However, before we get there, here's something from this New Yorker article that you might want to act on. Particularly if someone you know is using Aol's on-line subscription service.
The company (Aol) still gets eighty percent of its profits from subscribers, many of whom are older people who have cable or DSL service but don't realize that they need not pay an additional twenty-five dollars a month to get online and check their e-mail. "The dirty little secret," a former Aol executive says, "is that seventy-five percent of the people who subscribe to Aol's dial-up service don't need it."
Aol, the former colossus once known as America On-Line, was at one time the most commercially prominent way for people to get on the Internet. The figure given by the New Yorker is that at its peak Aol was doing business with 35 million people. Most of them wised up, however, and moved on to far better Internet services. But out of that figure 4 million subscribers still remain. And despite the fact the Aol provides unneeded services in exchange, those remaining subscribers, mostly older people unaware that they can do much better and for little or no money, still send in a separate check every month. They really don't need to do that anymore.
Patch is one of the ways Aol hopes to be able to regain some of its former glory. Its dominance as an Internet service provider long past, and with that its partnership with Time Warner. Aol badly needs to reinvent itself and Patch is their hope for the future. Tim Armstrong, the CEO of Aol, explained it to the New Yorker this way:
Local is the one area of the Internet that has not been built out in an extensive way. We believe it's an untapped market, for the most part, and one of the largest commercial opportunities online that has yet to be won.
And thus Patch was born. There are now 700 cities all across America that have their very own outpost of Tim Armstrong's dream. He truly believes that Patch is going to save Aol. Which is why he has invested $50 million dollars in the effort, with more expenditures certain to follow.
Aol's local effort is called Patch, a compendium of online newspapers that target small, affluent communities and are supported by advertising. Each paper offers a calendar of after-school activities and planning-board meetings, links to stories about breaking news, and a scrolling Twitter feed that includes information on traffic accidents, police logs, and ongoing craft sales.
All of which you can see on our local version of Aol's on-line messiah. Each Patch sports a generic cookie cutter layout that is dictated precisely from Aol's headquarters in New York City. And each Patch editor is required to adhere to a carefully market researched product and content design that you as the consumer is supposed to find infinitely appealing. Comfortable colors and cozy content being the mien.
Each Patch site is run by a journalist, who earns between forty and fifty thousand a year. There are no offices; reporters live in the area they cover. Because there are no newsprint or shipping costs, Aol publishes news, Armstrong says, at approximately four per cent of what it costs a traditional local newspaper to do so. Still, the sites are not making money yet. "We will be the largest publisher of local news in the U.S. this year," Armstrong predicts.
I suppose Aol could become a significant purveyor of local news on a national platform comprised of hundreds of Patches. Anything can happen in this world, and certainly Aol has the cash to do it. At least for a while as their parachute out of Time Warner was a golden one. But, as the New Yorker article points out, there are problems.
They might not, however, be the best. The sites aspire to break news, and occasionally they do. The Darien Patch, for example, reported that a First Selectman candidate had a criminal record. But often the sites are like digital Yellow Pages, promotional bulletin boards accompanied by news about all the fun things going on nearby. Quality varies widely, and one senses a tension between journalism, which often conveys uncomfortable news, and boosterism. Which makes everyone feel good about the home town.
"Uncomfortable news," which is a nice euphemism for government and politics, is a thing that many claim to find unpleasant, but based on our traffic success with The Tattler can't wait to read. Boosterism, on the other hand, which most will tell you is their favorite because it is so happy and pleasant, draws ratings flies. I mean, just how many stories about cute tea shacks can one person take?
The New Yorker article puts the finishing touches on its reasoned demolition of Patch with a description of the Aol news culture at large. Apparently Patch's problems stem from some unhappy issues endemic to the corporate parent as a whole.
Quality is a problem for the entire Aol media empire. The company has hired many talented journalists, and some of the niche Web sites, like Engadget, publish content that particular readers love. Much of what Aol publishes, however, is piffle. On a typical day in January, its home page included a substantive story about the recovery of Representative Gabrielle Giffords after she was wounded in an assassination attempt in Tucson. But there were many more pieces with headlines like, "Katie And Tom May Boycott Oscars," "Curled Lashes With No Mascara At All," and "Videos: Hilarious Pets."
Which I guess goes to show that when it comes to what they publish, Aol and its entities such as Patch have an unfortunate addiction to cloying content over actual news. Which to me shows a certain level of disregard for the intellect and discretion of those they hope will want to read their stuff on a regular basis.
And with articles such as "Humane Society Wants Your Kitty Pictures for 2011 Spay Day Contest," "A Short Ranch House On Sierra Madre's Lotus Lane," "A Convenient Condo Near the Village" and "All Cats Have Nine Lives, But Only Albert Has 24 Toes," it is easy to see that the Sierra Madre Patch apple has not fallen very far from the Aol corporate tree.