The cult of Rob Curley (or, another look at hyperlocal)

For Monday, now that we have some time before the midterm is due, let’s revisit hyperlocal journalism, which is perhaps one of the most central concepts of this course. We need to understand what uber-local news is, how it’s done, and when it succeeds … and when it doesn’t.

There’s quite a bit of reading here, but it’s worth it. Ready?

Start with the basics. This entire Nieman Reports issue (see the “is local news the answer?” collection of articles) is a great resource on the subject, but don’t worry—just pick one or two of these pieces that looks most interesting to you, to whet your appetite.

Next, let’s consider the case of Rob Curley. First, read this rather breathless profile of him from 2006 (and catch examples of his work); then, catch up with this postmortem of hyperlocal’s “flop” at the Washington Post. Curley and many of his friends are now at the Las Vegas Sun, where almost overnight they’re turning a little-known news org into a flagship example of really cool online journalism.

Finally … as we consider the struggles of Curley, Backfence (see my post earlier this week), and others, we need to understand how and why hyperlocal, for all its promise and potential for “saving” newspapers, so far has failed to develop a sustainable business model (but, then, what has in online journalism!?). As this American Journalism Review piece noted:

The failure of Backfence may offer no greater lesson than the old one about pioneers being the ones with arrows in their backs. New ventures fail all the time. But it could also sound a cautionary note about the present–and immediate future–of hyperlocal news sites. As big-media companies and entrepreneurs alike rush into the hyperlocal arena (see “Really Local,” April/May), it’s worth pausing and asking: Is there a real business in this kind of business? So far–and admittedly it’s still very early –the answer is no.

I know this is a lot of information here … so let’s synthesize it. For Monday, please respond with your take on hyperlocal journalism, focusing particularly on the lessons learned for making it more successful and sustainable in the future.


14 Responses to “The cult of Rob Curley (or, another look at hyperlocal)”

  1. 1 Caitlin W October 4, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    I read about efforts at the Dallas Morning News in the Nieman Reports to localize reporting, and they primarily focus on putting voices, in a section actually titled “Voices,” that do not normally get any print space or air time. According to the story, it seems that this has been incredibly successful. Not only are more and more people applying to participate, but chosen participants actually receive a great deal of fan mail, meaning they are speaking to their communities and putting authentic perspectives on local issues. Curley seems to have done some incredibly innovative things – reading the track list of some of his innovations, they all seem SO cool. But a lot of them are widget-type features (like having the weather graphics change on a skyline of your city,) and while I am sure they will attract readers (*I* would certainly be more likely to visit a site regularly that had cool features like this!) I don’t necessarily think they are enough to save sites like LoudonExtra. I think that, in the article, it pointed out two main problems that went wrong, and that hyperlocal journalism should avoid if it wants to be successful: first, you need authentic reporters working in an area who are very familiar with the area. They need to know who to talk to, and what issues are important to the community. Having innovative outsiders come in can definitely be helpful with more creative ideas about news delivery, but for the actual news reporting, it needs to come from locals (reporters AND citizens) to be relevant. Secondly, there were too many restrictions via the Washington Post placed on Curley. Since Flickr and YouTube generated content seems to be making the Las Vegas Sun wildly popular, clearly these things would have been worth implementing on LoudonExtra. I did some searching around the Sun website, and it still seems to me (though I could have been missing it) that, while incredible local reporting is going on, there is still way too much gatekeeping in terms of what local citizens get to input. That’s why the Nieman report on the Dallas Morning News was so good – DMN is giving local people a big voice. (Although, to be fair, there is still a great deal of gatekeeping going on there – they interview people who apply to participate, and then they don’t necessarily use every editorial written by every participant every time.) That, in my opinion, should be the main thrust of hyperlocal news. Not just covering tons and tons of local news stories, from big to small (though that is certainly an amazing feature of the web,) but also giving more people a chance to be heard.
    Also, as an aside – Curley needs to stop saying dude!!!

  2. 2 Brittany October 4, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    I read the Nieman Reports artice “Global Issues Viewed Through Local Eyes” which made the point that journalists are counting on local news interest to “save the mainstream media from oblivion.” I think this correlates well with what we have talked about in class – the importance of keeping coverage relevant to a local audience. People don’t want to read or comment on articles that don’t directly relate to them or their community. Taking a global story, in the article’s case global warming, and localizing it ensures keeping people’s interests and readership. This all is the essence of hyperlocal journalism.

    It’s obvious that the thing that makes hyperlocal journalism sites successful is their ability to reach the targeted audience in an effective way. As was illustrated with, unless you know what your readers are looking for, you won’t be able to create a site that will successfully draw them in.

    I think the thing to keep in mind with hyperlocal journalism is the fact that revenue and success are also dependent on population size. A hyperlocal journalism site in my hometown of roughly 9,000 wouldn’t achieve nearly the same status as Curley’s Las Vegas Sun site. For the most part, when it comes to local stories the only people who care are those in the vicinity, so there is a limit to how successful this movement can be.

    I do agree that local news coverage will help the media, though. I think that people are so spoiled to interesting coverage that they only pay attention now to things that pique their interest or that affect them directly. Having a news organization with this focus keeps people interested in news, a fact that is good for all us journalism majors!

  3. 3 Digidave October 5, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    Just coming in as an outsider – this class looks awesome!!

    You guys are certainly looking at the bleeding edge issues in journalism today.

    Keep it up.

    Whoever the teacher is – you rock!

  4. 4 Caroline Page October 5, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    I believe that no matter the amount of interesting/crazy/significant/bizarre/controversial national and international news stories there are, people care about what’s going in their community the most. Okay, I know that’s not some ground-breaking statement and I’m reiterating what Curley has focused his career around, but I think journalists often forget this fact. As with my experience in being around other journalism students or young budding journalists, we’re always wanting to cover the “big” and most important stories and can lose sight of digging around for those great, seemingly unimportant, local human interest stories. Any national story can have a local angle!

    I thought these readings and examples of successful local news sites were beneficial to investigate because they provided great examples of affective ways to “reach” the community. I know from experience with my family and community that I grew up in (which is Austin – Austin High School) that people are way into high school sports, especially football! My brother was the Austin High QB last year, so my family was immersed in local news because of “Friday Football Fever” and stuff like that. People loooooove to see their friend/son/daughter/parent on the news and thrive off of that kind of coverage. Whether or not it’s the most significant and Earth-shattering news story is irrelevant to the local community. For example, I know Austinites (who care about hs football) would be really excited about an online forum where you could get constant coverage, phone updates, etc. and be directly involved with the site. Let me just say, my brother and dad would be really into that! And the site/application could be financially successful because businesses could advertise to such a niche group.

    It sounds simple, but I think the most important aspect of creating efficient and effective hyperlocal journalism is for the journalist to put themselves in the shoes of the community. As Curley addressed with the flop of the Washington Post site, you have to whole-heartedly familiarize yourself with the locals to “become one of them” and find out what they care about. Every neighborhood and town is different, so you can’t cut and paste from other city’s sites.

    p.s. Seth, did you get one of your friends or colleagues (Digidave) to write this post complimenting you and our class? 🙂

  5. 5 Briana C October 6, 2008 at 12:10 am

    i think the idea of hyperlocal journalism is awesome. That’s the thing that probably struck me so much during all the reading… everything stemmed from some good ideas. I took a class on creativity in american culture, so it was interesting to see the theories i learned in that class as they pertain to my degree (like the idea of media convergence and having a large workroom that encourages open dialogue and sharing of ideas). Like Caroline said, it’s obvious that people want to know about what they care most about..a aka the stories that impact them directly. But i also thin it’s neat that hyperlocal news hubs can concentrate on little things and show how they aren’t so little after all (like the little league players and teams).

    At the heart of all of the readings, the basic principles for web 2.0 were enforced. A successful web venture must be conversational in tone, interactive, community and connectivity enhancing, immediate, and easy to navigate and understand. Something that wasn’t often mentioned, though, was the necessity for good writers. We understand the necessity for geeky, technological saavy types to wquip the site with web 2.0 features, but as far as the journalistic aspect of it goes, i think a site void of good writing will die just like a site that doesnt promote community. It also gives the reader a place to have their voice heard. a quote that struck me was, “By recognizing and validating the reader’s role in breaking news, we create a loyal and active readership, which over time does more of the reporting work that likely began with those who conceived the site.” This toots the horn for citizen journalism.

    While this idea of hyperlocal journalism has taken over internet news sites, i fear that it will become peoples one stop news shop. In a perfect world, i would like to see hyperlocal sites used as a supplement for mainstream news instead of a replacement. The US media has been criticized for its lack of international coverage… the average american has no idea what’s going on in the world beyond their backdoor. With this new trend, journalists now need to figure out how to make international news just as interesting.

  6. 6 jeffbechdel October 6, 2008 at 12:31 am

    The Nieman report about the undercovered Alabama college corruption is a perfect example of how hyperlocal can and does work effectively. I think casting broad, sweeping generalizations about hyperlocal news is foolish. Just like in any other facet of journalism, some are done well and provide a useful service to the news consumer. Others do not. Hyperlocal news for the sake of hyperlocal news is just as bad at that level as it is at the national level. As long as there’s a news story (again, I refer to the Alabama case… good reporting needs to be a part of this conversation, too), then there will be a group of people eagerly awaiting that story.

    Steering this a little toward the site that I’m analyzing, it becomes clear pretty quickly which topics resonate with readers and which are overlooked by them. In my site’s case, issues of safety and “neighborhood watch” are much more actively discussed than others. The “know your audience” tenet of journalism does not change–it actually becomes much more important.

    I suppose if I had to boil down what I took from this is that it’s not any different than regular journalism, but it needs to be viewed as just another branch of a much larger animal. In doing so, we can stop asking questions about what it is and how it works, and start covering local issues that matter.

  7. 7 Holley N October 6, 2008 at 12:56 am

    I read “Investigative Reporting Stays Local,” by Ken Armstrong in the Nieman Reports. I think there is a lot of truth to what he says here. Many journalists want to change the world, but they overlook investigating local issues. I actually went to the Texas Association of Broadcasters workshop this weekend. Two of the sessions I attended were on investigative journalism and computer based reporting. The speaker emphasized how hyperlocal reporting is key to viewership. As a reporter in Houston, he has actually broken many local investigative stories that ended up having national repercussions.

    I think focusing locally is where the audience is, because your audience is interested in what directly affects them. If you want to expend your audience (which I’m pretty sure most newsrooms do,) then I think to some extent, you have to feed people news they care about. And, let’s face it: The exposed truth about your child’s principal is far more interesting to most viewers/readers, than a remote national story that most people won’t remember.

    The reporter I heard this weekend talked about an investigative story he did about gas pumps cheating consumers. Now, you may have heard this story (or some variation of it,) but you probably didn’t know that there is a website where you can type in your zip code and find pumps in your area that have been fined for cheating consumers. My point is: this reporter says he didn’t know how to get this information on the Internet, but he knew the audience would want the information. So, he asked the web people in his newsroom to put it online. He realizes what the audience wants. Minutes after telling viewers the website, before the newscast was over, he said the server crashed because so many people were typing in their zip codes. This proves that hyperlocal reporting DOES matter a lot, and in the future we, as journalists, MUST figure out away to catch the audiences attention… to engage the audience, otherwise, we won’t survive.

    Yes, it may sound selfish, but when you really think about it, regardless of your audience, we all care about what is happening to us and those closest to us first…and we usually want to talk about it. As far as the future is concerned, newsrooms should constantly be thinking—what tools could I use to make this easier, and more interactive for the audience?

  8. 8 pieper12 October 6, 2008 at 1:34 am

    I read the Nieman’s Report article “Local Voice- Once Quiet-now heard” and learned a lot.

    First of all, I have stated before, but I think hyperlocal journalism is where the future stands. I think it is very important to gain readers’ attention, but I think it is even more important to allothe readers to become engaged in the story and voice their opinion.

    I thought it was interesting how the article discussed avoided bipartisanship. It is almost inevitable that someone is going to voice their opinion, especially in this city. It gives readers a more personal feel with the writers.

    I thought the writer did well choosing this quote.

    “These columnists provide that in a way the typical journalist cannot. They see their world differently, and they write because they have something to say. Perhaps that is why readers don’t accuse them of writing just to sell newspaper.”

    There are also incentives for contributing writers.

    I think having community journalists at an editorial meeting is a good idea because it helps show them what they are able to do for the magazine and to voice their opinions. The journalists on the “outside” are more likely able to seek out stories and to give the station feedback about how people respond to their articles.

  9. 9 Raquel October 6, 2008 at 8:05 am

    So I read the stories and links in the order they were assigned, but the one that struck me most was the part in Teaching Online Journalism that explains why the Las Vegas Sun is so great. Yes, they do video. But they offer an HDTV option, you can subscribe to their video RSS, they’re in iTunes, Youtube, and they have their own TV channel. As Williams said, “We shoot a lot of video, but it gets used in a lot of places.”

    It is an interesting sign of success that in a town of 82,000 residents, the average visitors to the University of Kansas Jayhawks team ranged from 500,000 to 13 million. And on another note, perhaps having the possibility to engage with a reporter is not something new to me, but the possibility of talking to victims? To those affected in news stories? That’s really going online.

    From the Nieman reports I read a story about the decline of newspapers, that discusses how teachers no longer use print editions of news, that people tend to go for brand-name newspapers like the Times and Washingtonpost, foregoing their local news for broader mainstream news. Local papers are also struggling against local broadcasters that are finding outlets online, facing increasing competition. I also read a story called What readers mean when they say they want local news. Mary Nesbitt’s calls local news micro-news, news that’s fit for the consumer in two ways: in topics that interests the local consumer, and presented in ways that engages him/her. But she doesn’t discuss how journalists can positions themselves online and make a business out of it.

    I think that as long as the news outlet positions itself where the user is, whether it’s in front of the TV, on their mobile, on their social networks, if it uses the tools the user uses daily to connect with other people then it should be able to connect with the user too. The site put out by WashingtonPost was unsuccessful in part because Curley and his team failed to immerse in the community and absorb all its ins and outs, as he himself said. But I also think it might have failed because it’s too broad. I mean yes, it’s local, but it’s not like the Jayhawks site that launched him into fame that has a very specific niche. Or the successful Vegas site he’s building, that also has a specific niche and an amount of people interested in Vegas (from residents to travelers) that’s always there. The thing also with the Loudoun is that it tried to encompass a very different population, with a lot of diversity, whereas Vegas or Jayhawks have many things in common.

    The business is in the linking, of people, of news, of sites, of businesses. I think that mastering the features of vertical in-depth detailed coverage with ALL SORTS OF VERY VARIED AND DIFFERENT TOOLS that can appeal to a massive audience, as well as niche-oriented models are ways to reach success in the online sphere.

  10. 10 Jane Kim October 6, 2008 at 8:11 am

    The articles that had titles that grabbed my attention the most were “Global Issues Viewed Through Local Eyes” and “Local Voices – Once Quiet – Are Heard.” Unfortunately, the “Global Issues” article only focused on the environmental issue, and I wished it had covered various areas of global issues. However, the “Local Voices” article combined with Rob Curley’s examples showed a lot of clarity on what hyperlocal journalism should be about.

    A quote from the “Local Voices”: “To be a Community Voice, a volunteer columnist for The Dallas Morning News’s editorial page, the person needs to think locally, write well, tell us something we don’t know, and be persuasive.”

    Rob Curley : “I want a site to be so cool and important to people that they talk about it the way you talk about having a great park where you live. It’s a local amenity.”

    I think the reason why hyperlocal journalism works is because it’s like friends hanging out and talking about what’s been happening around their town. It is definitely more persuasive because if a journalist in Washington talks about the problems in Austin, people won’t believe him. What does a journalist in Washington know about Austin and would he even care, really? But when a local person writes about his/her views about the community, people can relate to the story.

    And people are vast seas of information that journalists need to tap into. Before, it used to be so hard to find a person that knew the historical background and interesting tidbits about a local site. Journalists had to go door to door and dig out information. But now we can make the people come to us, and voluntarily give their information. And the best way to do that is to be like Rob Curley and the Dallas Morning News – make the process so enjoyable that the citizens want to be a part of it.

    Journalists seem to worry that news is becoming just another entertainment channel, but I disagree. I think that making news sites enjoyable is not just to entertain the readers, but it’s for making the news even better by inviting more participation. Thus, I think the newsrooms should not be thinking, “how can I entertain my audience?” but “how can I reach out to people, so that they will help me make the news better?”

  11. 11 Mollie B. October 6, 2008 at 8:40 am

    One of the Neiman Reports that I read was “Newspapers’ Niche: ‘Dig Deeply Into Local Matters’.” This article used the example of a newspaper in Alabama to make the point that newspapers have a special place in the news media for covering their community. The article says that it is the job of newspapers to give the readers of their community the latest and most important local news to them. One point made in the article was that different media have different purposes. It stated that broadcast news don’t really have a reason to be “hyper-local,” that radio really doesn’t have time to do it, bloggers have no agenda for it, and the national media doesn’t have the interest to cover it. So the most interesting, close-to-home stories need to be covered by local newspapers.

    I thought that the work of Rob Curley was a great example of this too. His little league digital baseball cards, the data-base of high school sports statistics, the local forecasts that look local, etc., are all great examples of covering what is most important to a community. Providing such unique products as these helps to give the community a voice and allows its members to engage in an ongoing dialogue, which certainly seems like something we need more of these days.

  12. 12 Laura C. October 6, 2008 at 9:13 am

    I definitely think that hyperlocal journalism can and does work, for some areas. Everyone wants to know what is going on in their particular communities (whether that’s literal, as in your local living community, or an interest based community)

    I think we’ve already talked about it, but I really think that Bluffton Today is a great example of hyperlocal journalism – I LOVE that they take the internet user generated content and make a print version available to less computer-savvy people.

  13. 13 Kristin October 7, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    Hyper-local journalism. Could be the savior of the former newspaper. It brings us back to realize what people really looked for in a local paper: the little league baseball game, the neighborhood happenings, the people you know, living their lives. What we can learn from hyper-local websites is that they bring to the table all that local coverage and then some.

    Master the obvious, as Curley says, is step one in a successful HL website. Yes, but also, do it 100%. I think what we learned from the failure or non-success of LoudonExtra was the fact that the community was bigger than the journalism performed. Since the area (comprising many nearby cities) was so much larger than the Kansas town where Curley started, it took way more effort, and they weren’t giving it.

    Also, the content must be extremely well reported, immediate, and multimedia oriented. I loved that Crowley had a feature of covering KU basketball that involved a video game with commentary–unique AND interesting. Being innovative and energetic is a must…and fearless when it comes to trying new tech concepts. In the world of the internet, try and fail is better than wait and see.

    I also noticed Curley’s intent on depth. Locality is only as good as it is descriptive. Gone are the days of measuring stories in inches. Say it well, but say it all…if it’s important.

  1. 1 Monday musings « The Future of Journalism Trackback on February 16, 2009 at 2:19 pm

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