A Hometown Paper Goes 'Hyperlocal'

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Post devotes a lot of resources to national and international news, but it's still a hometown paper. Readers may have missed an important development in local news -- a "hyperlocal" Web site, LoudounExtra.com, solely for the 270,000 residents of that county.

Another will be launched soon for Fairfax County. This could be a big part of The Post's future. Both will be evaluated journalistically and financially before The Post moves further in that direction; the results so far have been encouraging.

The Loudoun site had a "soft" launch last summer and a more formal one in the fall. It is intensely rich with local news, information, forums and community blogs -- such as " Living in LoCo." The staff is intertwined with The Post's Loudoun bureau. Virginians sometimes complain that their local news isn't as well covered as that of the District or Maryland. Well, neither the District nor Maryland has local online coverage of such depth.

The mantra in newspaper journalism these days is "local, local, local." The Loudoun and Fairfax sites are a Post experiment in acting on that. The planning for the Loudoun site began some time ago. Rob Curley, vice president of product development at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, and his team built the two sites.

Curley brought a team that had done groundbreaking hyperlocal work on newspaper Web sites in Lawrence and Topeka, Kan., and Naples, Fla. It is leaving The Post to do similar work at the Las Vegas Sun. Curley doesn't think what he's done at The Post is much different from the newspapers he grew up reading in Osage City, Kan. He calls it "old-school local journalism -- relevance and relationship are at its core."

The biggest news on LoudounExtra.com also may be in the newspaper, but the site goes much deeper than The Post in print on local sports, restaurants and entertainment, education, and crime. The team gathered information for five custom databases, with photos and information on restaurants, places of worship, schools, high school sports and a calendar that goes from Bible study groups to what band is appearing at what bar.

That content is more suitable to LoudounExtra.com than the newspaper because it can be constantly updated. Tim Richardson, LoudounExtra.com editor, said he was updating the site on Christmas Day from his native Kansas.

Most journalists don't set out to make hyperlocal news a career, but Richardson loves being "part of a new strategy. You really hear from readers about what's important in their lives. That new traffic light a mile away is something that affects them on a daily basis." Readers often suggest stories, he said, and "the whole goal of the site is to appeal to people in Loudoun. It's affecting people in their own back yard."

Melding print and online work takes coordination between Web site and Loudoun Extra in print. Paul Bernstein is editor of the Loudoun Extra, which is published Thursdays and Sundays. He said the two staffs are in constant communication about what each will cover. Print stories are online and online stories are "reverse published" in print. "From a news standpoint, LoudounExtra.com has certainly enhanced the print side's presence on the Web and increased the amount of coverage for Loudoun County," Bernstein said.

FairfaxExtra.com will cover 1.1 million people in a much larger area. It will have high-tech features that will allow readers to customize the way they use the site; those will be added later to the Loudoun site. As Curley said, "It is more bringing the site to people rather than bringing the people to the site."

The jury is out on whether hyperlocal coverage will be viable as a long-term strategy to attract new readers and advertisers, which is important at a time of newspaper financial instability. "We're quite pleased by the awareness [of the nine-month-old site] in the community," from marketing surveys, said Henry Tam Jr., general manager for hyperlocal Internet strategy.

"But introducing a new site to a community is not a simple exercise. It will take some time to figure out what is resonating with both users and advertisers and what's not. It's really hard to evaluate this on a stand-alone basis right now," Tam said. "About 60 percent of the site's advertisers had never done Post print ads before" because they were too expensive for a small business. "In my mind, there is an opportunity to bring on new advertising from small and medium-sized businesses, who could not afford it otherwise, as well a new way to reach the community. We're doing quite well by that metric."

While The Post prides itself on national and international coverage, some readers are more interested in what's happening in their community; the new site gives Loudoun readers -- some of whom aren't Post subscribers -- a way to go right to what they want.

Erika Hodell-Cotti, a management consultant who lives in the Broadlands subdivision, looks at LoudounExtra.com two or three times a day, especially at the Living in LoCo blog by Erica Garman, a LoudounExtra.com staffer. "I'm an active mom hyperactive in local events and politics, and I can get a quick snapshot, and it's more up to date than the print edition or the other local newspapers. I can get in and out quickly without going through pages of newspaper," Hodell-Cotti said.

Renee Ventrice of Ashburn, a businesswoman and blogger, isn't into newspapers or even washingtonpost.com. But LoudounExtra.com? "I go there all the time. It's comprehensive, knows about controversial school issues and what's going on in real estate," she said.

As a newspaper person, that makes me gulp. But from a journalist's perspective, that's public service.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company