As announced in David Carr’s New York Times column last weekend, AOL’s hyperlocal news network Patch may be on the verge of being shut down. This news has cast a pall over the viability of hyperlocal news. Bob speaks to BuzzMachine blogger, and hyperlocal enthusiast, Jeff Jarvis about the future of hyperlocal.
BOB GARFIELD: In October 2012, AOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong was onstage in New York, trying to persuade a skeptical interviewer, me, that AOL's network of hyper local news sites, Patch, would be profitable by – now. The secret, he said, was the combination of intense interest in neighborhood goings-on and vibrant local economies, multiplied by nearly a thousand communities.
TIM ARMSTRONG: If I told you your first day on planet Earth local is probably a top five item in people's lives and I gave you all the statistics about how big those commercial area are, do you think over time that you could have a business that does $200,000 per town in revenue, I think over period of time the answer is, you know, yes.
BOB GARFIELD: Well now Patch may be on the verge of being shut down, raising the question of whether a staff of one or two can sustain itself by covering neighborhood news. BuzzMachine blogger and professor Jeff Jarvis says not to worry. Hyper local has a case of the cooties, but no fatal disorder. Jeff, welcome to the show.
JEFF JARVIS: Hey, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Cooties? What do you mean by cooties?
JEFF JARVIS: Like, ewww, I don’t want to touch that, I don’t want to get that on me. And that’s the problem when something like Patch gets in trouble. People are gonna say, see, hyper local never worked. But they’re wrong. Hyper local’s not dead. Patch didn’t kill it.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Now, AOL cherry picked its communities and, as Tim Armstrong said in the opening cut of tape, it cherry picked them based on affluence, the advertising market conditions, and so on, and, and their costs were rock bottom, but in town after town they just could not make the nut. Does that not frighten you?
JEFF JARVIS: No, because I think that Patch was really an old media company in its thinking, right? We’re gonna control this vertical. They vowed they would kill bloggers in town: We are going to sell advertising the way it’s always been sold, space on a website. And I think that, instead, the way the hyper local is going to grow is that it’s going to scale from the bottom up. Hyper local’s about ma and pa operations and people who care about their towns, who want to contribute to their town, who want to bring things together.
I’m doing a lot of work on the ecosystem in New Jersey, where we have 30, 40, 50 local blogs on various sites, and they’re there for different reasons, there are different kinds of blogs. Some are video, some are for profit, some are not for profit. And working with CUNY and Montclair State and WNYC and the Dodge Foundation, we’ve put together a support structure for these independent beings to be able to succeed better, a content-sharing network, an audience-sharing network. Soon, by God, I’m going to create an advertising-sharing network, training for them and other kinds of support, so that that’s how scale comes.
You take these independent beasts and you put them together in a way that matters, rather than the Patch way, which was to say that we are going to control the thousand [SNAPS FINGERS] like that, overnight. That’s not possible.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you a question that has something to do with, I don’t know, the laws of economics and something to do with the laws of physics. Can hyper locals, considering the amount of money that you have to make just to keep the lights on, can they generate enough revenue without being staffed by essentially monks, working for virtually nothing in order to do public service?
JEFF JARVIS: You have to be willing to eat ramen noodles a lot, yes. Like any start up, it's hard work. But, you know, what I’ve learned, Bob, is that a beat can be a business, It no longer has to exist inside a bigger organization and a beat can be self-sustaining, whether that’s covering a town or a demographic, or the FCC, for that matter. It's a tough business, but it's possible. We know this.
Three years ago at CUNY we did research on the business modelling of the hyper local ecosystem, and we found local bloggers scattered around the country who were bringing in upwards of $250,000 a year – hard work, scraping every dollar. This is hamburger hell you’re going after, man. And it is possible to support them. But they need help. They need support. They need to be members of bigger networks. Now we’re at the point where we’re gonna find scale in hyper local by enabling this.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, fair enough, but it seems like
altogether, what you’re describing is more than just a case of –cooties. You’re describing a very fragile organism, a vulnerable newborn. How sanguine are you about the chances of that child growing and thriving?
JEFF JARVIS: I dare not predict, Bob, but I do see the means for this child to grow and survive. We’re in the very beginnings here. What we’re seeing is the replacement of a media industry controlled by vertically-oriented companies that owned everything from idea to delivery. And it's now being replaced by an ecosystem, an ecosystem of many independent players who operate under their own business models and means and who are, each of them, fragile but who together can have a lot more strength and a lot more power than the old vertically-integrated monopolies had. It’s gonna take time and effort to get there, and it’s not gonna happen on its own.
I think that Patch executed badly in that it didn't get its model down before it multiplied its mistakes times 900. But, in a sense, that’s quibbling. Armstrong is still right. We in local communities, especially in America where we have local government, we need local information. I believe there’s a market demand for it. And so, people like me in universities, you in public media stations, we can do a lot. We who have resources and have some measure of power have to bring it to bear to help the little sprouts grow out of a fertilized field.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, we’ve exhausted are allotted metaphors [LAUGHS] in this conversation. Jeff, thanks so much.
JEFF JARVIS: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: City University of New York Professor Jeff Jarvis blogs about media at buzzmachine.com.