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In Push for Local Readers, Post Unleashes LoudounExtra.com

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 16, 2007

The Washington Post Co. today is launching LoudounExtra.com, an aggressive online push into hyperlocal journalism, combining traditional reporters and photographers with bloggers, videographers and extensive databases on schools, businesses and churches.

If the project is successful, The Post Co. plans to build similar sites for the rest of Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District. The project is part of The Washington Post's strategy to dominate local news and advertising and to enhance its relevance as an information provider.

The Web site represents a departure from how The Post and other big metropolitan dailies have covered local communities. Instead of focusing on major events, LoudounExtra will attempt to provide a comprehensive look at local news, from church schedules to high school sporting events to restaurant hours and menus. The effort highlights a problem of major newspapers in the Internet age: the need to balance national reporting with service to Web-savvy local readers.

Like many newspapers, The Post is losing readers and advertisers to the Internet and other media. Average daily circulation of The Post has dropped from its high of 832,232 in 1993 to 663,900 now. First-quarter print advertising revenue at The Post was down 16 percent in 2007 from the comparable period last year. Meanwhile, traffic and ad revenue at Washingtonpost.com have been climbing.

The LoudounExtra is the most recent, and possibly most ambitious, example of a major metro daily newspaper altering century-old game plans and adopting tactics that might, in the past, have seemed more suited to community newspapers.

Several MediaNews Group papers, such as the Denver Post, have rolled out Your Hub, which lets residents of suburban communities post blog entries and photos of local events. Hyperlocal projects of one stripe or another are underway at the Chicago Tribune, the Bakersfield Californian and other papers.

Although MediaNews Group says Your Hub has added significant revenue, other efforts have been less successful. The independent Backfence launched in 2005 as a site allowing residents of local communities, including Bethesda, Arlington and Reston, to post hyperlocal blogs and photos. It shut down this month after it failed to attract audience or advertisers.

Washingtonpost.com publisher Caroline Little said LoudounExtra.com takes a different approach to hyperlocal news. "I think that blogging is great, but blogging alone is not a be-all and end-all to drive traffic," Little said. "Useful information and database information are very important."

Following Others' Leads

Over the past several months, the six-person staff (and one intern) of LoudounExtra has assembled a restaurant guide by asking each of the county's restaurants to answer questions about their operation, contacted more than 130 houses of worship to find service schedules (and offered to upload podcasts of their sermons onto the Loudoun site), asked all county high school principals about their curriculums, shot panoramic photos of each school and collected statistics on each high school football player, among other data-collection tasks.

The information will be searchable and deliverable on a number of platforms, meaning users will be able to download the site's restaurant guide onto their iPods and use their cellphones to find restaurants open late at night.

In addition, the site will be filled with multiple news reports each day from The Post's Loudoun County reporters, who will file stories that may never be published in the newspaper.

The site's staff will make a round of cop calls each morning, listing incidents that happened overnight, even down to the level of "mailboxes being knocked down," said Rob Curley, LoudounExtra co-developer and a self-described "Internet nerd" who was hired by The Post last year after developing hyperlocal sites for the Naples (Fla.) Daily News and Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World & News.

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