Hyperlocal journalism: Georgetown publisher robbed—and eager to tell neighbors about it. Lesson for the Washington Post?

Update, 1:47 p.m.: Post rival’s local news strategy—a Poynter Institute item. – D.R.

image My online friend Beth Solomon, publisher of TheGeorgetownDish and absolutely no relative of the Sy Solomon in my newspaper novel, got robbed. A thief carried off Beth’s purse, checkbook, credit cards, wallet, car keys, iPhone, Blackberry, everything, after she left her car doors open while moving into her new house, just the kind of lapse I’m good at.

Let me pass on my sympathy—and congratulations. An ex-ABC radio journalist, Beth is making a highly readable series out of her misfortune. Check out Parts I and II. Scads of issue arise at the neighborhood level and far beyond. For example, could police somehow use signals from her stolen cellphones to track down the thief? And if not, why not? The big point here is, Beth’s first-person series will be close to home for her Georgetown readers, who know that the Dish will play up their feedback. Elsewhere on her site you can find detailed information about the doings of the Advisory Neighborhood Council.

If the Washington Post wants to thrive as a local publication, then it needs to use Internet and database technology to replicate on a massive scale what Beth and her tiny site are doing rather than simply giving readers the same old, same old. It also should think “neighborhood” about ads from local small businesses and customized advertising from outlets of national franchises such as McDonald’s.

I’m not saying to ditch metro, national and international coverage—just to mine this additional vein, especially when Jim Brady, former executive editor at WashingtonPost.com, will be running a well-financed local Web operation to compete with L Street.

Unfortunately I see two possibly major obstacles to the changes at the Post. The bigger is L Street’s never-ending fixation on Pulitzers and competition with the New York Times. Of course, there’s a place for that. But at a less glamorous level, the Post needs to try harder to train and otherwise encourage local contributors; furthermore, it should focus more than at present on staffers and freelancers serving as facilitators of precisely targeted community discussion through forums, blogs and otherwise. Otherwise the Post may well continue to be nothing more than—in Alan Mutter’s words in a different context—a “a major publication in the national’s capital owned by a highly successful test-preparation service.”

Buzzwords like “hyperlocal” aren’t enough in themselves: execution is all. The Post’s LoudounExtra may well have failed at least in part because it didn’t have enough “Loudoun” in it and didn’t drill down enough to the neighborhood level and recognize the widely divergent interests and identities of of people within the same county.

More traditional journalism can capture the highlights of neighborly, reader-to-reader exchanges at the hyperlocal level. The forums and the rest are hardly a complete replacement for the usual reporting, just a way to better keep in touch with communities and reflect this in the actual paper. May the Post abound with Beth-style voices from staffers, local freelancers correspondents and community members in general! The usual formulaic news stories by themselves just aren’t enough to engage people adequately in the Facebook era, especially if the Post wants to charge online readers.

So what’s the second obstacle or at least possible obstacle? Well, I’m also wondering about the Post’s history of closeness to powerful local business people in real estate and other areas, the very kinds of challenges that beset the fictitious Telegram in Scandals. Will L Street be willing to give neighborhood people the right tools to effortlessly track the plans of developers and others and  understand the positive or negative effects on property values and commute times? Will the Post set up databases full of actionable information and package them well? And resist special interests and play up neighborhood meetings in highly localized electronic editions, precisely targeted through geographical tags in individual stories? Even if the neighbors don’t always have neighborly things to say about advertisers? I’m not talking about turning the Post into an activist organ; rather, allowing intelligent discussion of community issues by all sides.

One positive at the Post is that a new system will give added weight to “trusted commenters”, a way to increase the percentage of “civil” in “civic.” This is precisely the kind of detail that will count even more at the local level than at others. The Post’s new Facebook capabilities may also help. But it won’t suffice just try to build zillions of little user communities around Post’s usual stories about, say, Afghanistan. Some of the Post’s more important online communities should genuinely and comprehensively reflect the physical variety—the Net and database tech make thorough hyperlock coverage possible on a large scale. Who says an intensively local approach must be only be for Dish-sized sites?

Related: ‘What Would Google Do’ with my old steeltown newspaper in Lorain? More discussion of hyperlocal. Also see Washington Post local blog network: Weak response so far to Allbritton’s Web startup plans.

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David Rothman

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