LoudounExtra doesn’t make hyperlocal a “flop”

In my last two posts, I had a couple of comments critiquing my praise of “hyperlocal news” coming to The Tampa Tribune and asking me what I thought about LoudounExtra.com.

The comments said Rob Curley’s Loudoun project was nothing new and insinuated that it was a failed project, which seemed based on a headline from the Wall Street Journal.

Based on the actual article, I don’t think LoudounExtra is really presented as a failed project. It seems to be fairly shown as a hyperlocal project that just wasn’t as good as it could have been because of a few key elements overlooked by Curley.

In Curley’s blog post about the article, he mentions that Russell Adams, the reporter, was concerned about the headline. As we all know, sometimes headlines don’t reflect the story as well as they could. Adams and Curley both agree on this point – Loudoun was not a “flop,” but it could have been a lot better.

Also in Curley’s post are the three missing elements that lead to LoudounExtra’s downfall: promotion, integration and communication.

I think we can all agree that if you don’t promote a Web site, link it to its mother Web site or communicate the site’s use to the community, there isn’t a good chance it’s going to develop a steady flow of visitors. LoudounExtra didn’t have an audience mostly because Curley didn’t connect the audience to the site, which he took full responsibility for.

The way I see it, there are other reasons that Loudoun wasn’t as effective as it could have been. Namely, the fact that the county is too large and diversified. As it says in the WSJ article, “Loudoun County is a 520 square-mile area with seven towns whose residents share little else besides a county government.”

This project of following a large county is really just doing the job of a regular regional newspaper. While I wouldn’t consider this a traditional hyperlocal experiment, it’s hyperlocal in comparison to The Washington Post’s average readership.

Still, look at that site! It’s a masterpiece of local journalism. I wish all local newspapers had a site like that.

For it to truly be hyperlocal, the site should be broken down even further to cities or even neighborhoods. This would require the same amount of extreme reporting effort focused on much smaller demographic areas.

I think that would be a great move for local journalism. If news organizations could evaluate the population of the community they’re serving, that could lead people to figure out what kind of news to play up. What’s the biggest group? Young families? The elderly? College students? News Web sites could easily play up issues or features that relate to the community the best.

That’s what the audience editors are for in the new structure at the Trib. They’re supposed to evaluate the demographic and what news it values. To me, that’s what hyperlocal is: Finding out who your readership is and getting them the news that relates to their lives.

Of course, the news won’t solely be tailored to the demographic. The readership needs its meat and potatoes news, too. But when it comes to placement on the Web site, audience information might make all the difference.

I was talking to some of my fellow interns over dinner last Friday, and they brought up a valid point. If the Trib is really committed to going hyperlocal, they’re going to have to rely on the bureaus a lot more. Because most of the layoffs came from those, I would hope to see more reporters distributed there from the main news center.

And to really make TBO a local information powerhouse like LoudounExtra, Internet training is a must. If it’s only to get people thinking in terms of Web site potential, even that would help. But it’s going to require a lot of footwork and database building. That data team in the reorganization is going to be the crux of the hyperlocal movement.

Also, I think TBO needs to find a few designers to come up with a site design that’s cleaner and easier to navigate. The site has all this great content and tons of great packages, and they get lost in the complexity of the design. It needs to be simple and effortless.

So while LoudounExtra might not have worked as well as it could have, that doesn’t speak for the entire hyperlocal movement. Local news is part of the job, but breaking it down into the hyperlocal will make it more personal to the audience.

It’s a move that could really improve coverage and the relationship with the audience, so long as a true commitment to it is made.

24 Responses to LoudounExtra doesn’t make hyperlocal a “flop”

  1. […] I’ve found myself pretty distressed about the hyperlocal dictum of journalism. The argument (today at Jessica DaSilva) over whether or not hyperlocal is successful has me wondering if newspapers are just grasping at […]

  2. Jay Rosen says:

    Hi Jessica. This post and especially its comment thread provide ample illustration for some of your points. Cheers.

  3. Wordnerdy says:

    “I think that would be a great move for local journalism. If news organizations could evaluate the population of the community they’re serving, that could lead people to figure out what kind of news to play up. What’s the biggest group? Young families? The elderly? College students? News Web sites could easily play up issues or features that relate to the community the best.”

    That’s been done at many papers for many years. The circulation and marketing departments already have those answers. No, I don’t know how to fix journalism, but let’s stop making it harder on ourselves by reinventing our jobs or ignoring the work of other folks in the office.

  4. @Wordnerdy – That’s great if newspapers are already doing that, but the information needs to make it’s way back into the newsroom. The information should be available to everyone, rather than just circulation and marketing.

  5. Headshaker says:

    You use the word hyperlocal 10 times in this post, yet I suspect you have no idea what it means or entails.

    Seriously: You really think that a 200,000-circulation newspaper that’s cutting jobs like a Great Clips stylist is going to manage to put a reporter or three or seven in every community in Tampa? Even if they did, what purpose does it serve? If you find out what matters to 171 readers in one area of Tampa, what the hell good does that do the other 199,829 readers in all the other areas?

    I also find it hysterically naive that you think the Trib is going to reassign reporters from the main office to the bureaus it just hacked to pieces.

    Here’s an idea: Rather than try to “play up” the stories that we think a certain segment of the audience might like, how about presenting the news and treating the readers as though they have a modicum of intelligence? How about giving them something to *read* for once, rather than pandering to the lowest common denominator with stories about lost dogs and bridge clubs?

    And, yes, LoudounExtra was a flop. There was no reason for the Washington Post to do something like that. People simply don’t look to the Washington Post for Little League scores or the events schedule down at the community center.

    If you really, truly wanted to do “hyperlocal,” whatever the hell that means, you would need to invest significant resources into the project, resources that the Trib and most other papers claim they don’t have, but in reality are simply unwilling to devote. Most any intelligent businessman will tell you that you often must spend money to make money. As the newspaper business has no interest in doing that, because it might hurt that quarter’s bottom line, the newspaper business will continue to fail, well-intentioned efforts of impressionable young go-getters like you notwithstanding.

  6. Marcia says:

    Hmmm … Can someone please explain to me how this is different than the 80s, when the Trib published seven large Hillsborough County sections daily … That was pre-Internet, but it will work now because it’s available online and packaged more attractively? There were a few good writers in the bureaus then, but mostly beginners and wannabes because of the low pay. The copyeditors on the county desk worked their butts off to make their stuff readable.
    My guess is this will be another gleeful invitation to take part in community journalism, Folks, we’ll let you have your own blog or neighborhood column but we won’t pay for it. It won’t be edited because that would cost money. Having a road race or a flea market?Send us your photos and video, too.

    If it didn’t work when the Tribune was willing to spend some money on the content, how will it work now?

  7. sam says:

    Gannett papers have been trotting out hyperlocal junk for years in its larger daily papers. Did you see those revenue and profit figures today? It’s not pretty.

    Where is your evidence, Jessica? Seems you only have gut feelings here, rather than any feelings based on reality.

    I think Gatehouse is a prime example of an entire chain of newspapers that are devoted to hyperlocal news. What’s happening there? It’s almost a penny stock.

    Give us some examples to back up why you think the way you do. Where are the successful “hyperlocal” examples?

  8. @Sam – Thanks for the comment. You bring up a very valid point. If you check the bottom of this comment thread, you’ll see a link to Aaron Spencer’s blog where he has listed three very good examples of hyperlocal success stories.

    Here’s the link if it’s not working:

    http://www.aaronspencer.com/hyperlocal-successes/

    One more thing: Just because some news organizations have done hyperlocal wrong, doesn’t mean that others can’t do it right. Audiences have more options when it comes to getting their national and international news – local is really where smaller news organizations can dominate.

  9. sam says:

    Yeah. So let me get this right. The model for newspapers should be to emulate the Dallas Morning News, which saw a 10.6% decrease in circulation for the six months that ended March 31. Of course they have this pretty web thing. But the paper’s tanking. I think we’ll pass on that.

    And you hold up the Point Reyes Light, with a circulation of about 4,000, as a shining example of how hyperlocal Web reporting should be done. Did you actually look at the Point Reyes Light online? I challenge you to go there. There is no interaction whatsoever. There are no blogs, videos and comments from the public on stories. How exactly does this jibe with what you’ve been saying?

    Would you really call the Point Reyes Light a “local information powerhouse?”

    When you talk about “hyperlocal success stories,” what measure are you using to determine success?

  10. Wordnerdy says:

    Your not being privy to the information from the Circ department doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or that, say, the executive editor you so admire doesn’t see those figures every day.

    For example, at my paper, the demographic research previously compiled by the non-news departments tells us to focus on stories of interest to members of the military, baby boomers, folks with high levels of education, etc. We choose our wire stories accordingly. Our locally produced stories (at least ideally) reflect our readers. How did we get that directive? From the top editors, who get demographic information from other departments.

    Try asking around. You’ll make more acquaintances by acknowledging your limits than assuming you have all the answers.

  11. Sam,

    Perhaps the best “hyperlocal” success stories haven’t yet been written. But if you think the concept will always fail, what do you propose instead?

  12. Dan says:

    I used to think hyperlocal was the way to go too…But the fact is, it doesn’t take much reporting skill to cover the local bake sale. That’s something the average citizen journalist/blogger can be trusted to do…so if you’re the average reader, wanting to know about that Elks Lodge meeting…you’re OK if Grandma Jones is the one who writes the synopsis of that event.

    Maybe it’s because I live too close to a hoity-toity urban area, but when I hear readers deride my local major metro paper, it’s because they think all that hyperlocal stuff is a bunch of boring shit, and they’d rather read the NYT instead. I think papers should devote themselves to higher level reporting of their region…when they devolve to, let’s get as many pictures of people at the local soccer game, as Gannett papers have, that’s when they really start to lose their value as a brand.

    But investing in hyperlocal sites, I think that is a decent strategy. Just keep the paid journalists out of it.

  13. @Dan – Hyperlocal news could work for both mediums, it just has to be presented in ways more suited to the medium.

    In print, the hyperlocal movement should be more focused on in-depth reporting and analysis about issues relating to the community. Let online be the place for breaking news, interactivity, user-generated content and information databases.

    I agree with you – this is all a part of knowing what medium to use for what news.

  14. Jessica:

    I was pretty hard on you the last go around, both on my own site and in the comments here. Seeing that you’re such a huge Springsteen fan (my five-year-old can sing Thunder Road start to finish), I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt this time. But I still you’re still making some of the same unsubstantiated claims, bold declarations and leaps of faith that got you in trouble in the first place.

    First off, stay clear of all these “I think we can all agree” and “as we all know” sentence starters. As a journalist, they’ll bite you every time. And even though you’re blogging, with those loosier and goosier constraints, it would probably be wise to get yourself into the right zone. Last time, I poked fun at you for saying things such as, “Like every little girl in this country, I grew up absolutely obsessed with American Girl,” because it makes you seem like, well, someone born after 1984. (Thankfully, lots of girls grew up in this country never having even heard of American Girl dolls. They went to Harvard.) (I’m joking, I’m joking.)

    Secondly, you should entertain more the notion of not buying everything presented to you hook, line and sinker. A good journalist needs some healthy skepticism. In these hundreds of comments, older and more seasoned journalists keep reminding you that “hyperlocal” has been a magic pill just about everywhere for the last two decades, but you still seem to be resisting their wisdom. You should, of course, have your own opinions but it would be good for you to listen to some folks who aren’t in management, if even just to humor them.

    Personally, I agree with Dan, above, who sums things up nicely by saying, “The fact is, it doesn’t take much reporting skill to cover the local bake sale.” Precisely. In theory, it sounds great to keep zooming in on a community, like you’re clicking a Google map button, but the reality is that you end up with the stuff normally reserved for Pennysavers. If I lived in a small market, sure, I’d like to know what was going with the hardware store zoning fight. But I’d also love to know what was going on with that Medveded guy in Russia. There’s an insidious and underlying element at play with all this hyperlocal stuff and it’s that smaller communities don’t want any “challenging” stories in their papers. That’s a slippery slope to Dumbville.

    I go down to Savannah frequently and always get a chuckle out of the Morning News Vox Populi column. It basically rehashes phone messages left for the paper and it goes something like this: “Why are there still potholes near Dean Forest Road?…The person who left a squirrel in my mailbox should be ashamed of himself…Vanilla is my favorite ice cream flavor…George Bush is doing a fine job for our troops…A big thanks to the person who returned our lawn flamingo on Monday night.”

    That’s hyperlocal for you, even with my exaggerations. You may be right but you also might be buying a bridge here, Jessica. Leave some room for error.

    You argue, “If news organizations could evaluate the population of the community they’re serving, that could lead people to figure out what kind of news to play up. What’s the biggest group? Young families? The elderly? College students? News Web sites could easily play up issues or features that relate to the community the best.”

    But it’s not so easy, is it? Let’s say you live in a small town like Binghamton, New York, where I started as a photographer in 1985. There are a lot of college kids there. So according to you plan, you would tailor the news to them, right? But what if those downstate students aren’t well-regarded (I’m being nice) by the local townspeople who outnumber them? You’ve just lost half your readership. And what if you tailor your hyperlocal coverage to all the older folks who remember Binghamton as a boom town in the 1940’s? Well, you’re not going to get many readers over at Binghamton University who care. Maybe this is a crude and quick example, but I’m just trying to illustrate that zooming in too much isn’t always that wise.

    In the end, I’m a bit wary of hyperlocal because it seems to be an offshoot of this we-live-in-an-internet-world-in-which-everyone-gets-to-be-part-of-the-process fantasy. More coverage of knitting clubs! More stories about dog owners! More ankle biter football scores!

    I don’t need to remind you–you, of all people–that comment sections on newspapers often are bitterly mean-spirited and don’t necessarily bring out the best and the brightest. Here in Washington, a recent Post story about two men who had their heads crushed by an overpass while on an open-air shuttle bus to a Nats’ game, was accompanied by some of the most vile and disgusting jokes you could imagine.

    I’m not saying that hyperlocal coverage will dissolve into this, but I do long for the days when newspaper editors, old and grouchy but always damn smart, got to decide what should be in the newspaper.

    So I’ll buck this trend and say more Medveded, less hyperlocal. After all, if were all going down with the U.S.S. Newspaper, let’s at least do it with dignity.

  15. Excuse the typo. That would be Medvedev.

  16. Jim Carty says:

    Jessica,

    You wave hyperlocal around like some of magic talisman to ward off the layoff man, but the fact is it’s nothing new. There are good solid weeklies doing hyperlocal work all around the country. A lot of them even make money.

    But it’s not fancy, high-profile work, and it won’t attract most of the people working for papers like the Tampa Trib – or probably your own lovely and talented self. I’d love to see just how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed you’d be after six months of being a true hyperlocal journalist and covering a steady diet of community board meetings, morning cop shop reports, and who won what a the 4H fair.

    That aside, how is your newspaper going to “be more focused on in-depth reporting and analysis about issues relating to the community” when management is going through the content producing staff with a chainsaw?

    Simple answer? It’s not going to be. There’s going to less content, and certainly less in-depth reporting and analysis as you lose the people most qualified to do that work.

  17. Guy says:

    Newspaper editors were “always damn smart”? How damn old are you, Matt? Because since 1987, at least, smart editors are few and far between.

  18. Guy says:

    To clarify: There are a great many smart people who happen to be editors, but that doesn’t mean they make smart decisions as editors.

  19. B says:

    “As we all know, sometimes headlines don’t reflect the story as well as they could.”

    Ever tried writing a headline, Jessica? I know you’ve never been a copy editor, judging from your previous entries, so my guess is no. I realize this sentence isn’t the main point of your post, but I wouldn’t piss off the contingent that has your copy in its hands.

  20. Actually, as a transplanted Washingtonian, I’m going to disagree with the apparent Floridian who says that people don’t look to the Post for local news.

    Contrary to how it might appear to the rest of the world, Washingtonians (including everyone of the suburbs in Maryland and Virginia) does view the Post as their local paper. I remember growing up reading the Virginia metro section to see what restaurants in my Northern Virginia town were closed down for what health code violations.

    But the Post isn’t as strong in the suburbs as it ought to be, for all that it’s ubiquitous out there. I’ve worked at two different papers that make up part of the necklace of local papers surrounding DC. But even when we at the Potomac News did a better job covering local events than the Post did, there were still many times I had to introduce myself to sources in Manassas and Woodbridge by explaining what paper I was from.

    The Post creating the digital equivalent of local papers in Loudon and soon Fairfax Counties makes perfect sense for the Post’s core audience in the region.

    And like Jessica (and the article’s author), I don’t view LoudounExtra as a flop so much as I do a misfire, one that lots of newspapers — including exclusively local ones — have been guilty of over the years.

    I look forward to the launching of the Fairfax County site and, frankly, I’m more than a little tempted to try for a job there. It may have a bumpy start, but it looks like a great long-term idea to me.

  21. ZIp says:

    If you want a hyperlocal success story check out LocalsGuide.com.

    It’s a profitable model and it’s been successfully running for over 2 years. They are now in stages of begining to release and share of their models which will also include spreading the brand to other towns and cities across the country.

  22. lobsterman says:

    Jessica, it does the hard-bitten soul of an ancient, ink-stained wretch a power of good to see someone so young who cares so much about a craft (note: not a profession) that is apt to break your heart, leave your wallet empty and, if my marital travails are any indication, assure an empty space on the other side of the bed. Spouses — mine, at any rate — just don’t quite get why we take this silly business so seriously.

    All of the above is by way of a preamble to the main point: that chattering about hyperlocal content (or whatever the latest fashionable panacea might be) doesn’t address the key problem facing newspapers and their web operations.

    Simply put, it is this: We live in a post-literate age.

    We can blame ourselves, in part, for that, as our editorial pages and the ambient liberal sympathies in your typical newsroom mesh very nicely with the career priorities of the teaching racket. Whenever teachers come up with a new theory, they generally find a sympathetic ear in U.S. newsrooms. When teachers preach that spelling and punctuation count for little, when they make it possible to graduate from high school without ever having understood a book, and when they lather layers of cant –Lady Macbeth as a feminist prototype, I kid you not — on top of subjects that should be blindlingly and obviously straightforward, we lose additional members of our next generation of readers.

    This has been going on for so long now that, well, just look at the latest circ and revenue figures. By flying the liberal flag in our newsrooms we have effectively killed our audience.

    I could go on at length about the other factors working against newspapers — stupid managers, lickspittle editors beholding to bean counters, dull writing, more dull writing, journalists who write not for the reader but to impress their colleagues in adjoining cubicles — but that might irritate the precious flowers who have posted earlier.

    One thing, though, I would ask everyone on this board to consider: The New York Post (where i once worked).

    Ten years back, its circulation stood at 450,000 on a good day. Today it’s at 700,000 (roughly).

    Why do you think the Post gained so much circulation when others were shedding it?

    Opinionated journalism. Wit. A willingness to innovate. And, above all, a proprietor who picked sharp editors and gave them just enough financial backing to burnish the paper’s personality and go for the brass ring.

    Incidentally, the Post’s website makes money — lots of it — has a minimal staff and runs on the smell of an oily rag.

    You may not like the Post or Murdoch — and the Obama lovers on this board are no doubt fuming at this point — but it is going to survive. The crusty wankers who have been wringing their hands about the decline of the sort of journalism they like — three-page, multi-jump features on the insides of ping pong balls — should be so lucky to work for papers with such prospects.

  23. Matt Neistein says:

    The problem with the concept of “hyperlocal” is that national and international corporations are the ones trying to execute it. The very idea of local control is foreign to Gannett, Media General, Tribune, etc. They all have identical Web site templates, uniform newsroom organizational charts, universal benchmarks to meet and so forth. From my personal experience, I can tell you the newspaper in Appleton, Wis., which is about 85% Caucasian, is expected to contain the same percentage of news coverage of ethnic and racial minorities as the Detroit Free Press. How does that help the “hyperlocal” mission there?

    The whole point of being a corporation is to find economies of scale and streamlined processes that can be followed by all its various properties, regardless of their individual circumstances. That philosophy is diametrically opposed to the hyperlocal mission, which is to tailor your newsgathering and dissemination resources very specifically to neighborhoods and communities. You can’t handle news in City X the way you handle news in City Y. But because a relatively small group of people in one city handle the broad-stroke maneuvers of news operations in dozens of cities, the local control necessary to do hyperlocal right will never be given.

    And that’s not even considering the financial aspect of the dilemma.

    The only people who can do hyperlocal correctly now are entrepreneurial startups, primarily on the Web. And unfortunately, they don’t carry the same authority and levels of responsibility – or the institutional knowledge – as traditional newspapers. Thus, successful “hyperlocal” approaches have a long way to go to be considered in the same league with that old devil, the mainstream print media.

  24. Headshaker says:

    This, Jessica. This is what newspapers are supposed to do. This. I’ll trade one of these for 1,000 hyperlocal stories every single time.

    But, see, this story takes time. And effort. And it takes management that allows the reporters involved to be involved for weeks and months, management that isn’t trying to get the story in as soon as possible, or at least before the end of the eligible period for whatever award.

    I realize there aren’t that many of these stories out there (and thank God for that), but they’re out there, and it’s our job to find them and tell them. And trading that for a bunch of stories about quilting clubs and sewing circles and Little League baseball tournaments is cheating our readers. (And that is the trade being made. There’s no “well, do both!” No one’s doing that.)

    http://www.tampabay.com/specials/2008/reports/danielle/

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