Hyperlocal News Fails Without Locals

Loudon Extra Screencap 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.

via memeorandum

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    I’ve been wathing this with some interest for several reasons.
    Mostly, I’ve wondered what the porting of such a project to other media would have as a success rate.

    As an example, I note from my radio buddy, Scott Fybush that WNBC-TV/4 in New York is trying just such a move;

    The first sign of the reinvention of WNBC came earlier this spring, when the station rebranded its newscasts from “4HD” to “News 4 New York.” In the next steps toward making WNBC a “local content center,” NBC plans to rebrand its local website simply as “NBC New York,” with the local news on the website and on Channel 4 soon to be joined by a 24-hour service known as “New York’s Newschannel.” (The “local content center” plans for WNBC’s seventh-floor newsroom parallel the “content center” NBC built last year on the third floor of 30 Rock to consolidate NBC News and MSNBC operations.)

    The new channel will be seen on a subchannel of WNBC-DT, presumably replacing what’s now “4.4,” a mixture of local news rebroadcasts and inexpensive syndicated fare. Eventually, it will also be visible on other platforms, including seatback TV screens in taxis and on the “NBC New York” website.

    It will compete with two other 24-hour newschannels with longer histories in the market: Time Warner’s city-oriented New York 1 and Cablevision’s collection of regional News 12 services in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Long Island, Westchester, the Hudson Valley, New Jersey and Connecticut – and it will compete with those channels without adding any additional staff to the existing WNBC news team.

    Instead, NBC management says they’ll be extensively retraining current WNBC employees to contribute to the new 24-hour service, which will also likely use the first “one-man band” videographer/reporters in the company. (New York 1 pioneered the concept in the city when it launched back in 1992.)

    If “New York’s Newschannel” proves successful, NBC hopes to roll the concept out in its other local markets, including Philadelphia’s WCAU.

    I suppose this to be a decent measurement on the question of hyper-local coverage, when seperated from the paper media.

  2. Joe Buzz says:

    There is absolutely no need to go to the Wash. Post for local Loudoun news while the Loudoun Times Mirror is in publication. The LTM has been providing this service for longer than most of us have been alive. The Washington Post is absolutely wonderful for lining the bottom of a bird cage though.

  3. Boyd says:

    LTM, Leesburg Today, Loudoun Easterner, the Independent…there are several sources for “hyperlocal” information in Loudoun County, all with local context.

    What amazes me is that someone like me, who lives in Loudoun County, participates in Loudoun politics and community affairs (even though I’m a Texan and have only lived here for a little more than a decade), and practically lives online, found out about LoudounExtra.com…today, while reading this post.

    You’d think the WaPo folks would tell people about it or something, but it looks like managing the web site isn’t something they put a lot of thought into.