I’m sorry to announce the death of the San Leandro Patch. No, you don’t need to rush and click on the link to see if it’s disappeared. It’s still there. My guess is it will still be there for a few more months. Can’t tell you how many, August would not be an unrealistic date for its final demise, but it’ll surely be gone (at least for all intents and purposes) by the end of the year. My guess is Jill Replogle, the local editor, is already looking for a new job. Journalism jobs are very hard to find, specially in this economy, but at least three of her Patch editor colleagues from this immediate area have already jumped ship and found work elsewhere. She’ll find something. She doesn’t have a choice.
I’m sad. The Patch was (is) great while it lasted: it provided us with a forum where to bitch about what’s wrong in San Leandro, meet new friends and discuss ever more esoteric topics. My knowledge of Catholic sexual doctrine and the value of various educational degrees has improved dramatically since I googled these topics for Patch discussions. Yeah, the Patch never was what it promised it’d be: “hyper-local journalism”, but it was something. Hopefully, something good (perhaps a site like Berkeleyside) will arise from its ashes. It’ll be up to us.
We knew that the Patch was a failed concept even before it came to town. The Business Insider did the math, it’s just impossible for a site like Patch to support itself on advertisement alone, even if it actually managed to sell advertisement. AOL was never very clear on how it planned to monetized the Patch. Some thought local merchants would be willing to pay premium rates, but it’s not realistic that the Patch would attract the same quantity of readers that a local rag like the San Leandro Times enjoys. So far the Patch has only convinced two local merchants (one, part of a chain which I suspect may have a nationwide advertisement agreement) to advertise on the San Leandro Patch. Ideas like “groupon“-type coupons were considered, but they haven’t materialized so I imagine there hasn’t been enough local interest either. Without the readership, they’re hard sells. At least one writer believes that the Patch’s value is on its business directory, a virtual yellow pages online. But the directory is badly designed and not user-friendly. Few local merchants and customers have added their takes on the businesses.
Perhaps, if pursued with enough intensity, some of these “local revenue” ideas would have worked out – but sometime around the end of last year AOL lost faith. It decided to go in a new direction and buy the Huffington Post. It paid $315 Million for a site that boasted almost 28 million monthly unique visitors and that had just become profitable. As part of the deal, Ariana Huffington was put in charge of AOL’s media business, including the Patch.
AOL has been heavily bleeding money on its media investments. Patch, in particular, has been expensive. From January 2010 to April 2011, AOL lost $115 Million on the Patch, and the figure may rise to $175 Million by the end of the year. Revenue has been too small to make a dent. AOL and Huffington are getting impatient and they’re trying to cut the bleeding. By far, their greatest costs are the salaries of their journalists. Each Patch’s started with one editor and a number of freelancers who together produced about three local stories a day. Not great quality stories, but stories. But at $50-$150 a pop those stories were too expensive. Around the time the Huffington Post was acquired, AOL started cutting freelance budgets. While Huffington later announced that Patch would be hiring as many as 800 extra journalists – about one per Patch -, most of those jobs never materialized.
Instead AOL decided to go in a completely different direction: recruit local bloggers to provide free content, aggregate stories from other sites, and publish stories across multiple Patches. The hyperlocal angle is going away. While the San Leandro Patch used to publish about 3 local stories a day, now it’s down to one – and not a particularly good one. Today’s was on a 4th grade student receiving an award. Of the other 8 stories on the home page (published in the last 3 days or so), 7 were posted to multiple Patches. None of the aggregated news concern San Leandro. The next step, I think, will be to consolidate nearby Patches. They’ll probably start with smaller communities – but eventually I daresay the San Leandro Patch and the San Lorenzo Patch will share an editor.
AOL seems to have given up on the local-reader/local-revenue model. Instead, it’s going after anyone’s eyeballs, putting quantity of material ahead of quality. This model may eventually work for them, but it won’t work for those of us who were looking for a place online where to meet other San Leandrans and talk about issues of common concern. If we want that it appears we’ll have to create it ourselves.