June 4, 2008

How Could Hyperlocal Fail?

The Wall Street Journal reports that the hyperlocal LoudounExtra.com project by the Washington Post has largely failed. Isn’t hyperlocal supposed to be the saving grace of newspaper journalism? See if you can figure out what went wrong:

Though LoudounExtra.com seemed to promise an ideal combination of innovation and marketing muscle, it has failed to benefit from the reach of Washingtonpost.com. Mr. Curley says whenever a big story breaks involving Loudoun County, the Post typically publishes it on Washingtonpost.com without a link to LoudounExtra. That deprives LoudounExtra of potential traffic. Nor does the Washingtonpost’s own dedicated Loudoun County page send visitors directly to its online sibling. In September, when Time Warner Inc.’s AOL unit announced it was moving its headquarters from Dulles, Va., to New York, the Post linked to the story on LoudounExtra.com for a couple hours before moving the story back to its own site. That window of promotion fueled the Loudoun site’s best traffic day to date, Mr. Curley says.

Mr. Brady now says he is considering replacing the current Loudoun County page on Washingtonpost.com with LoudounExtra.com, although he adds he doesn’t want LoudounExtra.com or future hyperlocal sites to be too dependent on Washingtonpost.com for traffic.

Another problem: Mr. Curley’s crew was trying to reach a much different audience than they were used to. Unlike Lawrence, Kan., which had a small populace linked by an easily identifiable set of interests, Loudoun County is a 520 square-mile area with seven towns whose residents share little else besides a county government.

To penetrate those communities requires a more dedicated effort than the LoudounExtra.com team was putting forth. Mr. Curley himself acknowledged he spent too much time talking to other newspaper publishers about the hyperlocal strategy and too little time introducing his team and the site to Loudoun County.

All in all, the site has yet to catch fire. “We certainly didn’t get the numbers that our team was accustomed to getting,” Mr. Curley says. “Even in Lawrence, Kan., we were attracting more traffic than we were accustomed to getting [on LoudounExtra.com], and Lawrence is a town of 80,000 people.”

The Post’s Mr. Brady said he still plans to unveil a hyperlocal site for Fairfax County, Va., which has more than a million residents, and is considering a number of others down the road. But he said the site needs better integration with Washingtonpost.com and more such user-generated content.

Several media analysts agreed LoudounExtra.com doesn’t do enough to engage the community. Hyperlocal sites range from the fully service-oriented — filled with databases, calendars and news — to repositories for blogs, commentary, photos and video from visitors to the site.

But there were hazards involved in putting an autonomous team of outsiders in charge of new digital initiatives at a major media company. Mr. Curley says his team had been developing online tools to funnel Loudoun County-related video and photos to the site from other sites like YouTube, Facebook and Flickr, but couldn’t get approval from the Post’s legal team to launch the application. According to Mr. Brady, the legal team voiced concerns about who had legal claim to the content of those sites.

Geez.

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6 Responses

  1. Sven 

    It embraces the idea that a high-school prom is as newsworthy as a debate over where to build a hospital, and that Little League deserves major-league attention.

    What a load of pro forma gibberish. I heard the same smack from my publisher when I edited a small weekly.

    There’s a kernel of truth in it. The parents of Little Leaguers love to read about their children. The Eastern Star ladies love to see the minutes of their meetings. And the publisher loves to think this means his paper is “connecting” with the community. Especially when the soccer moms empty the newsracks to send copies of the front-page picture of Junior to every living relative.

    But the defining characteristic of community journalism is limited resources, and it’s a special kind of insanity to expend said resources editing tables of bowling league stats (or another favorite of mine, creating “special sections” on real estate and dining to scrape up ad revenue). Not only is it a waste of time and energy, it bores the hell out of the staff who in turn bore the hell out of the readers.

    It takes a lot of effort to genuinely connect with the community. I remember my first big story, which on its face was kind of silly. Without any kind of public notice, the state prison – the area’s largest employer – erected giant poles with blinding security lights. We could have left it at quoting local residents who were pissed off because they couldn’t see the stars at night. But with a little digging we discovered an enormous well of resentment against the state for imposing its will on a range of matters connected to the prison. We also discovered much resentment among prison officials and workers against the community and the state for not understanding security needs.

    Anywho, we covered the story for more than a year. We planned and sponsored community meetings with state and prison officials, out of which a citizens group organized. We did exposes from inside the prison on conditions facing prisoners and guards alike. The hubbub eventually drew the governor to town. The community got new lights that contained the brightness to prison grounds. The prison staff got other needed security improvements. And the newspaper got a big jump in loyal readership because we had demonstrated our value to the community.

  2. acline 

    Sven… Yep. You obviously noticed the bold-face red words :-) I find this part especially amusing: “In September, when Time Warner Inc.’s AOL unit announced it was moving its headquarters from Dulles, Va., to New York, the Post linked to the story on LoudounExtra.com for a couple hours before moving the story back to its own site. That window of promotion fueled the Loudoun site’s best traffic day to date, Mr. Curley says.”

  3. Sven 

    fueled the Loudoun site’s best traffic day to date

    Gawd I hate “new media” “metrics.” I was once forced to spend an entire day in “keyword search training,” for which I received a framed(!) certificate and an Staples® Easy Button™.

    Site traffic is obviously important. But jonas on a stick, the Internet hasn’t changed the fundamentals of good journalism and particularly good local journalism.

    It goes back to all my mumbling about Kierkegaard and commitment. It’s not enough for a hyperlocal news organization to “cover” a story, IMO. The HNO should become the locus for community action.

    In the example I cited above, my newspaper didn’t advocate for any particular solution, or lead the lynch mob to the prison gates. We bent over backwards to present the prison staff’s and state official’s side, even when it made readers angry.

    Not to get all misty-eyed about it, but the paper was the linchpin in getting the problems solved. Through our coverage and contextualization, readers realized their individual grievances were in fact community grievances, which led them to organize themselves. The newspaper was also the community’s conduit to and from state officials, who had ignored individual complaints, and betwixt each other via the letters page, internet forum and community meetings.

    We did that consistently on all sorts of issues (and we used the “action” criteria in deciding which stories to pursue), establishing a reputation and trust among readers for truly being, like the local tv cliched slogan, on their side. It did lead to a substantial and sustained increase in circulation. But the level of reader commitment and trust that helped us triumph over a competitor backed by a big metro daily can’t be measured in “site traffic.”

  4. acline 

    Sven… Yep. The civic journalism movement had real potential. But mainstream journalism treated it like a fad rather than a serious intellectual movement. I was once very sure that civic journalism would become THE model. I actually wrote this as a prediction: “Civic journalism is not a fad; it is the leading edge of a new rhetorical paradigm and, thus, a new noetic field for us all.” Oooooops. Oh well.

  5. Sven 

    rather than a serious intellectual movement

    Speaking of that, do you think there’s any intersection between the rhetorical approach to journalism and politics and the “political brain” cognitive scientists like Drew Weston and George Lakoff?

    I can’t stand to read or listen to either one of them for long; to me they come off as consultant/ motivational speaker types. But the research they point to sounds interesting: that reason and emotion (logos and pathos?) are inextricable.

  6. acline 

    S- Yes, there are many interesting intersections. I’m a fan the academic work Lakoff did with Mark Johnson. He’s into politics these days as an activist, which is fine. But it can cause people to dismiss some other things he’s done that have advanced our understanding of cognitive science.