The headline on the Wall Street Journal story about the Washington Post’s widely watched venture in local-local journalism on the Web was unambiguous: “Big Daily’s Hyperlocal Flop.”
So how bad actually is LoudounExtra.com? Let’s look.
On the LoudounExtra homepage, I am greeted with this above-the-fold spread:
My squinting eyes try to read the reverse-type blurb, but before I can finish, a new image/blurb is automatically rotated in the space.
After figuring out how to retrieve the original blurb, I pull up the story. Big mistake.
The operative graf:
“After an hour-long hearing during which the lawyers’ oral arguments were interspersed with questions from the justices, the two sides began the long wait for a ruling that is not expected until mid-September.”
Got that? There won’t be any news about the school for more than three months, but here are 640-plus words of if’s and maybe’s – with a photo showing students from behind (an unflattering view that even a beginning photographer should know to avoid). Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. And this is happening on a 24/7 website of one of the best newspapers in the country?
(In fairness to LoudounExtra, it partially came to its (news) senses later in the day when it provided on-the-fly (though far-too-broad-brush) coverage of severe storms that swept through the area.)
The Post started LoudounExtra to attract Internet users in one of the fastest-growing counties in the U.S. Most Loudoun residents, in contrast to those who live closer in to Washington, don’t read the print edition of the Post. The majority of Loudoun residents are in their family-rearing years. If they use washingtonpost.com – the gateway to LoudounExtra.com – they don’t have the time or inclination to read thumb suckers about something that might happen in three months. Besides, the school that may or may not be built would only affect a minority of families in sprawling Loudoun.
I browse over the rest of the homepage, up and down and from side to side. All told, I encounter a blotchy hodge-podge of about 55 headlines and teasers: “Living in LoCo…Political Battles, Luggage Sale…10:30 a.m. – Glenfiddich Farm Cooking Class, Light Moroccan.”
I look for something, anything, about Hillsboro – a hamlet in mostly rural western Loudoun where I used to live — but there was nothing. When I do a “Hillsboro” search of the site, the top-ranked articles were six months or more old.
The team that developed LoudounExtra was headed by online local journalism guru Rob Curley, whom the Post hired after he earned a national reputation for how he mixed and matched multimedia, undiscovered databases and funny, informative and sometimes weird user contributions to transform the Lawrence, Kan., Journal-World site into a hugely popular virtual town square, and then worked his same magic at the Naples, Fla., Daily News. Curley, who is leaving the Post and joining the Las Vegas Sun with five members of his Post team, said in the WSJ article:
“I was the one who was supposed to know we should be talking to Rotary Club meetings every day,” Mr. Curley said. “I dropped the ball. I won’t drop it in Vegas, dude.”
But I’m not sure that LoudounExtra will find its mojo by sending its staff to deliver speeches at Rotary meetings. For Curley, who was the Newspaper Association of America’s “New Media Pioneer of the Year” in 2001, that sounds so 20th century.
LoudounExtra’s problems begin with how it’s mapped. As the WSJ article points out, people don’t live in “Loudoun.” They live in communities within the county like Ashburn, Sterling and Broadlands – each a sum of many particulars (geographic, demographic, historical, occasionally quirky) that add up to identity as specific as a strand of DNA. Kind of like Lawrence, KS, where Curley found the inspiration to do his hyperlocal pioneering.
But Lawrence has a super-special identity. It’s a college town – home to the University of Kansas, with its 25,000 students, the most important of whom are the 17 who play on the closely followed and passionately embraced Jayhawk basketball team. Shrewdly, Curley and his Lawrence Journal-World web team found myriad ways to tap into that passion to help produce content that drove monthly page views from 500,000 to 6 million.
Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent to KU and its Jayhawks in the 10 or so communities of Loudoun. But that doesn’t mean hyperlocal can’t succeed in those communities.
Curley and his team did produce some rich hyperlocal content in Loudoun. But it was mostly what he calls “little J” – Little League, proms, crime blotters. But because each community didn’t get its own homepage, the little J news was lost in the welter of headlines and promos of the single, countywide homepage.
A community site should have two tiers – one for the little J and one for what Curley calls the “big J.”
In Lawrence, with a population of about 89,000, plus the big KU campus, it wasn’t hard for Curley and his team to produce a lot of big J. But how do you do that in an Ashburn or Sterling or Broadlands, which are a lot smaller than Lawrence and don’t have any news-generating institution even close to KU?
Mike Orren’s Pegasus News, which covers more than 150 communities in Dallas/Fort Worth, has come up with some encouraging answers. Most of the Pegasus communities, like those in Loudoun, don’t have any KU-type institutional news generators. Yet Orren and his team of editors – who function more as impresarios – have teased out some excitement from all of them.
Pegasus gives each community its own homepage. But it’s not overly provincial. From their registered homepage, users can hop, ski and jump to nearby communities – actually all 150-plus. They can also easily zoom out to the Dallas/Fort Worth metro area.
Pegasus’ community homepages also are sleek and clean – in contrast to the mish-mash of LoudounExtra’s single, countywide homepage. There are fewer headlines and promos, and they stand out because they’re crisply, and often cleverly, written (“Burglars take aim at Arlington gun store“).
But as lively as Pegasus is, it still hasn’t produced the passionate engagement that Curley often sparked in Lawrence.
The answer, I believe, is to build a site that encourages people to express, in a variety of ways, how they think and feel about their community. I’m talking about a lot more than restaurant or shopping reviews. What makes residents proud? What are their opinions about their schools, recreational facilities, police protection? Who do they rank as their community’s first citizens? What volunteer groups do the best job? What’s the No. 1 problem?
The answers and counter-answers – which could include a simple A to F grading – would generate a huge amount of news about what works and doesn’t work in a community. Public and private leadership, which is mostly missing from comment on current hyperlocal sites, would be under enormous pressure to respond, especially when particular criticisms – a shortage of ball fields, unfounded school improvements, a shabby neighborhood shopping center – draw supporting comments.
To produce this kind of passionate engagement, a site would have to be carefully structured and developed. A different topic for discussion and grading could be promoted each week. Individual grades would be converted into overall scores that would be prominently featured on the homepage. Periodically, topic grades would be averaged to produce an overall community grade. This would produce some rivalries among nearby communities, adding to the passion. There would have to be controls to prevent one contributor from posting multiple grades for one entry and other safeguards.
An engaged hyperlocal site would also embrace the goals of social media. Tools tailored to what people want at their community level (e.g., who can help to raise funds for local charities, who wants to join a movie club, who wants to share nanny-hiring intelligence, etc.) would be provided.
The site should also enthusiastically embrace business potential. Registrants would be rewarded with a card – handsome and snail-mailed – that would entitle them to a 10 percent discount at participanting restaurants, stores and services. In a gesture to community giving, those businesses would, several times a year, declare a week when 10 percent of all revenues from card-bearing customers would go to selected local charities.
All this, of course, would be harder to put together than making speeches to Rotaries. But if hyperlocal wants to build a better model than LoudounExtra and get its share of what Editor & Publisher calls the “astounding” growth in online local ad revenues — currently $2 billion annually – it doesn’t have any other choice.