The Importance of Patch and the Rise of Hyperlocal Media

Originally posted on eurorscgpr.com.

We already know the world has gone hyperlocal—from rooftop gardens to online deals for everything from facials near your home to ceviche dinners close to your office on LivingSocial, Groupon and Dealtificate. The media industry is no exception, and right now I’m watching the Patch.com model as a symbolic nod to where the future of media is most certainly headed.

I saw this firsthand a few weeks ago, as the final results were coming in for a crucial local Connecticut election. The Patch reporter was sitting at Democratic headquarters, reporting in real time; the daily newspaper was nowhere to be found and reported on the outcome after Patch, and even later than local television, which announced a winner ahead of the paper’s website. Patch versus the paper is the new Pepsi versus Coke, and everyone has a point of view about how it happened and whether it’s inevitable, but the rivalry is very real.

For those of you unfamiliar with Patch, it’s owned by AOL and speaks to today’s interest in finding out everything that’s going on in our own backyard. Patch is a community site based in hundreds of cities and towns in 18 states and Washington, D.C., and it is growing by the day. Think of news that is not only edited by traditional journalists but also completely embedded in the community. Patch feels like the PTA meets the Associated Press.

So it’s an impartial source that reports just the facts, but Patch incorporates a socially minded model as well—which, according to its website, the company hopes will “strengthen communities and improve the lives of [the Patch sites’] residents.” Through a dedicated space in coverage, Patch lets local volunteers and charities find each other to do well by doing good. Suddenly, the media is responsible not only for reporting on local crime and holiday parades but also for civic-mindedness. It stands to reason that a journalism model that is so deeply embedded in the community should also serve the community, and that’s what hyperlocalism in media is really all about. So long, evening news with million-dollar anchors; hello, local salt-of-the-earth journo-school grad who wants to make a difference. Or maybe it’s the local guy with a flair for pith who wants to talk about what’s happening in his hometown.

Regardless of what sort of reporting you subscribe to, the future of journalism is guaranteed to incorporate a good deal of the hyperlocal, in fact. Think of all your friends’ updates on Facebook about an earthquake in L.A. or a strike in Paris. Is it truly necessary to watch the news to find out what’s happening? And besides all of that, news is no longer only about the big stories happening globally. People are stalking social media to find out what their college girlfriend ate for breakfast or how many of their co-workers were invited to dinner with the big boss at some hip new noodle house in San Francisco. The whole concept of news has been turned on its archaic ear with the advent of all things social, so it’s no surprise that journalism as we know it is undergoing a tremendous change.

Alvin Toffler, one of the world’s first real futurists and author of memorable titles such as Future Shock, attested to all this need for information back in 1980, with his book The Third Wave. In that book, he spoke about our civilization shifting from a second-wave model of an industrial age to one of an information age, where content and knowledge production will take over as a primary source of income and technological advancement.

Steve Case, the founder of AOL (which was founded not long after The Third Wave was published), has smartly invested in shifting the company’s focus to the second wave, too, from “You’ve got mail” to “You’ve got content.” Enter the era of Patch, a true community partner and fount of all things local. AOL realized that the Internet is, and will be, about content from now on, full stop. Patch, as AOL CEO Tim Armstrong said in a CNBC interview in August 2010, is about “digitizing all the assets in the towns” where traditional media might have shunned truly local information. Patch will cover it all, not only in a town near you but also right in your own backyard (we hope you’re ready for your close-up).

It’s ironic that I love Patch but, well, let’s just say I really wish I could find a friend at AOL like the Patch reporters. (Memo to AOL: How the heck do I cancel my AOL email account and stop direct debit that has been going on for years, while I sit on hold, have my emails ignored, etc.?) Although Patch seems genuine and humane, AOL reminds me of the big call center in the sky (or Dubuque or Bangalore or Dublin or Bangor) someplace where they see my incoming call and hit the permahold button. It feels digital, not social. How the world has changed since I got marians104 way back in 1992. Maybe that explains those wrinkles around my eyes and the age spots on my hands—19 years and one moniker, and all I want to do is blow it up. I can’t make it go away; instead, it spams everyone I’ve ever met. Regularly.

But back to Patch. As you can imagine, AOL and Patch are not simply doing this to report on the latest cotillion or art show. They’re banking that the hyperlocal market will explode in terms of ad dollars as social media endeavors such as Foursquare explore our newfound location fascination. After all, Groupon rejected a $6 billion bid from Google and soon hopes to unleash an IPO of more than $15 billion. That’s a whole lot of deals on movies and Pilates classes.

Perhaps the Internet and the growth of social media have made many of us feel somehow isolated from our own worlds, as we purposefully explore those of others in our digital community (but not necessarily in our bricks-and-mortar community). The future will enjoy a renewed zest for all things local, though, and journalism and media in general will be hugely affected by Toffler’s notion of an information society.

In the very recent past, many journalists were wondering just how they were going to make a living in this post-print age. As everyone lamented the death of the newspaper and magazine and how exactly to monetize online media, a new movement was happening and a new creative class was emerging that was wholly about content: bloggers. Suddenly, 15-year-old fashionista Tavi Gevinson was sitting front and center at fashion shows next to (an admittedly uncomfortable-looking) Anna Wintour. Suddenly, a new voice was emerging—and it wasn’t necessarily schooled in the fine art of journalism at Columbia.

These newfound Paul Reveres were not just talking about the latest hemlines at Chanel; they were also thoughtfully chatting about their communities and issues affecting local folks like you and me. Sure, we still want to know what’s happening overseas and on the floor of the Senate. But in the now and next, in a new age of information and digital town crying, we’re going to want to know and be involved with the things happening in our own neck of the woods, too.

There’s certainly a place for seasoned journalists in this mix, because the need for information, knowledge and content is so vast that there is plenty of room for everyone to contribute. As Toffler once said, “Knowledge is the most democratic source of power.” In the years to come, look for media to move into this big, new model of fresh reporters and traditional journos delivering local content.

As for the very near future, “no news is good news” is, well, no longer valid. Thanks to sites such as Patch.com, all news might not be good news, but it is, in fact, news.

May 5, 2011 | Posted by in Mass Media, Social Media, Trends | 0 comments

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