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LoudounExtra.com launches …
July 16, 2007

Our team’s first “hyper-local” site for washingtonpost.com launched this morning — LoudounExtra.com.

Because — as far as we can tell — no one knows what in the heck “hyper-local” really means, we decided we’d try to take a stab at what we thought it means with this site. More importantly, we didn’t think it meant a site that was essentially just community publishing.

I *love* community publishing. One of my core beliefs is that newspaper web sites need to be much more of a dialogue. But building a site with essentially just community-publishing tools and calling it “hyper-local” seems a little lazy/crazy to us.

It’s like having a nice big cup and going to your readers and saying, “we really don’t have time to fill this bad boy up for you all, but maybe you can do it for us.” We wanted our first local site at The Washington Post to be like a cup that was already pretty dang full, and the readers could then top it off to give it the personalized flavor that they want.

To us, the key is that the site should be a real local destination even without the content from the readers.

The irony here (or would that be goofiness?) is that even though community publishing is going to be a huge part of LoudounExtra.com, we actually launched the site this morning without any of those tools.

That’s a long story that I don’t want to get into right now. Not because it’s bad. Just because it’s long, and I’m already pretty dang tired as I write this post.

But once you see how we’re doing community publishing on LoudounExtra.com (which shouldn’t be too long), it will definitely make sense why it’s taking us a little longer to get rolling. We think it will really be worth the wait.

And that’s not all that’s missing. In some ways, the site is currently just the Ellington publishing system filled to the gills. And I mean filled to the gills.

But that’s not what it’s going to be by late August or so.

We have done more custom development for this site than we have for any other project we’ve ever worked on. The majority of that work just isn’t quite ready yet.

We’re thinking all of those new features will likely roll out in two phases: the end of August and the end of September. Knock on virtual wood.

So, how did we define hyper-local?

Well, I’ll try to list what our core strategies for LoudounExtra.com are (though not all of these features/strategies were ready for this morning’s launch):

* Constantly updated “Big J” and “little j” journalism from Loudoun County.

In trying to achieve this goal, the buy-in we’ve received from editors at all levels of The Washington Post and at the newspaper’s Loudoun bureau has been phenomenal.

The basic premise from the bureau will be that it will continue to write the bigger stories out of Loudoun County that work well for The Post’s entire print readership (and that will also go on the site), as well as the smaller stories that run in the newspaper’s twice-weekly Loudoun Extra zoned tabloid that’s inserted into The Post.

The bureau’s journalists also will work with LoudounExtra.com’s editor to produce daily stories that only appear on the site.

The site’s editorial team here at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive also will create daily web-only stories. These stories will include smaller police blotter-type stuff that we’ll work hard to get posted by 8:30 or 9 in the morning. Along with these police reports, we’ll also have weather reports, community news, newsworthy press releases, etc…

Though it could change once we see how things really work, our hope is to have between three and six updates a day to the site.

The local news on the site doesn’t stop there.

There also is a daily blog dedicated to checking out what others are posting. The Linked Up In Loudoun blog is a continuously updated look at interesting items published on other sites by newspapers, news organizations, local home owners associations, area volunteer fire departments, other bloggers in the region, and any other sites that mention noteworthy happenings in Loudoun.

* Exclusive databases filled with things that people want to know.

+ A searchable local calendar that has every school event, every community organization get-together, every local government meeting, every county fair, every bar band appearance, every local art exhibit, every Bible-study group, etc …

Like other sites built on the Ellington publishing platform, the site’s calendar will soon be able to send event reminders to your e-mail account or call your cell phone.

+ A huge restaurant guide with a detailed look at the more than 300 restaurants in Loudoun County. Wanna know where you can get a steak at midnight in Loudoun? Now you can find out.

+ An in-depth look at the more than 150 churches in Loudoun.

+ A massive school guide that details the roughly 80-90 schools in the county.

We talked to every school principal in the county — both public and private — and took photos and steerable 360-degree virtual reality images inside each school. The site’s school guide can tell you which schools have full-time nurses, if foreign languages are taught, how many special-education teachers are on staff, etc …

So, who did all of this work?

Well, no surprise if you’ve been reading my blog for a while: new-media editor extraordinaire Tim Richardson and multimedia content producer Cara McCoy did a ton of it.

They also got a lot of help from Emmy Crawford, our killer intern from George Mason University.

The work ethic of these three people always blows me away.

Tim estimates that it took a little over two months to get all of this information collected, with him and Cara working about 30 hours a week on the project during that period.

* Databases of public records.

Like the community-publishing tools, we haven’t quite finished these for the public version of the site, but we’re hoping to have them up some time in August. We are building searchable databases of building permits, homes sales, and many other publicly available records.

* A commitment to local multimedia journalism.

Using photo galleries, video, audio and other multimedia tools, we are committed to using LoudounExtra.com to tell the stories of our community in new and innovative ways. For a great example of this, just check out Bill Snead’s story on First Baptist Church-Watson.

(We were very lucky to have Bill work with us throughout the development of the site, as he focused on local storytelling for us. The guy is the best multimedia journalist I’ve ever met.)

* Alternate delivery/platform independent.

Though some of our alternate-delivery features are already working, more are coming. We’re hoping that by the end of August, LoudounExtra.com’s features will work on just about any device or web tool you can dream up.

* In-depth coverage of local high schools.

If you’ve seen what we’ve built in the past, this shouldn’t be a huge surprise. High school football season begins on Sept. 7 and we’ll be ready!

* Evergreen content.

Despite the new subdivisions and businesses popping up on every corner, long-time residents know that Loudoun County is steeped in history. From its central role in the Civil War to its more recent emergence as a tech hotspot and booming population center, LoudounExtra.com’s local history primer and gallery of historic photos really show the rich history of the county.

We also built an evergreen section related to moving to Loudoun County that’s filled with lots of practical information.

* Community publishing that works the way the Internet really works.

We’ve put a lot of thought into the community-publishing section of the site, and we all can’t wait to get it implemented on the LoudounExtra.com site.

Along with this content, we’re also doing a lot with local blogs, and have two staff-written blogs on the site — the one I mentioned earlier and another written by washingtonpost.com staffer (and longtime Loudoun resident) Tammi Marcoullier.

We’ll also be implementing lots of other Loudoun blogs on the site very soon.

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Let me tell you what I believe in my heart is the key to success for LoudounExtra.com. It’s not the crazy-deep databases. Or the cool multimedia. Or the ability to read a story on your iPod.

Those things are all important for lots of different reasons, but they aren’t the most important things.

The most important things we have to do on LoudounExtra.com are the daily news and breaking news. Databases are cool, but if there’s a big fire, you gotta have the latest information about it on your site or readers will just think you stink.

We’ve got to do a great job with the latest news in Loudoun County for this site to be a success. Period.

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Well, that’s a look at the ideas behind the new LoudounExtra.com site and how we defined what hyper-local meant to us.

We’ve got a ton of work/hours in the site, and we’ve still got a ton more to do. As I mentioned earlier, we have done more custom development for this site than we have for any other project we’ve ever worked on.

And it won’t be that long before these new custom apps we’ve built begin to appear on the site.

Well, I say “we” but it wasn’t really “we.” It was mostly lead programmer Deryck Hodge, along with some help from our summer programming interns — Sean Stoops and Chris McMichael (both from my alma mater, Emporia State University).

I can’t wait until you see some of the tricks that Deryck has up his sleeves for this site. Really cool stuff that I’ve never seen before.

If you’re wondering who made LoudounExtra.com look so dang cool, it was our team’s senior designer, Jesse Foltz. Yep, the same guy who designed the “onBeing” project.

Jesse kicks some serious backside.

All of the front-end coding of the site was done by Levi Chronister. Levi’s a hard-working sucker who was the editor of KUsports.com when we were both still in Lawrence. Man, do I love that guy and feel blessed to be working with him.

Before our team arrived in October of 2006, the hyper-local mantle at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive was being carried by Jonathan Krim. In fact, it was Krim who picked Loudoun County as the first market washingtonpost.com should try this strategy in.

Throughout the development of this site and the other upcoming washingtonpost.com hyper-local sites, several of Krim’s ideas will likely find their way as key components that prove their popularity and importance.

It’s never easy being the first guy with a new job that represents a new direction, and that’s what Krim did for a long time. He paved the way for LoudounExtra.com to happen.

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I guess the big question now is will The Washington Post’s hyper-local strategy work?

We just don’t know. But we also weren’t about to wait around and do nothing.

If doesn’t work, maybe I can still get hired to throw newspapers back in Lawrence.
:)

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Here’s a link to the the note I posted on the new LoudounExtra.com site that kind of walks through all of its features, if you’d like to read it.

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