NEW YORK — Hyperlocal news sites that provide street-level content online have been springing up rapidly, potential rivals to real estate agents who are playing the same role in order to attract clients.

NEW YORK — Hyperlocal news sites that provide street-level content online have been springing up rapidly, potential rivals to real estate agents who are playing the same role in order to attract clients.  

Warren Webster, president of hyperlocal news network Patch.com, believes the two needn’t be foes. Webster spoke at Real Estate Connect this week.

"I 100 percent believe that Patch can be a great ally when it comes to providing local content for potential clients," Webster told Inman News. "First, there’s no more comprehensive, useful tool for potential or new residents — all the information you need about schools, government, what goes on in town, the ‘feel’ of a neighborhood.

"Second, agents can use Patch to reach their potential clients in a very targeted way, and reach them where they are — among highly relevant neighborhood news and information. Agents can quickly become important parts of the conversation in a market."

Based in New York City, Patch.com began in February 2009 with three sites in New Jersey and 17 employees. In June 2009, Internet services and media giant AOL bought Patch and has pumped at least $60 million into the venture so far. Currently, there are more than 700 Patch sites in 18 states and five regions. Sites cover communities of 15,000 to 100,000 people.

While there have been nearly 17,000 layoffs in the newspaper industry since 2008, Patch has hired more than 900 journalists so far, Webster said. The company claims to have hired more journalists last year than any other entity.

The journalists live in or near the towns they cover. Each site has a local editor who manages a team of freelancers. The editors take on multiple roles, including writing, videography, photography and social media management. The sites are devoted to local issues, such as committee and government meetings, schools, crime and events.

"Newspapers were covering broader issues, not a lot at the local level. There was not one consistent place that you could go to to find out how to live a better life in your local community," Webster said.

"If you wanted to know the mayor’s latest resolution of something important to you, it was not that easy to find."

Each site includes an events calendar where real estate agents are already posting open houses, he said. Site users can also sign up to get text message alerts for new open house postings.

The Patch network also has a business and services directory that now contains more than 630,000 listings, 5 percent of which are real estate-related, Webster said. Real estate business owners can claim their office listings and include information about their brokers and agents, how many property listings they carry, the type of real estate they handle, and add photos and videos for no charge.

"There’s nothing more local than real estate," Webster said.

The Patch network received 1.8 million unique visitors in the month of December 2010, according to website analytics company Compete. This figure may undercount the network’s traffic, however, as it only includes 199 subdomains (compared to more than 700 total Patch sites). Webster declined to release specific traffic numbers.

Online local advertising is forecasted to grow almost 18 percent this year, reaching $16.1 billion, Webster said, and advertising is a very important part of Patch’s business model. Much of it is local or regional, though the company is also reaching out to national brands with a local presence, such as Home Depot.

By stripping out overhead, printing, distribution and other costs, the company also designed its business model so that Patch sites could operate at about 4.1 percent of the costs of daily newspapers in like-size markets, Webster said.

Webster also divulged an extra bit of information for conference attendees: Patch will be launching a real estate channel sometime this year. Because Patch hasn’t officially announced the channel in detail, he declined to say what kind of content the channel will provide or whether the channel will somehow integrate with AOL Real Estate.

"I can’t say much, but I can say that there will be many opportunities for partnerships (with real estate agents). Stay tuned for more information as we get closer to launch!" Webster said.

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