What’s Next for AOL’s Patch?

Kira Goldenberg at the Columbia Journalism Review reports on some potential changes that are coming down the line at AOL’s hyperlocal network of websites, Patch. On AOL’s second-quarter earnings call, Goldenberg reports, CEO Tim Amstrong hinted that the new Patch platform would feature deeply integrated tools for local commerce and expanded civic engagement, in addition to local news and journalism.

Goldenberg couldn’t get anyone at Patch to talk on the record about the changes but as soon as I saw the news I had a guess regarding what part of the new Patch might look like.

In October of 2011 the Huffington Post, which was already part of AOL at that point, acquired an emerging web start-up called Localocracy. Prior to the acquisition, Localocracy billed itself as “an online town common where registered voters using real names can weigh in on local issues.” The Localocracy team saw three constituents for their platform – citizens, government and journalists and after it launched it was getting a lot of attention in the journalism and Gov2.0 sector. Since the merger with Huffington Post little has been heard from the Localocracy team.

This is all just a guess really, but when Armstrong talked about expanding the civic engagement framework for Patch, I immediately thought about the Localocracy acquisition. If they aren’t bringing in that team to help reimagine and relaunch Patch, they should be.

In her article, Goldenberg nods towards the recent changes at GOOD as one model, reminding us that “On a much smaller scale, that shift in focus from content creation to “community” meant firing its editorial employees and then posting job listings for curators and community managers.” That may be part of the strategy at Patch as well, but the other piece of Huffington Post that might come into play here is their successful crowdsourcing effort Off The Bus. While Off The Bus has been primarily an election year effort, its not hard to imagine Patch taking some lessons from that effort and expanding the community based reporting effort locally.

In the wake of the changes happening in the journalism ecosystem in places like New Orleans and the controversy around Journatic’s ethical breaches and outsourcing of local news, the time is right for Patch to rethink it’s hyperlocal strategy. And, if the goal is to inspire more civic and community engagement, I hope that Patch starts early on and includes local people and stakeholders in debates about the future of the news in their communities.

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