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Tags: Web 2.0
Started with great fanfare, the Washington Post announced a couple of weeks ago that it was abandoning its experiment in so-called hyperlocal news. This must have been a bitter decision for a company that tries to make its profits by doing good. Hyperlocal is a term popularized by the early newspaper online work by a guy named Rob Curley. He’d made a reputation with small newspapers, like the Naples [Fla.] Daily News, saving their backsides by creating Web sites with exhaustive detail about their local communities. He’s the type of guy who enthralled publications like Fast Company. At a meeting with him I attended when I was at the Washington Post Company, he said his staff brought coverage to the local little league as it was the New York Yankees.
Anyhow, the Post, which presciently understood the implications of the Web for its own, then still-profitable business, was constantly tweaking its online strategy. Around 2006 the company convinced Curley to join and help it get into the hyperlocal business. The strategy was initially – and terminally – applied to coverage of Loudoun County, Va. (Curley ultimately did not stay long at the Washington Post Company, but he’s still hyperlocalizing newspapers. See this presentation.)
I remember the murmurs from the Post newspaper staff members who attended the meeting, as well people from my old staffs at Government Computer News and Washington Technology, when Curley mentioned that he’d convinced owners of the tiny newspapers to hire 35 staff members to create Web content for properties with circulations of less than 30,000. In the days before there even was a World Wide Web, I worked at a 30,000 circulation suburban daily that covered four towns new Boston. The entire newsroom had about 25 staff members. This was in the days when newspapers practically printed money.
Not that hyperlocal is a bad idea. In fact, it is centuries old. I worked for a tiny weekly newspaper in New Hampshire. It, like so many rural weeklies, had correspondents, some working for free or for nominal sums. They’d send in reports of whose aunt was visiting from Kansas, or where Chester and Martha would be spending Christmas, or whose son was promoted to second lieutenant in a faraway posting. I could miss a big story on some state capital and nobody cared. But, man, would that phone ring fast if I forgot to put the Jaffrey Women’s Bowling League box scores, all two inches of it, on the sports page!
To this day, when I am in a remote area, I love finding old fashioned newspapers that still print this type of material. Funny, bloggers think they invented citizen journalism, when in fact all journalism was citizen at one time. Somewhere along the time reporters came to prefer the more high falutin’-sounding “journalist.”
So clearly the economics for hyperlocal just don’t work for major newspapers if it requires doubling the editorial staff and adding dedicated sales people for ads that fetch a tenth the revenue of increasingly scarce print ads.
And there’s another reason for the diceyness of hyperlocal in an area as big and diverse as Greater Washington: In the age of social media, people with an intense interest in something, whether the local little league or news of their extended families, have the means to be connected and share information on their own. These means just don’t include the local or regional newspapers . How can the Washington Post, or any mass medium, hope to compete with a Facebook group?