The Solomon Scandals
The D.C. newspaper novel, the media,the Washington area, tech and other surrealism: David Rothman at large
Washington Post vs. Patch.com and Examiner.com

imageThe Patch neighborhood news network—the screenshot’s from a New Jersey site—is coming soon to some Virginia and Maryland suburbs. Yet another sign that the Washington Post needs to get more serious about hyperlocal? And how about the growth of another hyperlocal network, Examiner.com? Or the latest book on the Post, which, although a “valentine” on the whole, also portrays some disturbing vulnerabilities?

Among the first Virginia suburbs to be Patched in are Annandale, Burke, Reston and Woodbridge. In Maryland the initial targets are College Park, Hyattsville and Riverdale ParkUniversity Park.

image Should the Post be worried, especially with AOL as a Patch investor? Page views per Patch visitor have shot up in recent months, according to Alexa.com statistics, and the company is aiming for kudzu-fast growth. But the sites tend to be bland, and the network’s traffic is still a speck of that for Washingtonpost.com, even with all of Patch included from eight states. In the place of the Post, I’d worry more about the TBD.com local news startup and the Examiner.com network. 

TBD and its blogging network can leverage its connections with its corporate parent, Allbritton Communications, the owners of NewsChannel 8, while Examiner.com is controlled by Philip Anschutz, the same billionaire behind the dead-tree Washington Examiner. He has yet to tap all the possible synergies. Although most of the writing on Examiner.com doesn’t awe me, the network is drawing some nice numbers and uses a formula similar to the one planned for TBD—a mix of geography and an appeal to readers’ passion for sports or hobbies. The chart is apples and oranges since it pits the entire network against the Washingtonpost.com and doesn’t factor in the Post site’s advantages as a prestigious setting for ads, but keep in mind that most of the Post’s Web visitors are from outside the D.C. area anyway.

imageIn a related vein, I’ll soon be publishing my ideas on how established newspapers and broadcast operations can use the hyperlocal approach to grow closer to their hometown readers, both directly and through their offshoots. Making the topic all the timelier is Morning Miracle, Dave Kindred’s insidery new book on the Post. Washington Post Company CEO Donald Graham in the past has noted the importance of local readers to the Post’s sustainability. At one point, says Kindred, a former Post sports columnist, Graham observed that two thirds of the Post’s ad revenue came from the approximately 15 percent of its readers who were local. So what happens if hyperlocal networks start draining off some potential revenue? Not the best news for L Street.

image If the Post’s coverage keeps dissing Alexandria, VA, and nearby areas, I myself will drastically cut back the time I spend at Washingtonpost.com and probably make up for it by way of the sites of local and hyperlocal rivals. And for me to keep up with the world beyond Washington, there’s always the New York Times.

While the Post has closed domestic bureaus, the Times just keeps chugging along with national and international coverage that is more thorough and better organized than the Morning Miracle’s. Maybe the Alexa.com comparison with the Times won’t be so disappointing after a Web-site makeover, perhaps aided by the NYT’s forthcoming pay wall, a surefire way to drive off readers. But for now, national and international are much iffier than local for the Post, given such strong competition. Beware of the Madonna Effect, the tendency of the stars to crowd out the rest. I’d like to see the Post regroup locally and use the revenue to be more competitive at all levels. Donald Graham and others at the top have made it clear they’ll use only so much money from the profitable Kaplan division to prop up the Post.

image The Post is still very, very repairable if the will exists; L Street just needs to get more serious about local coverage, among other things. That means good journalism daily (as opposed to the flashy but oft-problematic contest kind), not merely revenue growth. I want actionable information on local and hyperlocal issues such as taxes and zoning. I won’t buy the argument that the Post is around just to cover Metro-area highlights. Technology and skillful crowd-sourcing can take care of that. Besides, Kindred notes that in 2009 the Post’s “shrunken newsroom…still had two hundred more people than in the Watergate years.”

If the Post can’t improve locally, perhaps the Washington Post Company may want to consider selling off the first two words in its name. Keep in mind the investment preferences of Post Company board member Warren Buffett for companies with moats (PDF). Could the Post build a new-style moat in the D.C. area to deal with the TBDs and Patches? I believe so, just as I can also think of strategies that competitors could use against the Post. The Post shouldn’t wave good-bye to national and international coverage. But hasn’t the company already backed off somewhat by shutting down the domestic bureaus? A mixed message? Why is coverage of Alexandria so skimpy despite this supposed change in priorities, complete with a reminder from Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli that “we are not the national news organization of record serving a general audience”?

image imageFor a somewhat cheerier assessment of the Post than mine, check out Peter Osnos’s thoughts, at TheAtlantic.com, on both the newspaper and the Kindred book. An ex-Post reporter who became a book publisher, he notes that the Post is reconfiguring its Web site, has reduced the newspaper’s financial losses and just published the Top Secret America series. I hope he is right. But tell me, Peter, isn’t there something wrong when on certain days the front page of the Post metro section doesn’t mention the word “Virginia,” or at least not in a newsstand edition I picked up in my hometown of Alexandria? Donald Graham, check out “DC MD VA M2” (Metro section identifier) in the paper edition for July 21. The only “VA” I see is in the identifier. By contrast, NewsChannel 8 always runs prominent home page links to Virginia stories, and I haven’t the slight doubt that Allbritton Communications will be as conscientious when the cable channel rebrands itself as TBD and uses a new format to boost its now-anemic numbers. Will the Post be up to the challenge if TBD catches on?

I even wonder about the Post’s Coffeehouse Newsroom experiment, which has its place but which is no substitute for stories that arise more naturally; because the newspeople should already be representative of the geo and demographical communities covered.

But what to do, in more detail, to grow closer to readers? My forthcoming commentary will offer some ideas for both newspapers and broadcast operations. This growing-closer issue is no small matter. I wrote The Solomon Scandals, my D.C. newspaper novel, to tell a story rather than preach. But along the way, Scandals is about disconnects, not just within a fictitious newspaper but between it and the rest of the planet, especially at the neighborhood level. Hyperlocal journalism, done well, could be at least a partial cure, and as a reader I want both the Post and rivals to succeed with it. 

Related: Rim Rieder’s review of Morning Miracle in the Post.

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