Hyperlocal News Fails Without Locals
WSJ points to the failure of so-called ‘hyperlocal’ news portals, focusing on a WaPo venture.
For believers in the power of rigorous local coverage to help save newspapers, the Washington Post’s launch of LoudounExtra.com last July was a potentially industry-defining event. It paired a journalistic powerhouse with a dream team of Internet geeks to build a virtual town square for one of Virginia’s and the nation’s most-affluent and fastest-growing counties.
Almost a year later, however, the Web site is still searching for an audience. Its chief architect has left for another venture in Las Vegas, and his team went with him. And while Post executives say they remain committed to providing so-called hyperlocal news coverage, they are re-evaluating their approach. “It’s too early for us to put any kind of stamp on it as a success or failure,” said Jim Brady, executive editor of Washingtonpost.com, a unit of Washington Post Co. “We’re just going to keep experimenting,” he added.
Like hundreds of other hyperlocal sites launched in the past few years, LoudounExtra.com reflects a basic premise: Metro newspapers probably can’t compete with the Internet or cable TV in covering breaking national and international news, but they can dominate what happens in their backyards. LoudounExtra.com offers detailed databases including every church, restaurant and school in Loudoun County, about 25 miles west of Washington, D.C. It embraces the idea that a high-school prom is as newsworthy as a debate over where to build a hospital, and that Little League deserves major-league attention. And it promises to let visitors to the site shape the news through blogs and photo and video submissions.
My initial thought was that Loudoun County was simply a bad choice for this kind of thing. Its residents, of which I was one until marrying and moving to neighboring Fairfax County, are primarily people like myself: professionals from elsewhere who came in search of work in the high tech, defense, government, and media sectors. Those kind of people tend not to have much concern about local activities because they don’t consider themselves locals.
However true that may be, though, LoudounExtra’s problem was much more basic:
But LoudounExtra.com remains little more than a skeleton of the site its architects pledged to build. One reason: the team of outsiders didn’t do enough to familiarize itself with Loudoun County or engage its 270,000 residents.
The whole point of hyperlocal coverage is that it’s written by locals! Otherwise, you have reports written by people with no idea of the backstory. Certainly, someone with decent reporting skills can cover City Hall or even high school football or the church scene based on observation. But without local experience, there’s no context. A local paper can absorb reporters and editors from elsewhere on a piecemeal basis, of course, but if there’s no institutional knowledge of the local community, it’s doomed to fail.