AOL Aims High With Hyperlocal Journalism Project The initiative, called Patch, launched its 100th local news site on Tuesday. AOL is expanding the program quickly and plans to cover 500 communities by the end of the year. But the company faces competition from well-established hyperlocal sites, and profitability remains to be seen.
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AOL Aims High With Hyperlocal Journalism Project

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AOL Aims High With Hyperlocal Journalism Project

AOL Aims High With Hyperlocal Journalism Project

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You remember AOL, the original source of you've got mail. The Internet service provider sent millions of promotional CDs back in the '90s, then had a disastrous merger with Time Warner. Now, AOL is trying to reinvent itself. The company is making a big push into what's known as hyperlocal journalism with a project called Patch.

Today, it launched its 100th local news site, and AOL says Patch will expand to 500 small communities by the end of this year.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH: Lauren Evans is on the phone with a sergeant from the police department in College Park, Maryland, chasing a story about a recent wave of robberies.

Ms. LAUREN EVANS (Journalist, And I was wondering if you could give me any information on the armed robbery that occurred outside of the Zips on Saturday. I know you had identified suspects, but you hadn't caught them. Do you have any updates on that?

KEITH: That buzz you hear in the background isn't a newsroom - at least not in the traditional sense. It's a Starbucks.

Ms. EVANS: There's this. There's a bagel place. I worked yesterday sitting on the curb outside of a fire station.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. EVANS: So pretty much anywhere.

KEITH: She was headed there to ask some questions about a new fire truck, but ended up getting a call on another story. Evans describes herself as a one-woman, news-producing machine. And that's the typical setup for Patch. It goes into communities with a population of 15 to 75,000 people, mostly upper-middle class. Then it hires one local editor, like Evans. The editor does most of the day-to-day reporting and writing, but also buys stories from freelancers.

Mr. WARREN WEBSTER (President, Patch): A large part of the reason Patch exists is because there is this void in local news and information that we can fill.

KEITH: Warren Webster is the president of Patch. It's a network of local websites that covers city council meetings, school boards and things like golf tournaments. He points to a story last year where a Patch editor in Darien, Connecticut uncovered the criminal history of a candidate running for local office.

Mr. WEBSTER: No one reported this, and he was doing quite well in the election. And Patch broke the story that he had actually been convicted and imprisoned for shooting somebody.

KEITH: Other local media picked it up, and he ultimately lost the race. AOL has said it plans to spend $50 million on Patch this year, hiring hundreds of journalists along the way.

Ken Doctor, the author of the book "Newsonomics" says the quality of the stories has been uneven, but having more local journalism is always a good thing. He thinks building an audience and making money will be a challenge for Patch, because there's already a lot of competition out there.

Mr. KEN DOCTOR (Author, "Newsonomics"): It has Google, Yahoo and Microsoft in front of it on a national level. It has blog networks, daily newspapers, Yellow Pages companies ahead of it in some ways on a local level. It has the right spirit, but it may be entering a very crowded marketplace.

KEITH: Going local - or in many cases, hyper-local - is a growing trend on the Internet. Companies are looking to cash in on advertising dollars from companies in the neighborhoods they cover.

Jim Bankoff is CEO of SB Nation, a network of local sports websites. But he used to be an executive at AOL. He says his former employer is trying to reinvent itself with Patch.

Mr. JIM BANKOFF (CEO, SB Nation): I think it would be guaranteed that they would be unsuccessful if they didn't take some bold bets. So this is a risky one, but it's one that at least is rooted in some logic, that the Web is fragmenting. The Web is getting increasingly more local.

KEITH: The key questions for Patch are the same for all companies in the media business, new and old: Can they create a news product that an audience actually wants, and can they get companies to buy ads?

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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