I saw an interesting blog post in the NY Times today about how the Washington Post is planning on giving up on their attempt to cover Northern Virginia. The WaPo had spent too much time and money covering Loudoun County, Virginia:
We found that our experiment with LoudounExtra.com as a separate site was not a sustainable model
said Kris Coratti, a spokeswoman for the Washington Post Company.
The Times article goes on to say, “Updating the large amount of special features and technologies” on the site, which was run by Post staff members, proved unsustainable, Ms. Coratti said.
Really Ms. Coratti, you can’t run a full-scale news operation like the WaPo at only Northern Virginia and pay everyone, shocking!
The Washington Post isn’t the only newspaper out there who is stuck in this mindset. I would even say that most old-line newspaper companies think the same way the WaPo does. It just isn’t in the DNA of a newspaper to trust the people they cover to add anything of value.
That’s not to say they don’t trust the wisdom of the crowds. Writers will often check stuff against Wikipedia, at least as a sanity check, sometimes as their only check. They trust the Wikipedia crowd, but not Loudoun County crowd.
Why didn’t the Post reach out to the Loudoun County community to help update the large amount of special features? Why not let the community decide what features get included by voting stuff on or off the front page in Digg style?
As far as the technologies involved, what special technologies did the LoudounExtra.com have that their main site didn’t? Were they not updating all of the company’s core technologies in one swoop?
The Times article has a very newpaperish paragraph about halfway down:
The challenge, though, is that hiring reporters to cover car thefts, school board meetings and new store openings is expensive. So is hiring salespeople to visit local businesses and sell ad space.
There’s that mindset again. Do you really have to hire a reporter to cover car thefts? Is there really nobody in the gigantic community of Loudon County who might be willing to do a bit of leg work every couple days to get some experience, or get their name in a byline, or maybe it was their car that was stolen.
The same with the school board meetings. I would bet that there are people who live in the district who are more informed and passionate about what’s happening at that school board meeting than some reporter who lives 45 minutes away. Why not let them cover it?
As far as ad space goes, why not open it up using something like Project Wonderful?
I think the final paragraph in the Times story almost nails it:
Making hyperlocal sites work will continue to be a challenge, Mr. Sterling said. “It may be the case that you need to do some mix of community-based citizen journalism or blogging and maybe have a couple dedicated folks in the market,” he said. With LoudounExtra.com, “it was probably the case that they were just really top-heavy and couldn’t get the ad support.”
Trying to build a community site without involving the community is crazy. The people of Loudoun County didn’t need that half-ass site that the Washington Post gave them, but the Post desperately needed the people of Loudoun County. The problem was, the Post didn’t respect them enough to involve them in their plans. Loudon County didn’t feel any type of connection to the site, and that’s where the web is headed. It’s all about connecting now. Newspapers haven’t had to connect to an audience in so long it’s like learning to walk again.
I guess it shouldn’t surprise us when we read that 24 of the 25 largest newspapers are experiencing record declines in circulation.