AOL's hyperlocal site, Patch, has seemed like a bright spot in the news startup landscape. They've been hiring dozens of people all over the country to cover the kind of local news -- city council meetings, high school basketball, etc -- that you used to find in The Paper. With local news outlets suffering from the collapse of their business models, mostly linked to Craiglist competition for classified ads, it seemed like Patch could become an important model for local news.
And that's basically the story line in a New York Times article today about the company, which the headline claimed was "finding progress" where "many have failed." The largely positive tone of the story, though, is undercut by the numbers buried inside it.
Just last year, AOL spent $50 million building out the site to eek out a meager three million unique visitors. The average post, Verne Copytoff wrote, garnered about 100 pageviews and a 500 pageview story was considered "a wild success." For comparison, take a look at Gawker.com, which displays every story's stats. As I write this, the top story on the front page has more than 118,000 pageviews, while a story picked at random is likely to have at least a few thousand views.
Granted, as the Times notes, the site's traffic has grown 80 times, but when the baseline numbers are sufficiently small, that's not too difficult, particularly when you hire 800 people.
Given the decline of local newsrooms, I want to root for Patch, but it's unclear to me how one would grow one of these microsites or the network as a whole. Necessarily, the editors have to write for locals, but that means it's difficult for any particular story to catch fire on the wider Internet.
I do have some hope that Patch's structure will allow them to learn and adapt. With 800 experiments in progress, the Patch team will surely find a few local sites that really catch fire. If they can understand and generalize why the good sites are working, they may be able to spread the good ideas around.