It feels like my girlfriend broke up with me and took my dog with her. Yes, I’m talking about The Wall Street Journal’s assessment of the failure of LoudounExtra.com. Maybe failure is a little harsh, but according to Rob Curley, his sites in Lawrence, Kan. got better traffic than LoudounExtra.com.
For those keeping score, Lawrence has about 80,000 residents, while Loudoun County has about 270,000 residents. And it’s not that LoudounExtra.com is a complete failure, it’s just that it’s not what it could have been or what was expected of it when it launched (it probably has lost a bit of money too).
And of course Curley and his team have left for Las Vegas, which doesn’t give me a lot of faith that LoudounExtra will be getting much better anytime soon. All the Web talent and vision are gone now — so, who is going to innovate on their forthcoming hyperlocal ventures?
To be fair, LoudounExtra is a site with a lot of information, databases and stories. It does cover Loudoun County better than the Post could have ever dreamed of before. But the site doesn’t have a lot of the user-generated content features that were envisioned when the project was announced, and it never really engaged the community.
Simply put: the return on investment wasn’t very good, and there was a hell of an investment in this site. There appears to be a fundamental divide between the Post itself and Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, and that may have been a large part of why this site is failing (and why the Post may not be able to do hyperlocal properly):
Though LoudounExtra.com seemed to promise an ideal combination of innovation and marketing muscle, it has failed to benefit from the reach of Washingtonpost.com. Mr. Curley says whenever a big story breaks involving Loudoun County, the Post typically publishes it on Washingtonpost.com without a link to LoudounExtra. That deprives LoudounExtra of potential traffic. Nor does the Washingtonpost’s own dedicated Loudoun County page send visitors directly to its online sibling. In September, when Time Warner Inc.’s AOL unit announced it was moving its headquarters from Dulles, Va., to New York, the Post linked to the story on LoudounExtra.com for a couple hours before moving the story back to its own site. That window of promotion fueled the Loudoun site’s best traffic day to date, Mr. Curley says.
The Post couldn’t even link to LoudounExtra.com? That’s absurd. The Post site doesn’t interact well with LoudounExtra.com either (there is a separate Loudoun County page at washingtonpost.com that is a hold over from before LoudounExtra.com, which steals traffic from the hyperlocal project).
The mere act of linking to LoudounExtra.com with every story about Loudoun that was posted at washingtonpost.com would have brought in huge amounts of traffic to the fledgling hyperlocal project. It’s called free marketing. It’s also called synergy.
This may be a symptom of a larger problem at the Post — namely the divide between WPNI and the Post. WPNI is in Virginia, while the Post is in D.C. Obviously, that makes combing cultures into a unified newsroom (ala The New York Times) very difficult.
The future of news is a unified operation with the Web (and mobile) taking a lead roll. Currently, the majority of staff resources are still at the print destination in D.C. The Washington City paper had a scathing article about the huge rift between the two operations:
The geographic separation takes its toll on the Post in two ways. It causes frequent communication breakdowns whose remedies invariably involve costly investments in training and outreach, and it creates overlapping functions in which both the print and online operations assign reporters to the same beats. The result is waste, a luxury that no newspaper, including the Post, can afford in this era of slumping print circulation and advertising.
Other newspapers have begun to realize that the idea of separate newsrooms makes little sense. It’s a 1990s-era anachronism when people thought that the Web product would be a rehash of the print product with some Web exclusives filled in. Now people realize that news operations have to be platform agnostic — from the publisher on down to every reporter:
Other papers, meanwhile, have abandoned the Post’s separate-but-unequal model. A year ago, the Los Angeles Times integrated its news and Web functions after an internal report called the paper “Web-stupid.” The New York Times began combining its Web-paper operations in August 2005 and accelerated the process when it moved to a new building last spring. “It’s very much a two-way street,” says Jonathan Landman, the Times’ deputy managing editor and top editorial voice on the Web site.
It doesn’t sound like the Post will be rethinking its separate staffs model, but it will have to rethink how it does hyperlocal if it wants to be successful in that arena. It is going to need to dedicate more reporters to the areas it wants to cover, require its reporters to live in the local areas they are covering at a hyperlocal level, build up a grass roots following, allow for much greater user interaction (allow your local assets to improve your project and become invested in it) and, finally, the Post may have to reconsider its county model altogether.
The D.C. region is largely comprised of transplants like me who have little history in the area. I still consider Ohio my home and probably will be out of D.C. in under five years. D.C. is a very poor area to try to establish a local project, ala small-town Kansas.
But I do think hyperlocal projects can succeed. How about a project dedicated to politics and the political elite/junkies in D.C.? How about a site dedicated to the Redskins? Those are areas the Post could really clean up in.
I do not have high hopes for FairfaxExtra (the second hyperlocal site from the Post has coming this summer), unless the model is drastically changed. We’ll know soon enough if the Post is mixing things up with hyperlocal.
Curley, on the other hand, will probably find Vegas a much better place for his innovative brand of journalism. Honestly, it was probably a good move for his sanity, happiness and career. He told me he is going to work harder than ever in Vegas to make successful products, and I think he will. It sounds like he has gotten a lot of inspiration from what transpired at the Post.
In a year or two the dust will finally settle on the Post’s hyperlocal efforts, and maybe they will be successful with some tweaks and hard work. Or maybe WSJ will write an even more negative piece about the Post’s efforts.