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October 20, 2010

Patch in the Newsroom

Kevin E. Dayhoff

If all politics is local, certainly the same thing can be said for the news. In an era when more often than not, your local newspaper is owned by some conglomerate a half a continent away; and the journalists that make decisions that affect you on a daily basis have no clue as to where your community is on the map. Now comes another experiment in news delivery – Patch.


According to various news accounts, Patch was purchased by AOL on June 11, 2009. In a Forbes article on August 17, 2010, Patch was described as a “fledgling news startup.” At the time, however, try as I might; I was not able to find much information about Patch before June 2009.


Ever since AOL’s humble beginnings in 1983 as Control Video Corporation, founded by Bill von Meister in nearby Virginia, the technology company has been on a long and strange trip – and still has its challenges.  Who can forget those ubiquitous – and obnoxious – promotional CDs back in the 1990s?


According to a book by Alec Klein, Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner, “Control Video was reorganized as Quantum Computer Services, Inc. on May 24, 1985…”


In 1985, AOL began its adventure in providing Internet and email service.


A lengthy September 1995 Wired magazine article wryly noted: “It wasn't exactly front-page news when, in the spring of 1985, a tiny start-up out of Vienna, Virginia, called Quantum Computer Services, Inc., announced it was going into the online business.


Wired observed, accurately: “Signing on was complicated, expensive, and dull.” Not to mention, totally frustrating.


Later, in October 1989, the Internet service name was changed to America Online.


The initial press release, which according to Wired, “…hardly anyone really paid attention to – promised that QuantumLink, as the service was called, would be ‘useful, affordable, easy to access, and entertaining,’...”


The same Wired article also noted: “Under the leadership of CEO Steve Case, a 36-year-old marketing specialist who acquired his corporate chops pushing hair conditioner and fast-food pizza, America Online arguably has done as much as anyone – maybe more – to bring the infobahn to Main Street, USA.”


It is this history that gives many news and media junkies hope that AOL can make Patch work. That and the fact that the newspaper industry has spent the last 10 years arrogantly fighting with, very poorly, the data migration from newsprint to website media.


For those who have been around the block several times, in the last decade, in which the newspaper industry has labored under a bad case of the flu, there have been plenty of newspapers that have come and gone.


Not to be silly with cliché, but only time will tell if Patch can survive and thrive.


An August 17 an AOL press release, “AOL's Patch Launches 100th Site; Plans Expansion to More Than 500 Communities This Year,” quoted the president of Patch Media, Warren Webster:


“We believe Patch is a revolutionary and efficient approach to producing relevant, quality local journalism at scale, and we couldn't be more excited about expanding into hundreds of new communities across America this year.”


"Today's launch of our 100th site is a significant milestone for us,” Mr. Webster said. “We began with just three Patch communities in February 2009, and have since made incredible progress toward fulfilling our core mission of providing comprehensive information and trusted, professional news coverage to towns and communities.”


The press release elaborated. “Every Patch site is run by one professional local editor who, along with freelancers, provides quality original news and information to its community. As part of its expansion, Patch continues to hire experienced professional journalists to fill important new roles in the organization.


“In addition to being a destination for original content produced by professional journalists, Patch is a platform for community members to comment on stories, share their opinions, post photos and announcements, and add events to the community calendar.”


The August Forbes article went to some length explaining that “Patch, AOL's effort to own America's local news, said it has grown to 100 sites in 20 states, up from six sites since the company bought the fledgling news startup in June 2009.”


The article went on to say: “AOL also said it hopes to be in 500 communities by year's end, and will hire 500 more journalists for Patch. That would likely make it the biggest hirer in the decimated industry in some years.”


It’s that last sentence that also excites me. I know far too many out-of-work or underemployed writers and if Patch gives them an opportunity to do some writing for the privilege of buying some groceries, then I’m all for it.


A click on Maryland on the map found on the Patch website lists quite a few communities that are currently – or destined – to be served. For an example of what Patch looks like, go to the Lutherville-Timonium Patch site.


However, with the exception of Eldersburg, there appears to be no Patch news outlet in the works for our area. Hagerstown, Westminster, and Frederick do not appear on the list – all of which are served by strong, local newspapers.


However, the same webpage says “Hi there, we're Patch, your local source for news, events, business listings, and discussion. If you think your community could use Patch, let us know.


In spite of my reservations about AOL, I’m rooting for Patch to succeed. This, in spite of the fact that it’s business model is in direct competition to that which made the company I work for, Patuxent Publishing Company, very successful.


I personally have no problem with competition. The journalism community in the mid-Atlantic region tends to be, with some infrequent exceptions, a very close-knit family, and we collaborate as much as we compete.


Besides, a number of colleagues, whose work I admire, have been hired by Patch and I want them to succeed.


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