So Rob Curley has left the Washington Post, where he was a high-profile architect of the Post’s vision for “hyperlocal” — a buzzy label for Web products that promise to keep you in touch with your local community.
Curley’s main creation at the Post was LoudounExtra.com, a Web site devoted to Loudoun County, VA, which happens to be Loladex’s home base. Still in the wings is a similar site for our neighboring county of Fairfax.
Local guru Peter Krasilovsky did a good Curley summation here and a follow-up interview here; I won’t rehash the details. Instead, I’ll just say that I hope the Post takes this opportunity to retool its approach to hyperlocal.
Why? After all, doesn’t my hometown newspaper deserve praise for even facing the challenge of hyperlocal? Among its peers, the Post has been by far the most serious about rethinking its local coverage, right?
Yes, true enough. But by now it’s clear that Curley’s vision wasn’t terribly fruitful. The Loudoun site is looking somewhat neglected, for one thing, and I hear that usage isn’t great. The key problem, however, remains one of conception.
The issue, in short: Curley elected to build the Post’s hyperlocal strategy around … a countywide site?
Fact is, LoudounExtra.com is no more local than the twice-weekly printed section that the Post was already devoting to Loudoun. Calling the Web site “hyperlocal” makes sense only for someone looking down from 30,000 feet.
OK, so the Web site has some extra headcount and is updated several times daily. It can cover more stuff than the print version. It also supplements its coverage by pointing at other news sources.
And it has built a few specialized databases: Restaurants, churches, schools.
But none of this is new or especially Web-oriented. If the Post had given its print staff a bundle of money and permission to publish the Loudoun section daily, I suspect we’d be looking at much the same thing.
Curley tells Peter K. that the new Fairfax site will be more granular — since Fairfax has a population of 1 million, four times as big as Loudoun’s, I’d hope so — and will be accessible via town-specific URLs that presumably will produce different-looking home pages.
I guess we’ll see, but I doubt it’ll feel truly local. If it were really a town-specific approach, why would they call it Fairfax Extra?
So what is hyperlocal, if not the Curley vision?
Here’s my own definition: It’s the things we wonder about as we walk (or drive) the streets of our community. Today, for instance, I was thinking —
• What’s with that used-book store? The sign in its window seems to say its business is failing.
• What’s the asking price for that house? What does it look like inside? Why are they selling, anyway?
• Have any of my friends been to that new restaurant? Could I take the kids?
You were thinking completely different things, I’m sure. And that’s the point: Hyperlocal should be relevant to you. It should be about your day-to-day concerns in your local community. Those definitions are personal, so hyperlocal must be personal, too. And LoudounExtra.com just ain’t.
Even though I live in Loudoun County, for instance, I don’t care about a house fire in Sterling. Even though I live in Leesburg, I don’t care that the Raiders made it to the state softball tournament. Stories like these fall outside my personal radius of interest — geo interest, or subject interest, or both.
A plain old local site might not understand this. It might be the same for everyone, like a newspaper. But a hyperlocal site should understand personal radii. If I must wade through irrelevant content when I enter, it’s not hyperlocal enough.
What’s more, house fires and softball tourneys are the same old newspaper fare. Even the Post’s designated local bloggers mostly do newspaper-style reporting, albeit with an occasional “I” or “me” thrown in.
If it wants to become more relevant locally, the Post must move toward a model that’s more social … more conversational … more authentic … less mediated. It must give us what newspapers usually don’t: The voices of our neighbors and friends.
To do this, a site must leverage its community. It must facilitate conversations.
No one knows the exact right mix of editorial and community, of course. And there are other ingredients that add complexity, such as data and feeds and photos. It’s not easy.
Still, I can recognize the wrong mix. I recall being taken aback last year when Curley was quoted in a New York Times story about the launch of LoudounExtra.com:
“Most hyperlocal sites are 100 percent community publishing sites,” Mr. Curley said. “This is 1 percent community publishing.”
OK, so 100 percent community isn’t right. No argument there. But 1 percent is far, far worse.
Now if only Curley had said LoudounExtra.com is “38 percent community publishing,” I might have called him a genius.
There are plenty of hyperlocal models out there besides the Post. In fairness, none has nailed this formula. Many national efforts work by aggregating other news outlets and blogs, sometimes with a paid human thrown in for flavor: Outside.in and Topix and Marchex’s new just-killed [see comments] MyZip Network come to mind. None of them work quite right.
A site that’s far closer to capturing the hyperlocal spirit, I think, is Brownstoner in Brooklyn, NY. It’s mostly a blog, and it’s run by Jonathan Butler, a former colleague from my magazine days.
Brownstoner isn’t exactly hyperlocal, because it covers all of Brooklyn. But the site works because it speaks to an audience that shares a state of mind — urban homesteaders, I guess you’d call them — and somehow makes the huge borough seem like a single neighborhood.
It’s missing some local staples (sports, for instance), but with its mix of bloggers and attitude, plus its clever focus on real estate, it artfully captures the essence of living in, say, Cobble Hill.
This inspires tremendous engagement among its users: Brownstoner’s very frequent blog posts often draw many dozens of comments within hours. By contrast, today’s top two most-commented stories on LoudounExtra.com (which admittedly covers far less territory) had 6 comments between them.
So, my thought for the day:
Take a curated blog approach, where selected amateurs and semi-pros post frequently (like Brownstoner). Combine it with the news stream of a social network and utilities such as (ahem) Loladex. Add smart feeds for real estate listings and crime and government and other media and other blogs.
Give users the tools to participate in every conversation, and make it clear that their participation is central to the site.
Allow users to specify what they care about. Enable them to enjoy their personalized mix via the Web site, or their RSS reader, or their e-mail, or their phone.
Finally, deliver this all with a minimum of filigree — just a stream of highly relevant items in the manner of Facebook’s News Feed.
That would be hyperlocal, I think. The pulse of your community.
I wish the Post would do something like this, because I’d use it. Meanwhile, I haven’t used LoudounExtra.com for months. And I suspect I’m not alone.