Hyper-local…or just plain hyper

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Whether you like the Toronto Sun or not, it was a hard pill to swallow when a No Frills supermarket took over a major section of the paper’s iconic building on Front Street in Toronto earlier this year. We have known for a while now that the modern newsroom has been changing dramatically since the good old days of gumshoe reporting and Woodward and Bernstein, but seeing the No Frills logo up on the building with the yellow bananas and its promise of ‘lower food prices’ was sobering.

The truth is that Google searches, rolling deadlines, blogging, online video, Facebook, podcasting, Twitter – and shrinking newsrooms – are keeping journalists on their toes like never before. Some have even said the internet has ‘hamsterized‘ journalism to the point where the traditional newspaper model needs a big re-think.

Yet as the world laments the death of newspapers and journalism as we know it, Patch.com, a flotilla of more than 500 community news sites owned by AOL, is proving that the most successful businesses are local – from the local newspaper that knows the local sports team to the local website that zeros in on a niche and owns it.

AOL paid an estimated $7 million in cash for the news platform as part of its effort to reinvent itself as a content provider beyond its dial-up Internet business. AOL announced in 2010 it would be investing $50 million or more to take the Patch.com network national.

The concept behind Patch is “hyperlocal journalism,” with local community news editors filing stories and updating community-specific websites on local news from within the communities they serve. As of December 2010, Patch was present in more than 500 communities across the U.S. And take note – today Patch is the largest employer of full-time journalists in America.

Other sites, like EveryBlock, Outside.in and Placeblogger, collect links to articles and blogs and often supplement them with data from local governments and other sources. They might let visitors know about a break-in around the corner, a bake sale at a local church, or report on a particularly busy day at the farmers market.

But if journalism is about the public good, it’s also about the outlets they work for making money. Early in 2010, the LA Times reported that Patch.com asks for $15 for every 1,000 viewers it brings to one form of online ad that businesses create themselves.

Do the math and it’s pretty slim pickings, so here is hoping their business model also includes other revenue streams to make the whole thing work.

As Richard Branson famously put it: “I wanted to be an editor or a journalist, I wasn’t really interested in being an entrepreneur, but I soon found I had to become an entrepreneur in order to keep my magazine going.”

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