It isn't exactly breaking new ground to say many newspapers are struggling. Nor is it breaking new ground to argue that newspapers have to cover the heck out of their local communities--so-called hyperlocalism--in order to win back readers and advertisers.
But what do you do when hyperlocalism doesn't work? The Wall Street Journal Wednesday has a (troubling, if you're in the newspaper business) look at The Washington Post's experiment in hyperlocalism, LoudounExtra.com. The site, despite a slick design and plenty of news about the goings on in Loudoun, an affluent Virginia county, has been a disappointment since it was launched last July (though the article stops short of saying by what measurement the site has been a disappointment).
Seems a few things have gone wrong, according to the Journal. To start, the people building the Post's local site didn't get out into the community enough. They were outsiders trying to cater to a local audience, and they haven't made strong connections to community groups. This isn't a new problem for small newspapers, of course. It's rare that the people covering the town council meeting are actually from that town. More likely, it's a young journalist trying to get some decent clips so they can get the heck out of town and move on to a better job.
There have been other issues: The Post hasn't firmly established basic rules like linking policies between the main WashingtonPost.com site and the localized Web site. Loudoun County is a large area with various communities, so it's difficult to buttonhole residents into a particular interest. And The Washington Post parent company has been reluctant to allow community-building efforts such as an application that could have funneled content from sites such as Flickr and YouTube to LoudounExtra.com.
Does that mean hyperlocalism isn't worth the effort? Not at all. The Post still plans at least one other local news site. Beyond the Post, other more intensely localized efforts, such as a University of Kansas sports site spun out of the Lawrence Journal-World newspaper, have been more successful, according to the Journal.
With some changes and better community outreach, LoudounExtra.com could still be successful. But its struggles so far indicate that bringing outsiders in to do a fancy Web site isn't good enough. You need real community connections, because locals can smell a carpetbagger a mile away.