Extra-hyperlocal editions of the Washington Post may debut soon—with lessons learned from the Loudoun County debacle

Update, 7 p.m.: Looks as if "close" is late spring 2011. – D.R.

I hated the Washington Post’s hyperlocal edition for Loudoun County, Virginia.

From multimillionaire horse-breeders to soccer moms, Loudoun is a whole series of communities—a point lost on the edition’s creators.

imageLumping the county’s hamlets and subdivisions into a single mishmash without decent geographical breakdowns, the Post failed to engage readers. Mr. Horse-breeder wanted to zoom in on his news, not Ms. Soccer Mom’s.

The LoudounExtra site displayed horribly on my PC and probably was a mess on mobile devices.

But did the Washington Post learn from the Loudoun debacle?  Well, the Post may be about to launch an area-wide hyperlocal initiative very soon, if a report from the rival TBD.com hyperlocal site is on the money with the word "close." And the answer to the Loudoun question appears to be a big fat “Yes” in my opinion.

TBD Editor Erik Wemple, who caught up with the survey shown here, expects that Post hyperlocal operation will mix reporting from the newspaper’s staffers with voices from local communities. Double-click on the image for a better view of the questionnaire.

Offering slick networking and mobile features, the anticipated Post initiative will be even more hyperlocal than Patch.com and drill down to the subdivision level, says TBD.

Erik Wemple paraphrases a Post source and says the hyperlocal op will “dig deep on municipal news, including school board meetings, high school sports, trash collection, and the like."

In my hyperlocal series, that’s just what I recommended for the Post and TBD. I heartily approve of links to community weeklies and blogs, but the Post really needs to do its own reporting as well, provide geo-based forums at the micro level, and explore neighborhood issues in far, far more depth and more systematically than Erik and his gifted colleagues are able to.

Erik wonders how the Post can accomplish this. The answer is that the Washington Post Company has more resources it can leverage than TBD does—and the financial muscle to invest heavily in new ones. What better reason to sell Newsweek than to raise cash to defend the Post on its home turf, the D.C. region?

I don’t expect the Post hyperlocal operation to be an overnight success—this almost surely will be an expensive long-term investment—but in the company’s place, it’s what I’d do. I might even see if synergies could exist between the hyperlocal side and the Post Company’s education-oriented Kaplan subsidiary. Why not offer free or low-cost courses as a way to reach out to the community and help people upgrade their writing and analytical skills—so useful in government and business, not just journalism? Perhaps the Post could even coax luminaries ilke Bob Woodward to appear from time to time at community events for a little added sizzle to help recruit prospective writers and other participants—for example, retired accountants who wanted to explore muni budget issues.

Yet another wrinkle I’d like would be smart data-based reporting and related trend stories. I can envision trend stories broken down into four components: stats (maybe with some kind of cooperation with outfits like Citizen Dan), individual case histories, coping tips if relevant, and community opinions directly from readers. Say, the topic is aging in place; that is, people retiring without moving. Then the Post could serve up age-related stats from a community, write up actual people and maybe even solicit essays in advance on the topic, offer pointers to useful goods and services for people who want to age in place, and encourage further discussion within community forums. Before the aging-in-place package ran, a Post advertising team operating separately from the editorial side could catch up with sellers of relevant services and products.

On popular topics, the Post could arrange for its community sites all over the D.C. area to cover them at the same time and use the pulped-wood editions and main Washington Post site to steer them to the hyperlocal ones. In fact, in general, if the Post is sensible, it will offer tight integration between Washingtonpost.com and the community sites—a far, far more powerful driver of traffic than TBD’s television side will be, especially since the cable channel lacks all the hipness of TBD.com

Furthermore, a precisely targeted mix of topic and community would be powerful Google juice—much, much better over the long term than just TBD-style links and summaries and area-targeted columns and other news features. While many readers like the hottest news, they also use the Web as a database, calling up content that meets their needs of the moment, even if it was written months or years earlier. This could be among the ultimate advantages that the Post may enjoy over TBD at the hyperlocal level.

Just as importantly, the Post can truly become part of the fabric of local communities—building up goodwill by, for example, alerting people about issues like BRAC 133 and the resulting ramifications for highways and schools.

I don’t know if the results of the Post survey will reflect the usefulness of such intensive neighborhood reporting; it has to exist first. But believe me, if it happens, local residents and business people will catch on. Where would you rather advertise primarily? In a TBD or Patch, with limited coverage? Or a more substantive Post edition that’s truly part of community life down to the subdivision level—the place where you first learn about neighborhood Dutch suppers and new slides at the playground? I don’t think that the Post rivals are necessarily dead in the water, but they’ll have to be nimble in dodging the torpedoes.

In the end, no matter what, the Post’s local numbers will probably leave TBD’s and Patch’s in the dust, simply because the Post has more resources and apparently will be deploying them smartly. TBD could have used the same in-depth hyperlocal approach that the Post seemingly has in mind—I couldn’t have been more explicit in my advice to TBD—but apparently the will or the resources are not there right now. The big unexpected development is that the Post apparently has latched onto a good hyperlocal strategy  sooner than I anticipated. Based on a Post internal memo from a year or so ago, I’d worried that the local operation might be too topic-oriented at the expense of geography. Perhaps that was a danger back then. But if so and if the Post sticks to its present course as reported in TBD, then people there have smartened up with the right geo-topic blend.

A bit more on the significance of the Post survey: TBD says the questions there “bring to mind a similar effort from January, when the Post sent out a survey about readers’ business-news appetite. That survey included a prototype of what would quickly turn into the weekly publication Capital Business. Just as that survey hinted at what was in the offing, so does this community-news version."

Meanwhile kudos to TBD for a credible report overall—and to the Post for apparently learning from the Loudoun horrors. Now if I can only get the Post and TBD, to go public with their Quantcast data using server-based stats. From a local and hyperlocal perspective, Quantcast is more useful than a panel-based approach in the Nielsen vein, which comes with built-in issues such as sample size.

Correction: Yes, the update should have said “late spring 2011,” not 2010. I’ve fixed it.

Related: MediaGazer round-up.

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David Rothman

4 thoughts on “Extra-hyperlocal editions of the Washington Post may debut soon—with lessons learned from the Loudoun County debacle

  1. Great article, David – we here in Loudoun welcome more interaction between civic news harvesters, curators and bloggers, and the journalism crowd milling about the hyperlocal holy grail.

  2. Thanks, Ted. As a both a Web pro and a Loudoun resident, you may have further thoughts, and I hope you’ll follow up on your comments here. Let’s see if the Post can live up to my expectations. Execution will be all.


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