Patch Unveils A New Site, Focused on Social and Mobile, AOL’s hyperlocal news experiment, is rolling out a new site today. In true new media fashion, the company designed the mobile site first, and the new format places heavy emphasis on social elements.

I got a preview of it on Friday from co-founder and CEO Jon Brod, chief content officer Rachel Feddersen and creative director Abel Lenz, who enthusiastically introduced the site as a shift from the soap-box model to a town square model. “This is a platform for communities to better organize day to day life,” said Feddersen, “we’re about making lives in towns better.”

So what’s different about the new Patch? According to Brod, it’s “the marriage of Journalism with a big J and the social elements of a community platform.” The new homepage is organized by a Facebook-like news feed, with “editor’s picks” at the top. Content is organized into “groups,” some of which are curated and created by the local editor. However, the new site gives people in the community the ability to create their own groups. Here’s a screenshot of the homepage:

For example, parents could create a group for their kids’ little league team. There are three types of groups: one is blog-like where information flows from one person to many. One is more like a message board where anyone can post. The last is a private group where members are admitted by invitation only, and meant to have the functionality of a mailing list. Here’s a screenshot of a group page:

Each group page has a news feed, where people can post messages, articles, photos, videos and events. You can sync the events with your Google or Outlook calendars, and there are options on the feed to view only certain types of content.

The directory has shifted to the group model as well, allowing business owners to claim their group once their identities have been verified. Once that happens, they become the manager of a group, and have the ability to control all the content (except reviews, of course). It’s kind of like Facebook Pages meets Yelp.

While all of this sounds like Patch is trying to become more of a social network, everyone I spoke to assured me that Patch is committed as ever to “Journalism with a big J.” Users can never opt out of editors picks – “the journalistic imprint is what sets us apart, it’s in our DNA,” said Feddersen.

“People care about where content comes from,” said Lenz, “we deeply believe people want both [content and social] from one place.”

The new site will not change Patch’s business model of local, regional and national ads plus commerce, and Brod says the new site “positions us to really make further strides in our commerce initiatives,” the details of which he said he couldn’t get into.

There has been plenty of Patch criticism coming from all over the journalism sphere, and 10,000 Words has previously covered some of the things that they do well. And though there has been speculation that the role of the local editor will become less of a writing/reporting role and more of a community moderator role, those at Patch insist otherwise.

What do you think of Patch’s new site? Is their combination of content and social the hyper-local news of the future?