By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Big media and hyperlocal journalism

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Washington Post’s big bet on hyperlocal, online journalism — — has been a flop.

According to Journal reporter Russell Adams, there have been a number of problems, from a failure to commit sufficient resources to an odd strategic decision not to link to the site from But I wonder if there’s something larger going on.

To an extent, the Post’s woes strike me as similar to those of Microsoft. For years, Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and company acted as though they knew someone was going to come along and steal their lunch money someday. And so they moved aggressively, most memorably destroying Netscape and earning themselves a massive antitrust suit in the process.

But, in the end, Microsoft couldn’t overcome the tendency of huge, established companies not to be able to anticipate what’s next. And so Google slipped onto the scene, making a ton of money with online advertising and slowly but surely developing free, Web-based applications that may someday make a program like Microsoft Office (or at least the idea of paying for it) obsolete.

Likewise, when it comes to hyperlocal online journalism, I think it’s more likely that community-based bloggers will start doing real journalism, and embrace professional standards, than it is that big papers like the Post will be able to dominate that turf.

At least the Post has a national and international audience. What about big regional metros such as the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Denver Post and the like? If there’s no longer a market for such papers doing international and national coverage, don’t they have to embrace the hyperlocal model?

Not necessarily. It could be that what they really need to do is find the sweet spot — completely dominate regional coverage of state and local politics, business, sports, health and the arts, while leaving the national and international coverage to the Post and the New York Times, and the Little League banquets to community papers and bloggers.

In Massachusetts, Web sites tied to local weeklies (such as GateHouse Media’s Wicked Local project) and dailies (such as the Cape Cod Times and the Eagle-Tribune papers) strike me as being more connected at the local level than the Globe’s site, Local blogs are proliferating; here are a few, covering Brighton, Arlington and Newton.

It will be a tough trick for big papers to pull off. The Post’s failures thus far in Loudoun County are specific enough that it’s hard to generalize from them. But I find it difficult to imagine that the Globe will ever be the first place you’ll want to go to find out what the lunch menu is in your child’s elementary school.

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  1. Peter Porcupine

    Dk – as of this minute, the Cape Cod Times is part of Ottaway, and is up for sale by Rupert Murdoch, as an unwanted peripheral acquired in the WSJ sale. I agree that a regional paper like that has a better take on local news, and is far more useful that the atrocious Wicked Local site – full disclosure, I haven’t yet resigned myself to the loss of the Register and Cape Codder to the Homogenizing Huns – but the market is waning even for such regionals. The Times just introduced paid wedding and obituary notices (common in more urban papers) and has sufered a sharp drop in submissions, except from well-heeled people from off-Cape who pay for windy obituaries based on their years of vacationing there (nobody knows who the hell they are, while local celebrities aren’t featured any more). Perhaps some pay is better than nothing, but now that communitiy events have become a species of classified ad – even fewer are reading the paper.

  2. Blake

    Great post and interesting MSFT/NSCP analogy – Seems like the “sweet spot” you define, however, is exactly what Loudon was designed to be (a complete local and regional dominance of politics, business, sports, etc.)I saw Curley speak last year at the ONA in Toronto, and I think he nailed the biggest problem with hyper-local projects to date in that they tend to ship “empty cups” (i.e. Backfence – nice platform, zero contributed content)But Curley now admits he went too far by approaching Loudon with “1% community” involvement (from the WSJ article). I think you need to have local voice upfront and present if you want to pass as “local”.So, I agree that’s its probably too early to generalize whether the approach will work for other metros since WaPo has a uniquely international brand position. But I also believe that success in building hyper-local in other markets will heavily depend on positioning community voice as the centerpiece of the site.

  3. Local Editor

    Peter Porcupine,What makes Wicked Local atrocious?

  4. Peter Porcupine

    Local – when Comm. News ran the site, each paper had its own page. Now, Wicked Local directs you to ‘regional’ stories.If I want to know when the next Chamber of Commerce meeting is in Eastham, and finally manage to find the Eastham page, if I click Calendar, it shows meetings in…Hyannis. 30 miles away.The single Wicked Local site, which is supposed to let you see YOUR town is an unuseable farce.

  5. Anonymous

    Not to start a flame war, but honestly, I find the content on most ‘hyperlocal’ sites just plain boring. I’m not interested in the local police report, and I don’t particularly care about my neighbor winning Celtics tickets or rat attacks in Cambridge.It seems that the bar is so low for story publication at most hyperlocal sites, that I just don’t bother with them. Where’s the enterprise and insight?Boston, especially, is a smart city, and demands journalism that’s equally smart.My $0.02.

  6. Peter Porcupine

    Anon – and yet, in my local paper this week, I learned that a Veterans for Kerry coordinator had been convicted of assaulting a cop, and a sex offender had moved into my neighborhood.I probably wouldn’t have seen either on McNeil/Lehrer.

  7. Patricia of Trakai

    I live on the other side of the D.C. metro area from Loudoun, so I haven’t had occasion to peruse Loudoun Extra too often.The town where I live now used to have a hyperlocal blogger, but he shut down the site a few months ago because he couldn’t afford to keep it up anymore and had to concentrate on for-pay freelance work. In his parting comments (sadly, no longer online) he took people to task for not going out and attending meetings and reading police reports and listening to the scanner and writing up the results themselves. Hel-LO! I *used* to do all that stuff for eight years in three different towns now covered by Wicked Local. I went to all the night meetings, made constant visits to the “cop shop” and the bulletin board where Open Meeting Law notices were posted, typed up endless calendar announcements and wedding/engagement notices, yadda yadda yadda. I worked 60 or 70 hours a week except when I had mononucleosis and had to cut back to 40. I have no memories of ’80s television shows because I was either working or too tired to watch. For this I was paid the equivalent in today’s dollars of $20K to $38K.So now I’m supposed to feel guilty that I don’t use my writing talents to do all this same exact stuff for a community blog for FREE??? You gotta be KIDDING!

  8. Anonymous

    anon 2:50,the point of the hyperlocal sites (and small town papers) is to offer the type of stories that no one from outside that town would care about. If the rats are attacking at a restaurant I stop at everyday, or I went to high school with the guy who won the celtics tickets, then I care.

  9. jen

    Anon, peter p. was too merciful!If it was your next door neighbor who won those tickets, you just might care.And the rats? Now you say you don’t give a rat’s ….., but were they in your backyard, you just might. Although peter p. has done amazing things with town meeting commentary, there are clearly limitations of “smart” when it comes to some of the town boards. In our search for “smart,” we’re loosing local coverage of the “boring” that are important. Blogs and local coverage will go through the growing pains, but it’s a necessary niche that’s not being adequately filled by media consolidation.

  10. MeTheSheeple

    Interestingly, the Gatehouse papers have just been advertising a new partnership to create more-local local stuff, supposedly to the point where you can organizing who’s bringing the drinks to your next Little League game, or posting a family scrapbook.Perhaps fittingly enough, it’s really really really tough to find that “story” on any of the Wicked Local sites. Go figure.Second note: Last I’d heard, only one newspaper had ever made money online (The Wall Street Journal) and that was generally excused because it had a high-income audience that valued timely quality information in a way that no other newspaper could get. Last I’d heard, too, Murdoch was taking it free.So what’s really going to work, local Web-site wise? I get the feeling media companies just know they’re losing print readership and are throwing stuff on the wall to see if anything sticks. Anything. Anything at all.

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