The folly of “local local”

As news organizations try to figure out how to survive, many of them have latched on to the mantral of “hyperlocal” news. Now, the Wall Street Journal is calling one online experiment in that arena a “flop:” The Washington Post’s LoudonExtra.com that launched almost a year ago.

LoudounExtra.com offers detailed databases including every church, restaurant and school in Loudoun County, about 25 miles west of Washington, D.C. 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.

But LoudounExtra.com remains little more than a skeleton of the site its architects pledged to build. One reason: the team of outsiders didn’t do enough to familiarize itself with Loudoun County or engage its 270,000 residents.

RogueColumnist Jon Talton calls this “sadly predictable”–a consequence of short-sighted newspaper managers cutting staff to save money and betting that tech wizards would save them.

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….Technology can enhance news coverage; it can’t substitute for serious reporting and great writing.

Talton says it may be too late to avoid the “real catastrophe” of major newspapers shutting down even in one-paper towns. That’s a mighty gloomy prediction. Local TV isn’t in great economic shape either, but despite all the staff cutbacks in TV newsrooms, the headlines this week were about stations adding news–another hour in the morning in Chicago, two more half hour newscasts each day in Houston. Doesn’t sound like they’re ready to pull the plug. What major newspaper’s going to go dark first?

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