September 4, 2015

Patch, a network of hyperlocal news websites owned by Hale Global Inc., has expanded into Austin as the brand tries – cautiously – to re-establish itself among readers and advertisers after it struggled to find success as a branch of AOL Inc.

Three Patch websites focusing on downtown Austin, South Austin and East Austin went live Thursday, according to Warren St. John, editor-in-chief of Patch nationwide. In all, Patch plans to soon launch hyperlocal news websites focused on a total of six Austin neighborhoods or suburbs, the remainder being sites that will focus on the suburbs of Pflugerville, Cedar Park and Round Rock.

Patch was founded in 2007 by future AOL CEO Tim Armstrong. When Armstrong accepted the top job at AOL in 2009, he brought Patch into the company as well. There, the brand embarked upon an ambitious expansion that saw it grow from a handful of websites focused on suburban markets in the Northeast to a network of more than 900 websites and roughly 1,000 journalists (full disclosure: myself included) and salespeople spread across America by 2013. But in late 2013, AOL dramatically scaled down Patch, laying off hundreds (full disclosure, again: myself included) before selling the brand to turnaround firm Hale Global.

Hale Global, in job postings, claims to have 65 editorial employees working for Patch right now.

Thus, for Hale Global, the Austin sites are a milestone. They are the second new set of Patch websites to go live under the brand's Hale Global era (preceded by a single new site in Williamsburg, Brooklyn) but are the first to be launched in a media market to which Patch had no previous ties.

For St. John, the expansion to Austin is something the company is undertaking very carefully. He admitted that, when Hale first acquired the much-slimmed-down brand, they tried a viral-content strategy that readers detested. Now, the company stresses quality reporting above all.

"Our first goal is to try and make the coverages we've opened out of the gate excellent," said St. John. "Hyperlocal is a huge challenge. Lots of people are running away from it, but we are going the other way because we know that users in our communities value hyperlocal coverage."

To that end, Patch has hired veteran journalist and Austin resident Stephanie Gaskell as its Texas Bureau Chief, according to her LinkedIn page. Gaskell's resumé, which stretches back 20 years, includes time spent working for the Associated Press, the New York Post and the New York Daily News reporting from such far flung locales as Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Beyond the news aspect, St. John said that Hale Global is trying to not repeat the mistakes that came along with AOL's massive expansion.

"It's very easy if you have a big pot of VC money to go fund a lot of great local coverage," said St. John. "The hard part is making it work as a sustainable business. We're coming at this from a very humble position... we're going to grow only as we can justify growing."

In addition to the news, Patch is looking to market itself to local and national advertisers who want their messages in the Austin market and beyond. St. John said the company is rolling out a new product for advertisers called Patch Connect which will give businesses and organizations more tools to reach Patch readers.

"Our most successful customers have been hospitals, gyms and schools," said St. John. "We've had good luck at the national level with movie studios, because when you premiere a film, ultimately, your theaters are local and you need local audiences."

According to Web traffic analytics company Alexa, is the 123rd most-popular domain in America, with monthly average unique visitors of 18.6 million unique visitors and 52.4 million page views spread across the network of websites.