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December 22, 2014

Patch vs. MediaNews: One Little, Instructive Story

AOL’s Patch is ambitiously adding websites, lately going after MediaNews territory in the East Bay of the Bay Area — San Ramon, Danville, Walnut Creek and Pleasanton — and penetrating SoCal, from Fairfax and West Hollywood to Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach. Hundreds of local reporters are being hired as hundreds of new sites are being replicated from California to Illinois to Maryland to Rhode Island, joining the early sites in Connecticut and New Jersey.

On Thursday, San Ramon saw a big breaking news story, of a 24-year-old menacing police outside a 7-11. They shot and killed him, after a standoff. Take a look at the coverage and you can see that the Contra Costa Times’ story has more depth, background and nuance. Patch’s story is straightforward, but lacking in those same qualities. That quick comparison may be typical for how a newspaper responds to the big, breaking story — one of unusual suburban daily drama — as compared to AOL’s user-gen start-up.

As curious, type “San Ramon shooting” into Google, and on both web and news search, Patch comes up first. In addition, Patch’s story elicited nine comments by late Thursday evening; Contra Costa’s none.

A small sample, but therein may lay this emerging tale of newspaper vs. Patch competition. The story quality is one thing; the ability to SEO and draw community comment may be another. That’s an emerging gulf worth paying attention to.

One other Patch note: AOL CEO Tim Armstrong’s big play here should be to make ad buys scalable across his emerging network of hyperlocal sites. Clearly, that’s a work in progress, and one that may need a bigger network and a better ad market. Check out even the most established Patch sites, those in New Jersey for instance, and you see scant advertising. A Pepsi Refresh ad — touting community betterment projects — is now running across the network on the home page (and that’s a smart play for hyperlocal sites), but there’s little else in terms on national placements. It’s way too early to determine success or failure, but securing national ads at profitable rates may be an uphill task for AOL.

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