Journalism pundits have been begging Google to put its billions behind the project of saving journalism. At last, a Google executive has come through. Here's Tim Armstrong's secret plan to save the local news business.
Armstrong, the handsome and high-ranking Google executive who runs the company's advertising operations — that is, the actual business that generates cash — in both North America and South America, is backing a startup called Patch through his personal investment fund. The startup aims to run local websites in small communities. Armstrong's biography on the site makes it sound like this is more of a cause than a cash-in attempt:
Polar Capital Group, Tim Armstrong's private investment company, is an investor in Patch. Polar invested in Patch because Tim believes that Patch should be in every community in America, and wants Patch in his town. He wants to read local news stories done by journalists, make sure that local government is transparent and accountable, see all the ways he can give back to his community, and have his town be as interesting and alive online as it is offline. Tim is also a believer in American ingenuity and knows that products like Patch will help deliver a commercially viable way for communities to support the important work of local journalists, institutions, governments, and businesses. Tim works at Google and his family lives in a Connecticut patch.
The site is presently limited to three suburban towns in New Jersey — South Orange, Maplewood, and Milburn. But the company, based in New York, already has 20 employees.
Will this save journalism? A form of it, perhaps. The big-city dailies have been retrenching from the suburbs for years. But Patch is hiring one journalist per town, to cover local news with a heavy emphasis on charities. That's exactly the kind of starter journalism job desperate grads take straight our of J-school, and work like heck to escape as fast as they can. The difference, in this Google-funded scenario, is that there won't be anywhere else to go from there.
And why is Google letting Armstrong freelance as a startup investor? Google's compliance cops have already greenlighted his investment in Associated Content, an ostensibly independent startup which lives off Google ads. Perhaps it's because his startup experiments may well help his employer.
Could Patch be a Trojan horse for Google to get into the local news business? Google has struggled with local advertising, partly because there's not enough obviously local content online to advertise against. Google would spark a massive outcry if it got into the news business directly. But through a trusted proxy like Armstrong, it can keep a close eye — and move in once Armstrong has discovered his "commercially viable way."