When listing high-profile media failures — Portƒolio, The Daily, Mobile ESPN, Joost — don’t forget about Patch, AOL’s unsuccessful attempt to reproduce the magic of the local newspaper. Having only read a Patch a few times, it’s easy to neglect. But Patch has quietly been burning through an obscene amount of money, actually: “hundreds of millions of dollars,” according to Nicholas Carlson’s lengthy profile for Business Insider.
This is so much money that it’s impressive. I appreciate the concept of making big bets when you can afford them. But can you imagine any venture capitalist seeing what Patch was able to achieve with its first $10 million — never mind its first $100 million! — and then giving it hundreds of millions more? It sounds insane.
The allure of trying to take over where failing local newspapers leave off is understandable. At their best, community papers have massive local market share and lucrative local advertising capabilities.
Our first plan at Business Insider — back when it was “Silicon Alley Insider” — was actually to build a set of local tech news sites, starting in New York. But that barely lasted a week: We soon realized that most of our readers were coming from outside of New York, and that our best and most popular stories were about companies like Apple and Google. The local stuff rarely performed well, and we went “national” almost immediately. The site has thrived since then.
Still, I realize that local tech news and “real” local news — politics, infrastructure, crime — are completely different things. And it’s easy to see how a national “local” platform like Patch might be the solution: HQ can handle things like technology, distribution, and marketing, while local staffers could write articles and sell ads. It’s a take on a model that can work: See Curbed and Thrillist, for example.
But for Patch, on AOL’s ambitious scale, it obviously hasn’t worked out, for a mix of problems: Not enough people read Patch, probably due to a mix of mediocre, non-essential articles and more-entrenched-than-anticipated incumbents. And as Carlson’s article alleges, the business model — trying to sell web ads to local businesses on locally produced articles — has fundamentally stunk so far. It just doesn’t look like Patch is the answer.