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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Patch.com finally makes metro Atlanta debut

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For the past few years, the unanswered question in discussions about the future of the news media has been, if print newspapers are on their way out, what digital model will take their place? Bloggers and "citizen journalists" don't have the resources or, arguably, the training. Sites like HuffPo and the Daily Beast most often don't actually report news, but simply repackage content from other sources — and have yet to make any money. And radio and TV stations don't have the attention span to delve into and explain complicated issues like a newspaper can.

AOL thinks it's found the answer — and its name is Patch. Last year, the fading Internet provider bought Patch.com, then a local-news start-up site based in New York, for $7 million and almost immediately began pouring money into expanding its operations into 18 states.

If AOL met its own projections for 2010, it will have spent $50 million building a national network of sites reporting local news. Make that hyper-local news, micro-local, if you will. Unlike aggregation sites or community message boards, Patch employs professional journalists. Many are straight out of J-school, but other hires are veteran print reporters who've been pushed out of newspaper jobs — and still others jumped ship from daily papers to join the newcomer.

According to one media news site, Patch is likely "the biggest new hirer of full-time journalists in the U.S."

In metro Atlanta, Patch is gearing up to launch more than 30 individual neighborhood news sites, some in such tiny bedroom communities as Holly Springs-Hickory Flat and Peachtree Corners-Berkeley Lake. (For intowners, those are in central Cherokee and western Gwinnett counties.)

I find it interesting that the first local Patch site to go live this week was Dunwoody, the new stomping grounds of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Was AOL firing a shot over the bow of the DJC? Also up is the site for Lilburn-Mountain Park.

So far, the story mix is about what you'd expect of a community newspaper: high school football game recaps; teacher of the year named; and features on artwork by charter-school students, Veteran's Day services and a local appearance by supermodel Cindy Crawford. But there's also harder news, such as a story — and a next-day follow-up — about a fatal shooting outside a Dunwoody day care center.

So, who will Patch be competing with, once it rolls out all its planned metro sites? Once I see what kind of content it posts for East Atlanta, Midtown and Buckhead, I'll have a better idea, but I'm guessing the CL news staff will be crossing paths with Patch reporters. But people don't really come to our website or this blog for hyper-local community news, and they certainly don't expect that from our weekly print paper.

No, I'm betting it's the AJCwith its current focus on highly localized suburban coverage — that's most likely to feel pressure from Patch.

The future will be an interesting place.

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