AOL (NYSE:AOL) this weekend unveiled a redesign of its Patch hyperlocal news network, which has struggled to make a profit. The new Patch, though, is still a work in progress and just doesn’t seem ready for prime time.
One of the beta sites covering a town on Long Island, N.Y., does have some interesting ideas. It’s based around “groups” focused on particular subjects such as schools or local business. Readers can form their own groups as well. Editors’ picks are shown at the center of the page. The problem is that much of the content was not particularly unique or even interesting.
For instance, much of the main police story was cobbled together from accounts from other sites. Allowing regular folks to submit news items leads to stories such as this one about a young man who was admitted to Alfred State, a New York college, that reads like it was cut-and-paste from a press release. It even ends with “The College is accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools,” as if there were some doubt about it.
Maybe the point of this item is to encourage other parents to share the news about their child’s admission to college. That’s not necessarily a bad way to build interest in the site, but it’s not going to be enough to keep the public engaged. Readers want to read about stuff besides the accomplishments of other people’s children.
The overall design looks as though it’s a template that someone downloaded for free. It’s cheesy. The graphics look amateurish. Photographs are cropped so small that it’s hard to see much in the way of detail. According to Poynter.org, Patch will beta-test the design before it rolls out to 50 or mores sites by year-end. All Patches will be redone by the first quarter of next year.
Patch’s struggles are well documented, as is the backstage drama surrounding it and AOL’s future. It was a focal point of the recent losing proxy battle that activist investor Starboard Value waged against the New York-based media company. CEO Tim Armstrong vehemently disputed Starboard’s claims that Patch was not a “viable business” and was on track to lose as much as $133 million. Though Patch is expected to take in $40 million in advertising revenue, its costs are about four times that amount, according to media reports.
Armstrong has already retooled Patch once, revamping its management structure and axing 20 employees. Editors, who previously have complained about being overworked, are faced with having to do more with less. Traffic to the network of more than 800 sites, which had been steadily growing as more towns were added, peaked last August, according to a May commentary in Forbes by Jeff Bercovici.
For Patch to be a success, it’s going to need to attract newspaper-size audiences and keep them engaged. The best way to do that is to provide readers something that they can’t get any place else, which Patch can do at times. I recently looked at a Patch site from a neighboring town where I live and found out that a prominent local businessperson was moving her firm into the site of a grocery store that had been closed for years. I haven’t seen it reported elsewhere.
That sort of community news used to be the bread-and-butter of local newspapers and still is to some extent, though as the industry withered so has that kind of coverage. Patch could take up the local news mantle that newspapers abandoned, but it seems to lack the vision to do so. That’s a shame.
Jonathan Berr is a former AOL contract writer. He does not own shares of the companies listed here. Follow him on Twitter @jdberr.