Patch.com launched its new Local Voices feature today, which Arianna Huffington announced on the Patch.com site for the Minneapolis suburb of Fridley, Minnesota. You'll recall that last week, it emerged that AOL was looking to take on 8,000 unpaid bloggers (10 for each Patch site), in order to bolster its new crop of hyper-local news sites. It was not immediately clear whether AOL met its goal today, but we did get some insight from a Patch editor.

Our source at Patch informs us that the search for 10 people to blog on a regular, unpaid basis, was less daunting than first feared. "I'll tell you that, pretty much once I figured out who I was targeting--it's not the journalist or even the journalist wannabe, it's the preson in the community who has opinions and wants to express them--I've gotten a very positive response," the editor said. "I have four people who have actually sent me blog posts, and I have another five who said they wanted to do it."

In her lengthy announcement today, Huffington writes, "What's so exciting about Patch is that it will bring quality, comprehensive news coverage to places that need it most. It's no secret that a disproportionate amount of news coverage is centered on our country's major cities, with their multiple newspapers, competing TV stations and armies of bloggers." 

The rise of Patch coincides with a distinct drop-off in locally produced news coverage. Media analysts have been declaring the death knell of the community newspaper for years. But AOL is not the first national operation to engage in systematic local news coverage that is free to the consumer. After he bought the San Francisco Examiner in 2004, Phil Anschutz trademarked the Examiner name and spun off free daily tabloids in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, as well as the national Examiner.com, which features many self-appointed experts writing for free or very cheaply, much like at AOL.

Local news operations will not disappear forever, but production does appear to be shifting away from the communities in which they cover. Huffington holds up a place like Fridley as "a great testament to the relevance of Patch's mission," but if she decided to close the local Patch site in the future, the town would be left without its own local paper.