AOL’s Plans for a Hyperlocal Blogger Army

The line between fringe and mainstream, at least insofar as hyperlocal news coverage goes, is getting harder and harder to find.
After announcing its intention to hire 800 full-time journalists in a press release issued last week, and despite a class action suit brought against AOL/HuffPo by the site’s unpaid bloggers, Forbes is reporting that the AOL-owned hyperlocal news organization has directed its local editors to recruit 8,000 new bloggers by the end of this week in anticipation of the launch of Patch’s new blog platform.
This is not the first time that Patch has taken a new tack in its quest to become a hyperlocal juggernaut. At a panel discussion on hyperlocal news in February, Patch president Warren Webster characterized the news organization’s goal as “improving communities and the lives of residents through information.” He described a syndicate of news sites in which professional journalists with ties to the communities they cover were paid to cover local news. It was seen by some as a category killer – when Patch put down stakes in a community, the local blogosphere often shriveled up. The company purchased news aggregator in March because, it turned out, creating content to fill hundreds of local sites, even when content generated by freelancers being paid $40 per article, was very expensive.
This is a significant shift in direction. The problem with hyperlocal news has been it’s very difficult to do at scale while maintaining a sufficient quality to attract advertisers. AOL’s plan runs the risk of severely diluting the quality on Patch, which is already not exactly the place for Pulitzer-winning reporting.
According to the Forbes article, when issuing the new directive, Patch editor in chief Brian Farnham told Patch’s local editors, “The introduction of blogging on our sites is far more than just the release of a new feature. It is a full-on course correction heading Patch in the direction we want to go.” The move is almost certainly designed to increase the buzz-worthiness of Patch’s local coverage by tapping into local, hot-button issues without  increasing freelance budgets. Although local businesses spend $130 billion a year on advertising, Patch has not yet figured out how to make hyperlocal sites profitable.
In a statement, Patch quibbled with the notion that it is changing direction — or that the move will do anything but improve the content.
“Our goal in bringing bloggers aboard is to add as many local perspectives as we can to our sites. From day one, Patch has been committed to connecting our readers with their communities – and with each other – and adding so many new voices to our sites is not a change in direction, but additive to our original, and steadfast, strategy of offering our users the most robust and interactive sites we can. Aside from the blog, to which we hope thousands of people will contribute, we will also continue to operate and build a journalistic enterprise with hundreds of paid, professional journalists.”
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