can provide as a national company,” Webster wrote. “We’re getting closer and closer to finding that balance, and it’s showing in our traffic, engagement and revenue growth.”
Patch allows journalists to hear directly from community members, said Frannie Sprouls, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism student who freelanced in the summer of 2011 for oakdale.patch.com, which serves Oakdale, Minn.
The website’s homepage recently featured a jail bookings report, a gallery of user-submitted outdoor photos and coverage of a high school football game.
As a freelancer for Patch, Sprouls covered school events, shot photos and wrote an opinion piece about the final Harry Potter movie.
“The stories were created for those living in the suburb and surrounding areas,” Sprouls said. “It’s a good platform for community papers, especially when they have to compete with larger city newspapers.”
Some of the communities weren’t being covered at all before Patch started, Edgell said.
A community website editor told her the police officers in her St. Louis area community didn’t realize police reports were public because no one had ever asked to see them.
“In these communities, people are not going to get the attention of the big city paper or television station, but with a Patch site, they have a voice,” Edgell said.
As Patch continues to grow, Webster said he sees it becoming a “valued piece of infrastructure in most, if not all, communities and neighborhoods across America.”
Said Webster: “Much like you rely on the electric company, the phone company, and so on for the utilities they provide, residents and businesses will rely on the Patch platform for the information they need, the commerce that takes place close to home, and sharing with their neighbors.”