Patch has taken quite a beating of late. The collection of 800-plus AOL hyperlocal news sites, if recent reports are accurate, is courting a financial breakdown that’ll be dramatic even by news-industry standards.
To wit: Forbes is saying it’ll “almost certainly lose well in excess of $100 million” in 2011. Business Insider recently published an interview with an anonymous Patch salesperson: “The advertising cannot support the local Patch model the way it stands. From a dollar standpoint, it simply will not add up.” An anonymous Patch editor also told Business Insider that the “model isn’t sustainable.”
That model entails dropping a workaholic editor into a small, rich municipality and telling her to cover everything. Next, call on the community to help. Then local businesses will flood the sites with advertising dollars, and once the network is big enough, so will national advertisers.
Yet the project’s projected losses demand a deeper look at what inspired Patch in the first place. On this front, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong provides a lot of help. As he has traveled the country pitching Patch, the highly accessible Armstrong has talked about an epiphany that struck him right where he lives, in splendid suburban Connecticut.
Try this video, in which Armstrong is asked why he went ahead with Patch, a venture that he funded from his own pocket back when he was an executive with Google. The response from Armstrong paints the opulent Riverside-Greenwich area as something approaching an Amish village: “I had a problem in my own town. On Saturday mornings, I used to get up, take my kids to the bagel store. At the bagel store they’d post everything in town that was available [in terms of events]. And then we had have to drive up to a stoplight where people would stick stakes in the ground.”
The time period that Armstrong is referencing here is 2007. So yeah, he’s suggesting that more than a decade after the Internet debuted, this primitive approach to info-gathering was the only way — or, at least, the most effective way -- to figure out what was going on. A profile in the New Yorker hit the same themes:
“While he was at Google, Armstrong had his revelation about local news. One Saturday morning in 2007, he and his children were driving home from a bagel store half a mile from their home, in Riverside, Connecticut. At a stoplight, they pulled over to look at the hand-lettered signs that residents had stuck in the grass to advertise local events. There was no online listing of events in Riverside, and the Greenwich Time lacked a calendar.”
When I asked about the calendar in a Monday morning interview, Armstrong replied, “I live in the town. I know the events. Maybe they have a calendar but not a calendar that’s useful to me as a consumer.” (Armstrong suggested that the New Yorker was likely paraphrasing his take on the calendar sitaution; an inquiry to the New Yorker is pending.) He continued, “I’ve physically been to events in town that the only place you could find them was the bagel store” or other non-online venues. “I wanted a calendar that’s able to sort events by age, demographic or sort events that weren’t covered,” he said.
Excellent goals -- and Patch sites are building some solid calendaric capabilities. The Greenwich Patch site is packed with goings-on and has a pretty high user-friendliness quotient. Armstrong plugs the ability of community members to post their own listings.
Those assets give it something in common with the Greenwich Time’s upgraded events page. Again, plenty of content, pretty easy to browse, and a button to post your own events.
So there’s a point in here that’s bigger than my insistence on sticking up for the Greenwich Time’s listings people. It’s that you can’t just jump into a crowded local news market with a product that’s about as good as the existing ones. Even marginally better won’t get the job done. It’s got to be so much better that you can eat the lunch of legacy outlets.
Judging Patch on the basis of one of its founding planks, Armstrong & Co. aren’t there yet. “We’re getting closer every day” to his ideal, Armstrong said.