Posts Tagged ‘loudonextra

06
Jun
08

Why LoudonExtra failed

Don’t know if I said this before, but I’m a big fan of Rob Curley. Curley is the online newspaper guru who blazed a path of success from Lawrence, KS to Naples, FL to Washington, D.C. I heard Curley speak once and walked away galvanized about what we should be doing at my place to improve our presence on the web.

I was convinced that if anyone knew what newspapers should be doing online it was Curley.

It came as a surprise last week when I read on Curley’s blog that he was leaving his position as vice president of product development at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, the subsidiary that oversees the company’s Internet operations. Shocking was the article Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal announcing that Curley’s chief project at The Post company, LoudonExtra.com, has been a flop.

How could a guy like Curley fail at something so important to the newspaper industry? I have a theory, but we’ll get to that later.

LoudonExtra was supposed to be the hyperlocal site that achieved all the promise of hyperlocal. Databased to beat the band with everything from little league schedules to church programs, it was supposed to draw audience and advertisers from the affluent D.C. suburb.

For those who don’t know, hyperlocal promises newspapers the hope for a profitable future. In the words of the WSJ:

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.

What happened? LoudonExtra never found an audience. In the WSJ article Curley accepts plenty of blame for the site’s failings, but he also hints that there might have been problems outside his control.

LoudonExtra was supposed to be an independent site, something many advocate for online newspapers. Rather than try to keep everything under a single umbrella, spin out sites targeted at specific audiences. That makes it easy to target both the content and the ads. But apparently, there was conflict at the Post over whether major stories — such as AOL moving from Dulles, VA to New York — should live on the Loundon pages or at the Post. The story’s home would affect hit count, but many readers wouldn’t be the Loudon target audience even though Dulles is in Loudon.

The AOL conundrum seems slightly silly, at least on the face of things, in the internet age. Why not have the story live both at LoudonExtra and on WashingtonPost.com? Because of old school newspaper thinking. LoudonExtra, it seems, is just a section of the Post (check the URL). You wouldn’t want to duplicate stories across sections in a printed pub, right? But, in fact, LoudonExtra only works as an independent site, which means the AOL story could and should have lived happily there regardless of how or where it was placed in the printed Post or its online edition.

But that’s just a detail. I think LoudonExtra failed to catch fire because of something far more fundamental. The WSJ story hints at the problem.

“Another problem: Mr. Curley’s crew was trying to reach a much different audience than they were used to. Unlike Lawrence, Kan., which had a small populace linked by an easily identifiable set of interests, Loudoun County is a 520 square-mile area with seven towns whose residents share little else besides a county government.”

LoudonExtra has failed to find an audience because Loudon County isn’t a community to anyone other than editors and executives at The Washington Post company. It has many towns, incorpoarted and unincorporated. It has areas that are nearly urbanized, massive bedroom communities (I visited one where nearly 10,000 homes sprang up in a single subdivision in only a couple of years), sprawling farms, small towns, and old time residents sitting cheek-by-jowl with recent cousins whom they are in no mood to kiss.

The reality is that while a county may work perfectly in the zoned distribution system of a printed paper, it makes absolutely no sense (on its own) for an online community.

How do you define an online community? That’s the secret — you don’t. The community defines itself by the interests, wants and needs of the people who are in it. The smart web person (perhaps the next Google guys) will figure out how to let communities define themselves in more comprehensive ways than blogs for information consumption and distribution (aka publishing).

But the bottom line in the web world, which is much more like the real world than newspapers can comprehend, is that there can be communities within communities, groups that overlap in one area and are utterly divergent in another. Telling people who live within artificial borders that they must be lumped together only makes sense to those still trying to force the world into a newsprint mold.

I’ve said it before: I’m not a genius (I’ve met some and it really drives that point home). I can’t tell how to sort all this out or what (if anything) will eventually work for newspapers in this brave new world. But I’m pretty sure it is impossible to approach hyperlocal with the cookie-cutter approach of LoudonExtra.

But according to the WSJ, The Post is still intent on launching a FairfaxExtra site. I’m going to go out on a limb right now and predict it will be no more successful than Loudon. I would be happy to be wrong. My future mortgage payments may depend on it. But Fairfax County, VA probably can’t be homogenized any easier than Loudon.

BTW, Curley and most of his crew have taken up residence at The Las Vegas Sun. I’m interested to see what they do there. That web site is already darn good and I may post about that on Monday (part of a recurring look at newspaper sites that are successful or not). But I wish Curley good luck there. All of us in the newspaper business could use a bit of that.

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