The trend toward hyper-local news

Posted on January 29, 2012

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Image representing AOL as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

Last week, while on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, I wrote about what the 2012 primary race means for AOL‘s Patch:

For the lucky ones that have presidential hopefuls passing through their local high schools and diners during primary season, the Patches have a way of being bigger than themselves, if they deploy their local knowledge to avoid getting bigfooted by major media organizations.

This was all part of Arianna Huffington’s plan for Patch when her six-year-old Huffington Post was acquired by AOL last spring. In the wake of the merger, she handed the task of integrating Patch to one of her top newsroom lieutenants, executive editor Tim O’Brien. The idea was to leverage the network’s local reporting muscle in a way that would benefit the larger AOL and Huffington Post brands.

On Friday, another one of Huffington’s top newsroom lieutenants, editorial director Howard Fineman, gave us a call to offer some more color about how the integration has been playing out in practice, as candidates trawl through the early primary and caucus states.

He explained that the Patch sites in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina were not just lucky to have primaries to cover; rather, they were formed in anticipation of them last year as a strategic maneuver after the $315 million purchase of The Huffington Post by AOL, which acquired Patch in 2009.

“My first thought immediately was, we don’t have Patches in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina,” said Fineman, recalling a period of streamlining that occurred when it was time to figure out how Patch and The Huffington Post could work together. “So we made a big committment to hire 33 to 35 people for those three states, to use [them] to knot together the newsgathering of Patch and The Huffington Post. … To get the local reporting that the big feet don’t necessarily get and put that together with what we do nationally.”

The Huffington Post was to continue its successful run as an aggregator of content and also engage in an aggressive build-up of reporters and editors responsible for breaking original stories on the site, which now includes hundreds of bylines as well as satellite offices around the world; Patch, a network of hyperlocal websites in more than 850 communities across the country, was seen as a crucial value add. Though corporate siblings, the two are still separate entities, something that was apparent to me while watching their journalists cover the New Hampshire primary. At the end of the day, they are still essentially competing for scoops and exclusives, just like everyone else.

It’s really after publication, at the level of curation, that the integration happens. The Huffington Post’s constantly-updating Election 2012 liveblog has been pulling in lots of content from the primary-state Patches, said Fineman. Yesterday, for instance, it plugged a Patch dispatch from Newt Gingrich’s Myrtle Beach homage to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fineman also pointed us to a Jan. 14 report from the Goose Creek, S.C. Patch, whose editor was on hand to cover Bob McDonnell‘s local town hall stop, where the Virginia governor was greeted with “veep speculation”—perfect fodder for The Huffington Post‘s Washington D.C. vertical since “McDonnell is local news here,” said Fineman.

Similarly, The Huffington Post helped elevate the Concord, N.H. Patch’s Dec. 30 scoop that one of Mitt Romney‘s sons had made a birther joke about President Obama.

“The local Patch guy took the video,” said Fineman. “The Huffington Post, and Politico, were the first to give exposure to the video,” which was soon picked up by various other national news outlets.

“The idea is, we get the best stuff out of Patch and put it on the national site,” said Fineman. “People really want to feel like they’re actively on the campaign trail, like they’re participants in what’s happening. This helps make [our coverage] all that much more on-scene.”

Fineman said Patch’s muscle is also being flexed to generate national trend stories, which executive editor Tim O’Brien will help coordinate.

For example, local Patches have been working on a reporting project about the role of evangelical churches in the campaigns. These articles will eventually feed into a broader Huffington Post story written by one of the site’s national reporters in New York or D.C., said Fineman.

“You want the Patch editors to stay local,” he said, “but you want to try and use them in their great numbers and great local feel to give texture to national stories.”

Once the polls close, however, the challenge is “to figure out other ways to integrate The Huffington Post and Patch,” said Fineman. “We want this to be a truly micro-local to global thing. … I think that it is working.”

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Posted in: HYPERLOCAL