We’ve posted several positive items about the local Patch operation in our community, a one-person news bureau that has become our favorite – and most timely – source of information about local events. So we feel it’s also important to share the news that AOL’s Patch operation, a constellation of more than 800 hyperlocal news sites, looks like a train wreck.
Business Inside says Patch has generated only about $8 million in revenue in 2011 on an investment of more than $160 million. InvestorPlace says revenues were closer to $20 million, but that Patch still lost $150 million on the year. Some investors are calling for the head of Tim Armstrong (right) the former Google executive who took the helm at AOL nearly three years ago. Armstrong conceived of Patch in 2007 and funded the first two years of its operations before assuming the top job at AOL in 2009 and buying Patch outright. Since then he’s embarked upon an aggressive expansion program to place hyperlocal news bureaus in as many US locations as possible. He’s also spent lavishly on the acquisitions of Huffington Post and TechCrunch. At this point, critics are calling the strategy a bust.
The problem with Patch is that the hyperlocal revenue model doesn’t work nearly as well as the hyperlocal news model. According to Business Inside, Patch sells advertising through a network of mostly outsourced telesales representatives. It’s clear that these sales people don’t have their tentacles into the local communities that are the core of Patch’s model. The advertising on our own local outlet is mostly a mix of display ads from big national brands (presumably sold at remainder prices), Google AdSense and a smattering of classifieds. With that kind of revenue base, it’s not surprising Patch is losing a fortune.
As we’ve argued before, the hyperlocal model needs to work from both the content and revenue perspectives. Patch has clearly succeeded in hiring editors who are closely tied in to their communities, but it isn’t doing that on the sales side. This is a tough problem to solve. Small businesses aren’t big advertisers to begin with, and the cost of deploying dedicated sales reps to 800 local communities would be far higher than the centralized telesales model. On the other hand, the centralized model isn’t exactly killing it.
We hope Patch figures it out, because it’s inventing some creative new ways to report the news. We continue to like the business model of Sacramento Press, which positions itself as an integrated marketing partner rather than an advertising outlet. Addiction to advertising revenue is one of the reasons newspapers are in so much trouble in the first place. In its current iteration, Patch appears to be making the same mistakes.
As if reporters don’t like to gripe enough, there’s a new website where they can do it anonymously in public. It’s called Dash30Dash.org, and it was started by a former newspaper reporter who wants “to give reporters, editors and others a chance to post comments about their jobs and their ever-changing profession.” So far, it looks like the commentaries are mostly limited to contributions from the site’s creator, but it’s still early. The writing is lively and pointed, so check it out.
An Australian philanthropist and Internet entrepreneur has pledged more than $15 million to fund a new, nonprofit media venture called The Global Mail. Graeme Wood says he has only one goal in mind: “produce public-interest journalism.”
Wood, whose personal fortune is estimated at $337 million, was apparently taken with the example of ProPublica in the U.S. That nonprofit investigative venture was also started with a large grant from a single donor but has been successfully diversifying its support base and now employs 34 editorial staff members. Wood’s commitment to support The Global Mail for at least five years resulted from a dinner party conversation with former Australian Broadcast Corp. journalist Monica Attard, who is now the site’s editor-in-chief. That’s pretty good sales efficiency in our book.