Rhode Island's increasingly crowded media landscape may have a new player soon: AOL is recruiting journalists to run hyperlocal news web sites in Newport, Portsmouth, and Middletown.
The push is part of a broader effort by the company to hire hundreds of journalists nationwide in a major expansion of its local news venture, Patch.
Acquired by AOL in 2009, Patch currently operates sites in 67 suburbs and small towns in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and California.
The sparsely staffed sites offer a mix of town hall news, high school sports updates, and graduation photos — a sort of online version of the community newspaper.
Why, you ask, is a big media conglomerate interested in small-town ephemera? Well, a big piece of AOL CEO Tim Armstrong's strategy to revive the much-maligned Time Warner castoff is heavy production of original content.
AOL has lately launched or acquired start-ups ranging from Politics Daily to Fanhouse to Blogging Stocks. And Armstrong has called the local web space, targeted by Patch and other company properties, "one of the largest commercial opportunities online that has yet to be won."
That may explain why the company is not alone in its pursuit of the local. MSN has built "local news" and "local events" aggregators into its homepage. The New York Times has partnered with Fwix, a hyperlocal wire service. And Rhode Island recently saw the launch of news and commentary site golocalprov.com.
An AOL spokeswoman declined to comment for this story, writing in an email that the company generally does not speak with the press in advance of launching in a community. But it is not hard to imagine the opportunity the media giant sees here.
The Providence Journal may be heavily focused on local news, well aware that top-flight national and international coverage from the Times and other sources is just a click away for its readers.
But the paper tends to focus on issues of statewide importance, rather than Newport- or Portsmouth-specific developments. Indeed, after a round of layoffs in 2008, the ProJo shuttered its regional bureaus, eliminated regional sections of the paper, and essentially stopped reporting on communities with historically scant readership.
The paper, of course, is not the only broadsheet in the state. And outfits like the Newport Daily News are intently focused on super local happenings. But the Daily News began charging for its online version last summer in a bid to drive readers back to the more profitable print edition. And while the move carried a certain logic, it helped open the field for web sites like the year-old Newport Now and any forthcoming Patch venture.
The arrival of AOL is, in some ways, a welcome development. More news and more competition is a good thing for readers. But the corporate push to dominate the local news market, all across the country, is chipping away at some of the democratic potential of the web.
As Martin Bryant of the Next Web has noted, the hyperlocal news trend was initially seen as "an opportunity for independent, entrepreneurial journalists to make a living covering local news on their own sites and on their own terms."
And while the AOLs of the world may provide jobs and freelance possibilities for grateful, unemployed journalists, they could also squash some creative approaches to the vexing problem of a media in decline.