Daniel Lai is easy to pick out from among the dozen farmers, hippies, and hippie farmers at the Dexter Bakery. His laptop gives away his ­identity—it’s emblazoned with a decal that reads “Patch.” And as he stands to shake hands, his belt buckle reveals his secret identity—it’s emblazoned with an “S” for Superman.

“When I got into journalism I wanted to be Clark Kent,” explains Lai, a serious young man who chooses his words with care. “Later I wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein—particularly Woodward, because he’s had a longer career.”

An Allen Park native and University of Texas journalism grad, Lai used to cover the western part of the county for the Heritage newspaper chain: two years as editor of the Manchester Enterprise and another as editor of the Chelsea Standard and the Dexter Leader. Then, last December, America Online hired him away to launch DexterPatch.com, an online interactive news site dedicated to all things Dexter.

“It’s hyper-local,” says Lai over coffee. “I’m in the community seven days a week covering just Dexter Village and Township.”

Back in the 1990s, AOL helped millions of people connect to the Internet for the first time. Now it’s out to reinvent itself as a source of original content. In the past year, it has quietly rolled out 750 Patch sites around the country. In February, not so quietly, it bought the liberal website HuffingtonPost.com and put founder Arianna Huffington in charge of its editorial efforts.

“We’re not here to compete with the local newspaper,” says Lai. “We’re here to give the community local news, but in addition we have a full business directory and we also encourage people to use the site.

“I work with a team of eight freelancers to produce stories and provide coverage,” Lai continues between sips. “We don’t have a quota we have to meet, but I shoot for two to three pieces a day between myself and the freelancers.”

The Patch sites sell both display ads and “enhanced” business directory listings. A spokeswoman declines to release sales figures, but says the company has reached or exceeded every revenue goal so far.

With no paper or printing expenses, putting out a Patch should cost much less than publishing a newspaper. But online ad revenues for local publications seldom bring in much money—so it remains to be seen if there’s a workable business model once AOL burns through its $50 million start-up investment.

Right now, though, Patch is on a tear. In the past year it’s launched two dozen sites in Michigan, including Lai’s in Dexter and Saline-MilanPatch.com, edited by Tran Longmoore.

A Canadian who came to the United States in 1999 and previously worked at the Milford Times, Longmoore was too busy to be interviewed, but he answered questions by email. Though he has only three freelancers compared with Lai’s eight, Longmoore emails that he too would “like to have several news stories up every day.” And, like Lai, Longmoore wants Saline-MilanPatch.com “to be the website that Saline and Milan residents go to for news. But more than that, I want it to be the place they go to when they decide where they want to eat, or when they look up a local business phone number. Ideally, it would also become a community forum, where people sound off about the local issues we write about.”

Dexter Township supervisor Pat Kelly welcomes the attention. “I’m thrilled that somebody’s out here covering local stuff,” she says. “By concentrating on one area, Daniel [Lai] will get to know and understand the community, and the result should be a higher-quality product.

“And the Dexter area needs news,” Kelly says emphatically. “It would have been nice if the business model had worked out for print and online, but that model doesn’t seem to work anymore. I hope this one does.”