The Wall Street Journal took a look at what it calls a "big daily's hyperlocal flop," as the Washington Post poured resources into creating a "local-local" product for an affluent county.
For believers in the power of rigorous local coverage to help save newspapers, the Washington Post's launch of LoudounExtra.com last July was a potentially industry-defining event. It paired a journalistic powerhouse with a dream team of Internet geeks to build a virtual town square for one of Virginia's and the nation's most-affluent and fastest-growing counties.
Almost a year later, however, the Web site is still searching for an audience. Its chief architect has left for another venture in Las Vegas, and his team went with him. And while Post executives say they remain committed to providing so-called hyperlocal news coverage, they are re-evaluating their approach.
This was sadly predictable, and indicative of the group-think that is causing newspapers to commit suicide.
The Journal goes on to discuss the article of faith among those who have run newspapers for two decades that "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." (Pretty sad that even the Washington Post bought into this).
Yet what did this "breakthrough" product offer?
It embraces the idea that a high-school prom is as newsworthy as a debate over where to build a hospital, and that Little League deserves major-league attention. And it promises to let visitors to the site shape the news through blogs and photo and video submissions.
This kind of sophistry was rammed down the throats of newsrooms around the country, backed by questionable research. As a news manager and editor, I sat in countless focus groups where regular readers reacted with disdain to these schemes, while non-readers said "gee, kewl," but would still refuse to buy the paper. Yet the corporate bosses plunged ahead, and most of these "local-local" ventures by major papers have failed.
The cost has been high. First, expert, highly skilled journalists were demoralized and pushed out the door. These are the very people who could indeed compete "with the Internet or cable TV." To take one example, Knight-Ridder's superb Washington bureau was the only mainstream news organization to provide skeptical coverage of the run-up to the Iraq folly. And newsrooms were discouraged from compelling, high-impact coverage of local news. I know of one of the largest papers in the country, in one of the largest cities, with one -- one -- reporter covering City Hall.
While Web geeks and designers were given broad control, not just over the platform or the look, but the content, newspapers lost the talent and dash that would have provided the exclusive, sophisticated coverage to lure and keep readers. (The geeks hired by the Post had not a clue about Loudoun). Producing silliness such as these hyperlocal products or inferior personal finance sections required shifting resources away from covering real news. Bored readers -- or those that had lost treasured coverage or destinations that were killed -- drifted away.
Second, as news executives were bedazzled by the baubles of technology, they missed opportunity after opportunity to leapfrog, whether by pre-empting Craig's List or Huffington Post, or buying Yahoo or Google in their infancy. People in newsrooms were talking about this in the 1990s -- they were ignored or warned to shut up (I know). Even now, aggressive new ideas seem beyond newspaper companies. Scripps shut down the Cincinnati Post rather than try something like an Internet newspaper, with a staff of 10 top-notch journalists and propellerheads on a mission to cover real news in a fascinating but secretive city.
Get this: The failure has been the business model, not real journalism. Technology can enhance news coverage; it can't substitute for serious reporting and great writing. Yet year after year, publishers did a beat-down on newsrooms to fix a problem outside their control. They did nothing to market their products or recruit the world-class talent to fix the ad meltdown. Such is the consequence of an industry that had created monopolies and thought the confiscatory ad-rate cash would never stop flooding in the door.
The key is the same as always: get interesting news and put it in "the paper," whether online or on dead trees. Local news is important, but no more important than that from a world that everyday affects the lives of those "average readers." But the local news must be interesting. Especially peculiar has been newspapers' aversion to creating first-class cops beats with veteran reporters. People watch crime news and crime shows on television; they spend big on mysteries. But this was outside the propaganda narrative that corporate newspapers were pushing.
What's the future? It may be too late to avoid real catastrophe, meaning major newspapers start to shut down in even one-paper towns. Too many years were wasted on diversions such as "local-local." My best guess is that the survivors will be much smaller and sadly diminished. And so will American democracy.