AOL and Hyper-Local—Good Luck With That

The newly renamed AOL is planning an ambitious expansion of its hyper-local venture, the one it bought from a group of investors—including AOL CEO Tim Armstrong—last year, according to a report by Business Insider. But can AOL find success in hyper-local journalism when so many have failed?

The report quotes an internal company memo that describes AOL's plans to expand Patch to "hundreds" of local news sites by the end of this year, from some 30 today, with the goal of being "leaders in one of the most promising 'white spaces' on the Internet" (a phrase that got under the skin of former journalist and new media consultant Ken Doctor). Patch has already expanded considerably since it was acquired in June of last year, when it had operations in just five towns and cities in New Jersey and Connecticut.

For at least a decade now, local journalism on the Web has been viewed as a kind of can't-miss, slam-dunk success just waiting to happen. And yet, it has stubbornly missed and generally failed to happen on any number of occasions, including via the efforts of numerous startups backed by actual journalists—such as Mark Potts, a former Washington Post scribe who co-founded in 2005 (it closed in 2007), and digital journalism veteran Dan Gillmor, who started and then later closed a site called Bayosphere. (You could argue that CitySearch and Microsoft's Sidewalk were similar failed experiments back in the late 1990s.)

Some Successes So Far

That's not to say there aren't hyper-local journalism efforts that are working—Howard Owens, for example, a former executive with the regional newspaper chain Gatehouse Media, seems to be doing well with The Batavian in upstate New York, and journalism professor Leonard Witt has been expanding his "representative journalism" model, which I wrote about at the Nieman Journalism Lab. There's also a new startup called Oakland Local, founded by former AOL Vice-President Susan Mernit, that seems to be growing rapidly, and some other interesting experiments are going on as well, including, Placeblogger, and Everyblock, which was acquired by MSNBC.

But the field is littered with the bodies of those who tried and failed, including the Washington Post's Loudoun Extra project. Why did Backfence and other local news startups fail? Any number of reasons, in most cases—a failure to find enough local advertising, lack of sufficient marketing, a dearth of compelling content.In a post after Backfence died, Mark Potts did a great job of listing some important factors in doing local news well, including the need to engage with and listen to the community, and the fact that "[I]t's not news, it's a conversation."

Many hyper-local efforts have been largely automated in an attempt to keep costs down, but as a result, much of the content seemed homogenized and stale. Both AOL and a similar effort from the New York Times called The Local—which is relying on journalism students to power one of its local sites—are trying to avoid this problem by hiring people to work in each of the local centers they're covering.

When Staff Is Inexperienced

That approach can get expensive very quickly, however. And while there may be plenty of out-of-work journalists around due to newspaper industry layoffs, are there enough talented writers and reporters to staff all the local sites has in mind? If not, the company will quickly have to come to grips with the wildly varying quality levels that "citizen journalism" can produce (each Patch site has a single professional journalist who works with volunteer and freelance staff).Some feel that whatever happens with AOL and its expansion, it can't help but be good for business.

A Patch expansion would be a tangible sign that Armstrong is starting to put some muscle behind his vision of a new journalism model, one that involves on the hyper-local side and on the user-generated side (Seed, which is directed by former New York Times writer Saul Hansell, contracts out content to freelancers in the same way that Demand Media and Associated Content do). The AOL CEO started building the foundations of that model even before he arrived at AOL, by investing in when he was still a senior executive at Google, through his private investment company Polar Capital (he also invested in Associated Content).

Can Armstrong succeed where so many others—including experienced journalists—failed so miserably? He's certainly devoting an awful lot of AOL's money to the attempt. If he too comes up short, it will be the biggest blow to hyper-local yet.

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