It's a lo-o-o-ong way from Lawrence, Kan., to Loudoun County, Va.

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 Let’s look.

On the LoudounExtra homepage, I am greeted with this above-the-fold spread:

Screen shot of LoudounExtra

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 – the gateway to – 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.

About Tom Grubisich

I write about hyperlocal grassroots sites regularly for Online Journalism Review. What I've seen checking out proliferating sites has not been encouraging. The content is generally dull "happy news" or aggregated wire stories and doesn't seem to tap into what's special about the communities being covered.

I am senior web editor at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where I help develop blogs and other content aimed at broadening the Bank's audiences around the world.

Earlier in my career, I was managing editor of news for Digital City/AOL and before that co-founder of the free-circulation weekly Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Earlier yet, I was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For more information, consult, Who's Who in America (2008 edition). I'm reachable at [email protected]


  1. margaret barstow says:

    It is a long way from Lawrence to Loudoun but it is even longa from Topeka to Cairns Qld autralia. a pioneer of radio and lecturer at KU , my husbands father was a navy officer ,who died 1943 but his brother from Washburn went to Bell Labs 1939 ( the team that invented the transistor ) to chief radio engineer of comsat1963.
    Apparently they were part OSAGE INDIAN and the indian legend was of a world wide web.
    So kansas has more imput to the world than Dorothy, and who knows yet what the wizard may conjure up. Keep up the communication
    sue barstow

  2. says:

    Please take a look at
    This newspaper website has been publishing LOCAL Loudoun news for more than 10 years.
    In fact – the past 2 years it has been in the top 3 websites for general excellence in local news websites as awarded by the SNA.
    Their news is up to date, fresh and the editor knows the county.

  3. I think what we are doing with Wicked Local deserves some investigation. We have a network of 158 local websites – an entire website devoted to a community, no matter how small,not just a homepage. Some of our communities are cities of 86,000 people, some have as few as 5,000 residents. We have impassioned interaction with our viewers – check out the comments on our stories. And we just launched our People section, where folks can post photos, events and talk to one another. is our aggregate site where you can access all the rest of our sites. Wicked is a blog where we highlight interesting, important or quirky stories from our sites, directing the readers back to the local site.

    I’d be interested to hear what people think in the light of this discussion.

  4. Steve Crozier says:

    I chuckle every time I read about one of these high-profile failures and the attendant analysis. No, we’re not big enough to be on the radar yet, but we have learned some things that even the big boys haven’t.

    We publish truly hyperlocal news and information (e.g. (Our smallest publication covers just 700 homes). It’s almost all “little j”–how could it be anything else. Pegasus happens to be in our back yard, and they’ve taken exactly the opposite approach: they cover a *very* large area pretty thinly, and they’ve done some things (political coverage and entertainment come to mind) really well.

    In contrast, we use a “real” editor, but our writing and photography staff is made up of lots of local part-timers, retirees, stay-at-home moms, etc. Is it working? In an editorial area that covers 4400 homes, we have over 4500 unique readers monthly.

    Grubisich has it right again. You have to really be committed to local. Not 6-month-old articles. And the business link is crucial too. We’re about launch a bounce-back program that engages local businesses in the community action as well.

    Hyperlocal is dead. Long live hyperlocal.

  5. Tom…your piece talks about how to construct a site to get people involved. But the one thing you don’t talk about–and what Curley admitted to–was a lack of people-involvement in the site. Getting people to participate isn’t a matter of “if you build it, they will come,” but rather you build it, you get out there and talk to people, and then they come in and participate. If there’s no face to face presence within a community, there won’t be much of a online community.

  6. says:

    Good analysis. I think the truth is that hyperlocal is not a flashy enterprise. You have to be there and care about the small stuff. Your opportunity to turn the world upsidedown and win Pulitzers is limited. To big city eyes, you often look like an organ of the chamber of commerce, because business news is personal, not theoretical. You have responsibility for soccer scores and obituaries and bakeoffs and changing seasons. You ought to live there. Every once in a while, you find yourself taking the lead in a divisive issue, making enemies, publishing what most of your readers don’t want to hear, and committing journalism. I think I just described a decent weekly newspaper in the old days.

    Online publishing such a product is 10,000 times easier, and with interactive comment online ought to be indispensible to the local community. Being the editor isnt any easier. Finding such an editor is like recruiting the brighest lights of Harvard med school to return to their home town and practice family medicine. My hat’s off the the Post for trying, and I doubt they’ll give up.

  7. Steve Crozier says:

    To Tom’s point about paying contributors, we pay most of our contributors. The only ones we don’t pay are those occasional contributors who are sending a story about their daughter’s softball game. Typically, seeing their child’s photo on the site is all the payment they need or want.

  8. Tom Grubisich says:

    Tish, you’re right — people won’t come just because you build the site. In talking about how to get beyond this gap, I should have been clearer that editors/impresarios have to do some content seeding. Creating a format (with strong promotional values) that encourages people to post an article or comment saying what they love and hate about their community is absolutely necessary. Paying the most prolific contributors may be just as necessary.

  9. Tim Richardson says:


    I must respectfully disagree with your criticism of our lead story on this day.

    I have worked with Rob for eight years and was part of the team that developed I also decided this story would lead our site on this particular day. This decision was about as easy as they come.

    In my opinion, when an important local story in your community makes it all the way to the highest court in the commonwealth, that’s a big story. You quoted the second paragraph of the story, which mentions that a decision isn’t expected until mid-September. But here’s the lead

  10. Tom Grubisich says:

    Tim, the lede graf of the story we’re talking about says the face-off at the Virginia Supreme Court was “the climax in a two-year legal battle over the county’s plans to build a high school just north of the town.” But actually the climax will come in three months, when the court makes its decision. The face-off produced no news. It could have been handled with a one-graf box on the homepage that included links to your earlier stories about the high school battle — when there was some real news happening.

  11. Hi, Tom!

    It’s been a long time since our days together at AOL Digital City! Now THAT was an adventure of the Lewis Carroll variety.

    I completely agree with your analysis of Loudoun Extra. As Curley himself admits, too much glitz, too little ground-level contact and content.

    When they launched I was dismayed that they didn’t seem to want to include local bloggers, vloggers and podcasters. I just did a one-day unscientific look at the numbers of local video blogs posted in newspapers’ cities every day and it’s huge (see my blog).

    It’s beyond me why local editors don’t take advantage of great local content that also has the effect of pulling those local content creators and their friends into the website and the paper (if the editors excerpt content into the print products).

    At BostonNOW, I got 500 local bloggers to post on our site by including their posts on the theme-appropriate pages of our website AND on the theme-appropriate pages of the newspaper. We had Web denizens who never had a newspaper habit picking up the paper because we were publishing information by and about folks like them.

    Anyway, it was good to “see” you again via your post. And it was good to “hear” your trademark critical thinking once again!


  12. says:

    Here’s some more commentary, from ground-zero in Loudoun County, specifically the “Dulles South” area (another region identified by the residents of Loudoun, but not by LoudounExtra)…