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After the ‘flop’ flap: Lessons learned from Loudoun
June 8, 2008

When I woke up Wednesday morning in sunny Las Vegas, I knew there was a pretty good chance there would be a story in the Wall Street Journal about our team’s work on LoudounExtra.com.

I first read the story on my mobile-phone’s browser. I didn’t even see the article’s headline; I just dug straight into the story. When I got to the end, I thought it was basically a fair overview of our site’s strategy and shortcomings.

Then later that morning, I saw the same story in the print edition of the Wall Street Journal. There was no way I was going to overlook the headline this time.

Big Daily’s ‘Hyperlocal’ Flop

Gulp.

I’m used to the things our team builds facing criticism, but it was the first time a major business publication had called something we had built a “flop.”

From the second I was contacted by the Wall Street Journal for the story, I knew exactly what I wanted to say in the interview, which was to point out that I thought the two biggest problems with LoudounExtra.com were poor integration of the site with washingtonpost.com and not enough outreach into the community … ala basically me speaking with every community group that would have me.

And that both of those problems were my fault. Completely.

And, more importantly, I had learned from those problems and wouldn’t make those mistakes in Las Vegas, especially since I planned to make entirely new mistakes in Las Vegas.
:)

For as long as our team has been building sites, we’ve been trying to do the same basic thing: serve our audience.

We try like crazy to give our readers content that is relevant to their lives, and give them other services in any way that they want them in order to help them live their lives better and be more informed.

And do it all in entertaining and interesting ways that keep them coming back.

Some people call that “hyperlocal.” We call it doing our damn jobs.

So, when I read the Wall Street Journal story, was I upset? Well, I thought the headline was pretty rough, but — as I mentioned earlier — I thought the story was basically fair.

And about that headline …

Russell Adams, the writer of the story, talked with me on the phone the morning the article ran. He was definitely upset (and even sounded a little embarrassed) about the headline. He said he sent an e-mail to the folks at the WSJ who wrote the headline as soon as he saw it.

I can tell you I’ve worked in enough newsrooms to know how that headline got written. It also was interesting to find out that reporters at big newspapers get just as pissed off at the headlines that end up on their stories as reporters at smaller newspapers.

Ultimately, what was fascinating to me wasn’t so much the story as the reaction to it. (OK, so maybe “fascinating” and “reaction” are not the right words.)

And then there was the reaction that our team had to all that was being written about us in regards to the WSJ piece.

I’d like to share some of our team’s thoughts with you.

I can’t even tell you how damn lucky I am to work with Tim Richardson. He’s one of the best editors — print, online, whatever … — out there. And I get to work with him every day.

Here’s what Tim posted on the bivingsreport.com blog titled: “The Struggles of LoudounExtra.com.”

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I get the sense that some are assuming the journalists involved in creating and maintaining LoudounExtra.com didn’t understand Loudoun County.

I’ve worked with Rob Curley for eight years and was on his team at washingtonpost.com/LoudounExtra.com. I think Rob would agree that more could have been done to get the word out about the site. As Rob told the WSJ, he probably wishes he would have spoken to any community group that would have listened to him discuss the site.

Providing links to LoudounExtra.com from washingtonpost.com will help, too. There’s no doubt: We should have done more to get the word out.

But it wouldn’t be accurate to say that the journalists involved are “outsiders” and don’t understand the county. The editors and reporters at the Loudoun County bureau of The Washington Post have played an important role since the site’s inception. Post reporters who were covering the ins and outs of Loudoun County long before Rob’s team came into the picture are still contributing to the site on a daily basis.

Members of Rob’s team, myself included, immersed themselves into Loudoun County months before the site launched. We logged thousands of miles gathering content from all corners of the county and met with countless people in Loudoun beginning six or seven months before the launch. Once the site launched, the online staff continued covering stories with text and multimedia that complemented stories originating from the print staff. This offered readers a great deal of additional coverage of Loudoun that wasn’t available in the Post or on washingtonpost.com.

From Day One there was constant coordination between the Loudoun bureau journalists who have covered Loudoun for years and the online staff that lived and breathed Loudoun on a daily basis months before the public ever saw LoudounExtra.com. While there were issues related to how we should tell the public about the site, I don’t think that takes anything away from the journalism.

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Even our team’s senior programmer, Deryck Hodge, had things to say. Here is what Deryck posted to a blog titled “Hyperlocal hero fails, finds new job.”

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I am a programmer who worked with Rob at the Post and worked on the Loudoun site, and I’d just like to take issue with your assessment that Loudoun Extra was a “large and costly flop.” First, even though the headline on the WSJ article uses the word flop, I don’t think that’s really the heart of the piece, and second, the article certainly doesn’t describe our work as large and costly.

In fact, I would say one of the failures of Loudoun Extra is that it was only one small part of a lot of other things we were asked to do. We were one part hyper-local dev team and one part try-new-things team. We were never really able to settle in on one project with our whole attention for more than 3-6 weeks at a time. The Post most know this, too, creating two teams in place of our single unit after we leave — one for experiment development and one for hyper-local.

So I have no idea how you can determine that Loudoun Extra was “large and costly.” It was a small little site built at the same time that many other projects were built. The WSJ article focuses on that site alone, without any context of the other work we were asked to do. While I think the criticisms are relevant and worth considering, it’s also useful to know the greater context in which that one site lives.

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And this last post came from probably our team’s most interesting member, Levi Chronister. Levi is one of those geniuses who can basically do anything. Well.

But don’t try to find this post. The site where Levi posted it still hasn’t allowed his comment to be published.

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Mark,

I just wanted to make a few thoughts/clarifications on your post:

– The Fast Company article came after Rob had already been in Naples for months, not before Naples/Scripps hired him. Also, I’m 99.9 percent sure the photo idea was from their people, not Rob himself.

– Rob did not take “most of his online staff” when he left Lawrence for Naples. In fact, I was the only full-time Journal-World employee to go to Naples. Two interns also went, but the very large majority of full-timers stayed in Lawrence.

– I can’t speak exactly to Naples revenue numbers, but I’m again 99.9 percent sure that the sites/projects we built were financially strong. I will readily admit that revenue there had every bit as much to do with having a publisher (John Fish) who was a master salesman and a hard-working ad staff as anything Rob or the rest of us did, if not more (which I’m sure Rob would readily admit also).

– “Hyperlocal” was not a buzz word Rob created (or thought of) for the Post job. It’s a term that’s been around since at least the time we were in Lawrence (based on this article). I can’t remember the first time it was used to describe the work we were doing, but I know it was before we came to Washington.

– To say that the Bivings Report blog post was “abandon(ing) his teachings and pointing out his flawed plan” is a large amount of
hyperbole. Mr. Zeigler points to three takeaways, only one of which (the first) can be placed squarely and solely on the shoulders of
Rob/our team (and which Rob takes the blame for at the end of the WSJ article). The other two are organizational issues that share blame all around.

– Similarly, your “reporting today the emperor has no clothes” link goes to a blog post that is, a day later, responded to by the original writer, who admits he “inaccurately noted that LoudounExtra.com hadn’t yet rolled out high school sports”. His original post also mentions the lack of community-publishing tools, which the WSJ article explains. I don’t see where Mr. Krasilovsky points out anything along the lines of Rob being a fraud or any such thing. I might be to close to all of this to see the forest for the trees, though.

– I’ve said this in response to other blog posts, but saying that Rob “took most of his staff” is pretty darn offensive (accidentally so, I have no doubt) to those of us who have chosen to go to Las Vegas as well. We have all given a lot of thought to our options, which included staying at WPNI or looking for a job somewhere else entirely. We are leaving on our own terms, not just blindly following or being brought to Vegas on leashes.

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I’ve been trying to tell people for years that this isn’t the “Rob Curley Show.” It’s the reason why I mention the people I work with so often. They’re amazing.

They’re not only incredibly skilled, they’re incredibly passionate. Some people work at newspapers or news sites because that’s their job. Others do it because it is their passion — and that’s what drives the folks I’m lucky enough to work with.

Some might call LoudounExtra.com a “flop.” But with the amount of things our team learned from building it, I guarantee no one on our staff would.

Even if the site is eventually re-tooled, it’s hard to call something a failure if you’re a journalist and you figured out new and better ways to connect to your readers from it.

We did.

And we can’t wait to try like crazy to inform the folks who live in Las Vegas in new and lively ways.

One last thing: I’ve seen (and received) comments from several people questioning whether staying with a local strategy is the way to move forward. For most news organizations, I think it’s still the only way to go.

No one knows our communities better than we do, and if we don’t provide this content to readers in whatever way they want to receive it, someone else will. And then we’ve lost them. Likely for good.

Building a site for a small geographic region of the Washington Post’s readership area came with its own set of challenges. But our team learned a lot with LoudounExtra.com, and I’m just as convinced as ever (if not more) that serving your local community with local information is the right move.

Taking good care of your readers will always be the right answer.

Just make sure you do whatever it takes to let them know what you’ve built.

To that point, our team has a few new tricks up our sleeves that we can’t wait to try out. And to say that we’re motivated is the understatement of understatements.

We’re going to Vegas, baby!

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