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.

Taking a closer look at gender gaps in education

Richard Whitmire is an editorial writer for USA Today.

As the President of the National Education Writers Association, I have the annual privilege of handing over top awards won by education reporters from around the country. Now I’m thinking that privilege bears some responsibility, such as fessing up about times when education coverage dips below award-winning levels.

That happened Tuesday morning when I opened The New York Times and saw an article that did little more than regurgitate the American Association of University Women report making the dubious case that the “boy troubles,” as in boys falling behind in school and graduating from college at lower rates than girls, are a myth. Odd, I thought, a rare fumble by the Times.

Then I picked up The Washington Post, and there on page one was an article that did the same. At least this article had a dissenting view, but that’s not the point. Somehow, the AAUW had managed to pass off its advocacy report as research, not just to the Times and Post but the Wall Street Journal and other publications as well. (E-mail queries to the Times and Post reporters sent Thursday were unanswered as of this posting on Friday.)

When the surprise wore off, I had to smile: kudos to the public relations geniuses at the AAUW. Consider the odds behind their achievement. To succeed, the AAUW had to convince reporters that:

  • Gender gaps lie only between white and black, poor and non-poor and not within those groups. AAUW researchers had to know that with a simple check reporters would find huge gender differences, for example, among African Americans. How hard is it discover that black women graduate from college at twice the rate of black men? The gaps even extend to upper-class whites. Check out the research done by the Wilmette schools [2.6 MB PDF file] outside Chicago, one of the wealthiest and highest performing districts in the country.
  • Tests show that boys and girls score roughly the same. That conclusion is possible only by cherry-picking national survey data, which risks the possibility reporters might check state testing data where all students are tested. Those tests often show stark gender gaps, in many cases with girls swamping boys in verbal skills and at times edging them in math.
  • There are virtually no gender differences in the rate high school graduates enroll in college. Wow, so the boy troubles must truly be a myth! In that case, those pesky campus gender gaps must arise from benign causes such as older women more likely to return to college than older men. Truly a heart-warming story. Who doesn’t know of someone’s mom returning to college for a survey course in world culture? Problem is, a simple check of National Center for Education Statistics data reveals a 400,000-student gender gap among 18-19 year-old students. So much for the little-old-lady theory. (Even the professional education publications fell for that one.)
  • The AAUW provides unbiased research in the area of how boys perform in school. (Wait, does their mission statement even say anything about boys? Why are they dabbling in this?) Here, the group had to count on reporters being unable to recall the shaky “call out” research from its 1992 report, where girls were supposedly being shortchanged in school in part because teachers paid more attention to aggressive boys calling out in the classroom. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that entire report was riddled with problems. Here’s an interesting analysis of the AAUW’s track record as neutral researchers. (Full disclosure: At the time, I gave that report a full ride absent a single critical perspective. Hey, I thought I was doing my young daughters a favor).

    So, the AAUW pulled it off again. Reporters had forgotten about that 1992 report. No data were offered to dispute the notion that the boy troubles are really a race issue. No challenge to the college-going data. Everything, a clean sweep. I hadn’t planned on writing about the report, but when my editors saw the blowout coverage the report received they asked me to blog a debate editorial on the issue.

    At this point I have to declare my own bias. I’ve been writing about the boy troubles for years and I’m convinced they’re real, not only in the United States but in scores of countries around the world. You can view this as either making me prejudiced or informed enough to acknowledge a reporting fumble. Your call. From my perspective, this matters because the ideological chaff thrown up by groups such as the AAUW stands in the way of educators taking a serious at what’s happening to boys. Economists say the changing economy means men and women today (unlike in the past) get exactly the same benefits from a college degree and therefore should be graduating at the same rate. Only they aren’t. By 2015 women will earn, on average, 60% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded. Something’s not right here; that’s a lot of men not even getting to the economic starting line with that all-important diploma.

    My final take the AAUW’s coup: short-term victory, long term repercussions.

  • Building reader loyalty, one bracket at a time

    For those of you not spending the day at work watching NCAA basketball tournament games (or for those bored by an inevitable first-round blow-out), let’s take a look at a few innovative online projects that newspapers have created to build traffic off public interest in the annual college playoffs.

    Many newspaper websites offer contests in the week leading up to the tournament, inviting readers to fill out the 65-team tournament bracket with their picks for winners in each of the games. It’s the (legal) online version of the ever-opular office betting pools, with the not-so-legally-insignificant difference that the prizes are coming from sponsors and not money put up by the participants.

    That’s fine. It drives some traffic, and people like making picks without having to put any of their own skin in the game. But everyone’s doing that. What else is out there?

    I found a few interesting examples.

    First, the Los Angeles Times offered an option on its Flash tournament brackets that I’d not seen before:

    LA Times graphic

    It’s a geographic map that shows where each of the 65 teams are traveling from and to for the first-round matchups. The NCAA sends teams flying all over the country in an effort to balance the competitive level in each of its tournament regions. I found it fascinating to see, in one glance, just how far some teams have to go. Plus, this graphic provides a handy way to answer the inevitable first-round question: “I’ve never heard of that school; where is it from again?”

    Click on the “Bracket” option at the top of the graphic, and you return to the traditional bracket chart, which readers can fill out by clicking team names.

    The Washington Post and USA Today produced their own NCAA tournament webpages, but what caught my eye is how they also spun the idea of filling out a tournament bracket and applied that to different forms of entertainment.

    The Post got a head start by starting earlier this month a single-elimination tournament pitting characters from the TV show “Lost” against one another. Readers voted for the characters they thought would survive in each head-to-head match-up.

    Washington Post graphic

    USA Today seeded 64 entertainment celebrities and celebrity couples and created a reader-vote tournament to find the “winner”:

    USA Today graphic

    The WaPo and USAT tournaments exemplify the power of reader interactivity. Sure, they are fluff. But they, like the interactive NCAA tournament brackets, are fluff that get people reading, clicking and spending time on their newspapers’ websites.

    Industry veteran Vin Crosbie last week pointed out on Poynter’s online-news e-mail list that U.S. newspapers have a huge problem in eliciting repeat visits from their online readers:

    “If you download the NAA’s spreadsheet of the N//N data and calculate medians, you’ll see that the median user of those top 100 U.S. newspaper sites visited only 2.58 times per month and saw only 15.03 Web pages on a newspaper site per month. That’s not much: a visit only once every 11.6 days and 15 Web pages all month.”

    My wife is fond of citing her Suzuki violin training that “it takes 21 days to form a habit.” (“And 12 steps to break it,” I shot back the first time she told me this.) Whether habits form in 21 days or not, website publishers help their readership numbers by creating features that inspire readers to come back to a site, and reward them for doing so, day after day.

    A reader-vote tournament, such as the Post’s and USA Today’s, does this. Unlike traditional online polls, these build upon each other, sending the winners in one day’s poll on to the next’s, inspiring readers to return. Unlike the NCAA tournament, which you can follow on TVs, websites, cell phones and newspapers, these tournaments are available only on their creators’ websites. So you gotta come back there to vote, and to see who won in each round.

    Take it a step further: Include each day’s match-ups and results in one of your daily update e-mails, and invite those readers following the tournament to subscribe to it. I’ll bet you many of them continue to get and read that daily e-mail, finding other news and features on your site, even after the tournament’s done.

    If you want people reading the great reporting on your news website, first, you’ve got to get them in the habit of coming to the site. Don’t overlook the value of interactive reader-driven online events, such as these, in helping you to do that.