Global behemoth goes hyperlocal: Patch AOL is coming to a Tampa Bay neighborhood near you

Tim Windsor is Patch’s editorial director for the South Region. He says his company’s goal is to fill the void in neighborhood news coverage that resulted from industry layoffs.


“There’s been an opportunity to come in there and maybe add a voice to the conversation, to cover these communities a little bit different than they have been so far,” he says.


Neither major daily in the Tampa Bay area has completely dropped coverage of outlying areas. The St. Pete Times publishes the weekly sections City Times (for South Tampa), Brandon Times and New Tampa Times, among others, while the Tampa Tribune has 14 different zoned editions in Hillsborough and Pinellas.


Loren Omoto is managing editor of the Tribune’s website, tbo.com. He doesn’t believe there’s a hole in coverage at the Trib, but says there’s always going to be room for stories that neither his paper nor the Times can cover. That’s not a function of economics, he says; it’s simply the nature of community-based news.


So what does a Patch site look like? CL took a random sampling of the site for the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, Washington on Election Day. Featured on its home page were stories about a city councilman’s recovery from a bear attack; the timing of ballot returns at the supervisor of elections office; and the relocation of an Asian grocery store, all written by the site editor. The page also features an events calendar, plus sports, police, fire and “neighborhood files.”


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Some Patch site editors have complained to the blogosphere that they’re being overworked. While few journalism jobs fit into a standard 40-hour work week, Patch has been accused of driving its editors particularly hard — sometimes to the tune of 70-hour weeks. Boston-based media critic Dan Kennedy recently posted an anonymous e-mail from a Patch editor who complained that “it’s not just being a reporter, but it’s also being a city editor/assignment editor/managing editor/copy editor, and it’s handling freelance payments (and freelance payment troubleshooting), doing videos, monitoring calendar and event listings, doing some of our own marketing, and even HR.”


Former St. Pete Times reporter and new Patch site editor Camille Spencer has heard those stories, but she’s not dissuaded. “If you have someone who isn’t very adept at time management, or isn’t very good at multitasking, they’re gonna work longer than somebody who has a newspaper background like myself, where I’m used to juggling ten things at a time.”


Given the tenuous state of the newspaper industry, she was eager to hear what Patch had to offer. “You hear all these things about newspapers. ‘Are they extinct? Are they dying? What’s going to happen next?’ It can be disheartening for people, but if you’re open for trying something else and expanding your skill set, why not?”


But will Patch be any safer for journalists than print has been? As the enterprise continues to expand, the central question from industry observers is twofold: What’s the quality of the enterprise, and can AOL make any money off of it?


Windsor, the editorial director, would not say whether any of Patch’s sites are profitable, only that the sites are exceeding “every metric we set.” The company did announce this week that traffic on their sites was up 300 percent on Election Day.


AOL bought Patch in June of 2009 for $7 million in cash. Earlier this year, executives announced that they were prepared to invest $50 million and roll out to hundreds of local sites in 20 states by the end of this year. John Brod, executive vice president of AOL Local, Mapping and Ventures, has said, “This is the largest area on the Internet that hasn’t been won.”


In that respect, AOL is making a strong investment in journalism when other companies seem to be in retreat (the company says it will hire 600 reporters this year). Greg Sterling is with Sterling Market Intelligence, a consulting and research firm focused on the Internet’s influence on offline consumer purchasing behavior. He says the big question for him is whether this is “just an SEO [Search Engine Optimization] for AOL, or are they really trying to pick up page views in these areas?” He says the key is getting the balance right between cost structure and quality.


Rick Edmonds is a media business analyst with the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. He has found Patch’s writing in other communities to be not that impressive “in terms of volume, quantity and frequency of news,” but acknowledges that there’s plenty of room for growth.


He also mentions that Patch is hardly the only organization in recent years that has made an effort to cover local news on the web. For instance, there’s EveryBlock (currently in 16 cities, none in Florida), which offers a news feed for every city block in those cities. Readers can enter an address and see news articles, blog coverage, crime reports and a wide variety of other local information, all updated throughout the day.


In the past two years the New York Times has experimented with hyperlocal reporting on the web. One project based in New Jersey ended earlier this year, but in September the paper announced a partnership with NYU called The Local: East Village. Other major players, like Yahoo and MSN, aggregate reporting from various media sources into user-friendly localized sites.


Several Tampa Bay sites cover some form of neighborhood news.


In Tampa there’s 83 Degrees, a corporate-sponsored initiative that features stories by former Tampa Tribune reporters such as Valerie Kalfrin and B.C. Manion and is edited by former Trib editor Diane Egner. The site is published by Detroit-based Issues Media; its funding sources include local governments.


In St. Pete there is New Roots News, created in the past year by multimedia consultant Nick Hinckley and CL marketing assistant and USF journalism grad (and CL marketing assistant) Lily Reisman. The pair say they’re trying to find people already passionate about certain topics and are giving them the opportunity and training to be citizen journalists. Much of the content focuses on campus life at USF St.Pete, on St. Pete businesses and people that are dedicated to making a difference in the community. They don’t have a lot of funding yet, though they say that’s their next goal.


Another site with USF/St. Pete connections is the Neighborhood News Bureau. A Midtown-based operation, it's run by university faculty as a laboratory for journalism students.


Carrollwood Patch editor Camille Spencer says the idea of Patch is a good one “because you’re allowing people to hit the ground running in places where they live.” She intends to cover stories in her ’hood that the Tribune or the Times don’t have the space to cover.


TBO.com’s Loren Omoto says simply, “I think we’re at the very early point” in the evolution of online hyperlocal reporting sites, and thus “the jury’s still out.”


Rick Edmonds suggested on Poynter's website that neighborhood news operations can never be competitive when it comes to the web's stock in trade: urgency. "The more local or hyperlocal the news," he wrote, "the less important it is to get it right away." Several commenters on his post disagreed, saying there was plenty of urgent stuff happening in their towns.


But the bottom line, as one pointed out, isn't speed; it's the need for "real coverage." If Patch and its ilk commit some actual journalism, must-read status might just follow.

Within the next month, a new source of online news and information covering local neighborhoods in the Bay area will be available to readers.

Say hello to Patch AOL, which since its inception a year ago has quickly spread to over 300 local markets across the country, providing what is referred to as hyper-local online information.

Patch’s strategy isn’t to cover major metropolitan areas, but smaller cities and suburbs in regions where daily newspapers have been hit particularly hard by staff reductions. The corporation has so far announced sites for six neighhborhoods in the Bay area — downtown St. Pete/Old-Northeast, Brandon, Sarasota, Bradenton, Westchase & Bloomingdale — and intends to host 24 by the end of this year.

Patch AOL is the rare media company that is aggressively hiring reporters, including several — among them Nicole Hutcheson in Westchase and Camille Spencer in Carrollwood — who are alumni of the St. Petersburg Times.

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