AOL to launch 18 more RI news sites, others in Mass.

Patch, AOL’s growing network of hyperlocal news sites about individual cities and towns, is preparing a rapid expansion in Rhode Island and Massachusetts that will pose a new competitive threat to area publications from The Providence Journal and The Sun Chronicle to The Woonsocket Call and The Westerly Sun.

Patch’s footprint in Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts is light at the moment. Its first three Rhode Island sites – for Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth – launched last month, a move likely influenced by the Newport Daily News’ decision to eliminate its free HTML site.

But that will change soon, if the company’s job postings are any indication.

In Rhode Island, Patch is looking to hire editors to oversee sites it plans to launch in 18 more of the state’s 39 communities: Barrington, Bristol, Coventry, Cranston, Cumberland, East Greenwich, East Providence, Johnston, Lincoln, Little Compton, Narragansett, North Kingstown, North Providence, Smithfield, South Kingstown, Tiverton, Warren, Westerly and Woonsocket. (Little Compton and Tiverton will share an editor, as will Bristol and Warren.) A regional editor to oversee the 12 East Bay sites is also being sought.

All told, that would mean just over half of Rhode Island’s cities and towns would have Patch sites if all these new editors get them up and running.

Patch has a bit more research to do before it’s ready for prime time around here, though – one of the job postings listed my hometown of Attleboro as a city in Rhode Island. (For the uninitiated, it’s over the border in Bristol County, Mass.)

The postings also mislabel the two Kingstowns as “Kingston”s – which, in classic Rhode Island fashion, is actually the name of a village in South Kingstown. (“You know you’re a Rhode Islander when…”)

There’s a reason Attleboro is listed, though – Patch is planning an expansion in the Bay State, too, and my alma mater The Sun Chronicle is one of the news outlets in AOL’s crosshairs.

Patch is looking to hire editors in Attleboro, Foxboro and Mansfield – three of The Sun Chronicle’s core circulation areas. It’s also got openings posted for Dartmouth, Franklin, Swansea, Waltham, the southern half of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and dozens of other Massachusetts cities and towns.

Beyond inside baseball for media-watchers, what’s the significance of all this? The Phoenix’s Dave Scharfenberg explained it well last month:

AOL, which is betting heavily on original, online news and commentary – think Politics Daily and Fanhouse – to improve its sagging bottom line, sees Patch as a way to fill a wide open space for so-called “hyperlocal” news on the web.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on its Newport site, in particular. It will be vying with The Providence Journal, Newport Daily News, and online operation Newport Now for scoops and advertising dollars.

Don’t expect too much in the way of investigative reporting, though. Patch sites are thinly staffed, heavily dependent on freelancers, and focused on straightforward stories and feel-good features.

I’d add that with traditional news organizations hemorrhaging jobs, AOL has the opportunity to pick up well-trained scribes from coast to coast, including around here. Example: Brandie Jefferson – who was laid off by the Projo in late 2008, at the same time as Scharfenberg in fact – is now at the helm of a new Patch site in Ellicott City, Maryland. (Brandie is a friend of mine, too, but don’t hold that against her.)

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