Former Patch Editor in Westchester Recounts the Fits and Starts of AOL's Hyperlocal Experiment

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CjrSean Roach, the founding editor of the Tarrytown Patch site has a fascinating article in this month's issue of the Columbia Journalism Review entitled The Constant Gardener; My two years tending AOL’s hyperlocal experiment.

This is very long article, well-worth reading. Here are a few basic highlights:

Roach explains how things began…

The Patch idea was sold to me on the following premise: The backbone of the website’s offerings would be local news and information, with the goal being the digitization of a community—your town, online. Patch aimed to be the community newspaper and more, a hub for local businesses and a forum for community conversation: everything a local news outlet should be. We were given immense trust and responsibility to build a site to that standard.

How he was evaluated…

How did we measure success? Traffic was the only indicator that sticks out in my mind—reaching our monthly unique-viewer target. The objective was to hit unique-visitor numbers equal to half of our community’s population. The most recent census numbers showed Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow with a combined population of about 21,000, so I was aiming for 10,500 unique viewers a month.

His initial success…

In Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, Patch arrived at the perfect moment. The community was served by two monthly newspapers, The River Journal and The Hudson Independent, neither of which had a competitive Web presence, and by Gannett’s regional publication, The Journal News, which would sweep in only during a major event. It had been years since a newspaper chronicled the daily, or even weekly, pulse of the community. As in many towns, my Patch exploded, and became the only source of daily information. Within a year, I was exceeding my traffic goals…By the end of 2010, Tarrytown-Sleepy Hollow Patch had some of the highest unique-viewer numbers in the Hudson Valley, but without looking at the statistics, I knew the content mandates had bombed with my audience. The comments weren’t forthcoming and, later, when I began to drop the mandated features, nobody complained.

And how things changed, for the worse, especially after Arianna Huffington took over…

This began to change. In 2011, as reports leaked to the media noted, editors were encouraged to collaborate with members of the ad sales teams to better both the journalistic and advertising sides of the business. Some saw something sinister in this; as reports in Business Insider framed it, Patch was “juicing” its sales by asking editors to “start drumming up ad sales leads.”

Read the entire article.

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