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Should newspapers go "hyperlocal"?

Charles Bobrinskoy

Vice chairman, Ariel Capital Management

Charles Bobrinskoy

The second thing that's happened at the Tribune and at the L.A. Times in particular is that newspapers around the country have figured out that what you have to do today to survive is provide local news coverage. People want to read about what's going on in their own communities, and the Web usually can't provide that. The Web can tell you what's going on in Iraq; the Web can tell you what's going on in Washington, D.C. It can't tell you what's going on in Des Moines if you live in Des Moines.

The L.A. Times unfortunately hasn't figured that out. They've decided that they have to be a national newspaper with international coverage. They've got over 20 foreign bureaus, including bureaus in Istanbul and Cairo. Nobody is reading the L.A. Times wanting to find out what's happening in Istanbul, so it's critical that the L.A. Times figure out what it is, which is a provider of local news about what's going on in Southern California.

That's why we're so optimistic about the industry. If you get it right and if you are focused on covering the local news, there's still no better source for that news than the newspaper.

Rob Curley

VP, Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive

Rob Curley

You've said that, "I think newspapers lost their way and started focusing on big investigative stuff and forgot to cover the prom or 10-year-olds playing baseball."

I think it's hugely important that someone has to be the Fourth Estate. Somebody has to be looking under the table and taking care of our communities and being the watchdog. That being said, I believe in my heart that if you went into a newsroom and said, "OK, who would like to do this big investigative piece, and who would like to cover the prom?," justifiably so, I think everybody in the room would raise their hand for the big investigative piece instead of the covering the prom. I don't blame them, but at some point, we also have to serve those needs as well.

I don't think it's an either/or thing. I think we have to do big-J journalism and little-J journalism. My point in that quote is that I think that maybe we've forgotten how to do little-J journalism. Not all of us -- I just came from a 19,000-circ newspaper that knows how to do little-J journalism as well as the big, investigative, local-enterprise things. But I don't think we should underestimate the power of that, you know?

Connecting to --

Connecting to the readers. If [there are] things that they think are important, we should think [they] are important, too. Does that mean we cover every prom? No, but we should acknowledge that's an important part of someone's life. It's a hard thing to balance, and I would be the last person in the world to say that I knew the answer to what the right balance is. I just try to lead by example, and we try to do both big J and little J on the sites that we build.

Did a publisher at Lawrence or Naples come to you at any point and say, "We're making as much money or more money on our Web site and its advertising now than [in] the paper itself"?

No, no. I've never worked at a Web site where they said that the Web site was making more money than the print product.

But the projections are by everybody from [Berkshire Hathaway chair and billionaire investor] Warren Buffett to almost every investment adviser in the country that newspaper revenues are in decline; circulation is in decline. They all say to us when we interview them basically the Internet is the future. Hyperlocal Internet, Web-based - that's the future, because that's where profits are. Do you think they're going to rise fast enough to save the rest of the newsroom?

I'm not an economist, so you'll have to ask people smarter than me.

But that's the gamble people are making.

And I appreciate it because it's what my core beliefs are. I believe that the future is multiplatform publishing that's at the local level, so please keep investing in that. Please keep gambling on that.

Why did The Washington Post want you?

You would have to ask The Washington Post that. ... I think that what's being done is the commitment from the highest level of the company, is that we want to be serious about this, and the best way to invest is in people. So I hope that they thought that maybe my ideas might help.

Here's what [Washington Post Executive Editor] Len Downie told us: "The Washington Post is already making a profit and has the largest audience of any of the company's various platforms." That's the Why do you think it's so popular?

I think -- and this is me speaking more as an outsider than an insider, because I've only been in the company for two months -- it's very successful because at its core, The Washington Post is a local newspaper.

If you open The Washington Post on Saturday morning, there's going to be all these box scores from all the local high schools and photos from the local high schools. Of course we do the Redskins, and we cover sports very local. Then you open our Metro section, and we have a great local Metro section.

But our hometown is also the hometown of the president, so our hometown news has national interest. So we have this amazing asset that's right in our lap. ... We have great bureaus across the world, and we have an amazing group of journalists covering the White House and everything happening in Capitol Hill. I think that's why it's so successful. It works on a lot of levels, and because of that, success is maybe easier to have.

When we were at the Los Angeles Times, where we spent quite a bit of time, the staff was basically saying they don't have the right people or the right resources to do the Web. There wasn't a conscious decision to develop their Web site and be, if you will, hyperlocal. Do you think that may be their future? It appears they're going to go in that direction.

I think that they will. I've spoken with friends who work at the L.A. Times, and they certainly want to try to experiment with that. ... Though they want to cover the serious news very, very well for Southern California, they also know that their international brand isn't the White House; it's Hollywood. So I think that you might see them leverage that as well, but I don't know. This is all speculation. ...

I don't think they know their game plan yet. They're for sale.

Maybe that's why they haven't called me and told me what the game plan is.

The plan here at The Washington Post is to go hyperlocal, to try and do some of things that you did in Naples and Lawrence, Kan. The Washington Post really isn't known for being that much of a local newspaper, so that's a change, right? That's a management change.

... You know, hyperlocal is not -- we're not just saying that's our only game plan. There's several things that [the] Web site will be doing along with hyperlocal. You see the huge investment in multimedia, in video -- and really high-end video. We did a lot of video when I was in Lawrence. We did a lot of video when our team was in Naples.

When I got here, people were always asking, "So are you going to do video at the Post?" And my standard response was: "These guys just won a national Emmy. There's nothing they can learn from me." I mean, they're telling amazing video journalism stories; they get it. So there's commitment on the video side. There's a commitment to multiplatform publishing. There's a commitment to niche publishing. There's a commitment to spinning off different brands.

There's a lot going on to try to make sure this works. We don't have to have every one of them work in order to have success.

I was up at The New York Times. There they say that they are also going to go hyperlocal in New York City, so this is the wave of the future.

So it seems like a lot of people are throwing the phrase around.

And all of a sudden, right?

It seems pretty sudden to me.

Is it possible this is just another dot-com bubble?

Yeah, it very well could be. But I don't know. I'm not a futurist; I'm not an economist. I just try to build things that will help [people] live their lives better.

Lauren Rich Fine

Managing director, Merrill Lynch

Lauren Rich Fine

That's a little harsh. It's taken out of context, I suspect. ... If I were asked to ever come in and be a publisher or the CEO of one of these companies, yeah, there would be a bit of chaos; I would do things very differently. I don't think the old model works anymore. I don't believe consumers are willing to pay for the distinction between good-quality and poor-quality journalism, which doesn't mean you don't want to hold yourself to the standard of high-quality journalism. ...

If you can't go completely online and get rid of your production and distribution, the only other cost you have to get rid of is the editorial staff. You don't need great journalists for certain types of events. I'm not qualified to tell you what all of them are, but if I ran a local newspaper like the Cleveland Plain Dealer, I would go so heavily local that it would turn people's heads. I don't think people pick up a metropolitan newspaper today to find out about the war in Iraq or Israel. I think they pick it up to find out what's going on locally in terms of politics, in terms of crime, in terms of high school sports.

If I were covering high school sports, I would go and give a Blackberry to everybody in the audience, ... and I would have them just submit things throughout the game. I would have it all online; I would take the bad with the good, the hilarious with the way too serious. Then I would have somebody edit that and put it as an article in the paper that would make it so flavorful and full of local people's names that they would have to buy that paper because they would want to see their name in print.

If I were covering local politics, I wouldn't trust it to citizen journalists. I would trust it to a really well-educated journalist, ... but I would make sure that that reporter had a much deeper relationship with the community than they have today. I've had a chance to get to know a lot of reporters, and once you really get engaged with them, ... it's amazing how you get absolutely intrigued by what they write, because you know their personality, you know where they're coming from, and you can't wait to read either their column or their article.

[There are] ways to engage people that have not been pursued yet to the degree that they need to be. ... I've seen some really amazing investigative journalism that ended flat. ... There was no follow-up. There was no reaction. There was no suggestion of where it should go, which is what I really want that distinguishes the newspaper from other ways I could have gotten that same information. ...

If you look at the media landscape today, a lot of the growth is in television or radio or even print where there is attitude, where there's satire, where there's comedy, where there's point of view, where there are people yelling. Is that the media landscape we're in now? That's what people want?

I think that's what a portion of the population wants. There's obviously other people who would prefer to just have the news and nothing but the news. And the question is, can you satisfy all those different constituents? I think newspapers need to distinguish themselves by having a slightly greater point of view, and by that I don't mean bias. It should be clear it is someone's opinion. ... It doesn't have to be an article on a big event that has an opinion, but it could have a sidebar of this columnist's opinion of this event and how it impacts Cleveland. It should be something that says, "Let's go beyond the event and really get at how does this impact different people." ... People want contact with people, and seeing names of people they know in the paper or getting a sense of who they live around and what they think is enormously powerful.

David Hiller

Publisher, Los Angeles Times

David Hiller

There has been emphasis on turning this into a more local-coverage paper, less focus on international.

It may be too early to say. One thing I do know is that connecting with the audience in Southern California, which we do well in a lot of ways, but in being first and foremost indispensable for the people of our community, is job number one. Part of that I continue to believe is doing great foreign and intentional reporting, particularly in a market where so many of our communities -- our ethnic communities, first-, second-generation immigrants -- so to some extent, the whole distinction between foreign and local, world and local breaks down in a community as diverse and cosmopolitan as Los Angeles. ...

James O'Shea

Editor, Los Angeles Times

James O'Shea

The Chicago Tribune, before the merger, tried to go local -- hyperlocal, right?


Did it work?

It was a disaster. No, that's overstating it; it wasn't a disaster. [It] didn't work -- I mean online. We tried to go hyperlocal online with something called Digital Cities, and we put people out in the suburbs, and we put people out in all these little towns, and they gathered all this information so you could go online on what I think was then Chicago Online, and you could find out the school lunch menu and all this [stuff] they all talk about.

And nobody came. They said: "Sorry, that's not what we expect from the Chicago Tribune. We expect something different from the Chicago Tribune. If we want that kind of information, we'll go to the Pioneer Press weekly newspaper where they have all that stuff. And what we want from the Chicago Tribune," what we learn is, "is more look at the region: ... If I have an environmental problem in Arlington Heights, is it better or worse than what's happening in Oak Park?"

That was the sort of information they were expecting from us. So in terms of going online and becoming hyperlocal, that didn't work. Now, what did work is, in some cases, we did carve out about eight zones to the paper, and we would produce a locally produced metro section for each of those zones. ... But I don't think that's what everybody's referring to as hyperlocal. ...

When we broadcast this, The Washington Post is going to unveil a new hyperlocal operation, particularly in the suburbs of Washington. They have brought in Rob Curley, who was working in Kansas and then in Naples, Fla., to run these operations. So in many ways The Washington Post is sort of similar to the Los Angeles Times. It has a large metro regional area but has to cover the nation and, to a certain extent, the world. But you're not going to go in that direction. Is that what you're saying? ...

I don't know what they mean by hyperlocal. Does that mean that they're going to put reporters in all these places? I don't know. I couldn't afford to do that. ...

I think you can take a reporter or a team of reporters and put them in a region, and you can put some database people with them, and they can build sites where you can link and you can get very specific local information. But you have to say: "This is unedited. This is what you would get if you went up to the school board and asked for it." But if you want to read about what it all means, ... you're going to come to the Los Angeles Times.

Now, to me, that's good local reporting. I don't know if it's hyperlocal or if it's linked or whatever it is, but it's good local information, and this Los Angeles Times can provide that, and it will.

But when I talk to people on Wall Street or to investors in Chicago, they all say the same thing: that the Los Angeles Times in particular has to give up its bureau in Cairo, has to give up the idea that it's a national and international player. It can still have some people, but it has to redeploy its resources into this regional or metropolitan area and give up that image of itself as one of the three or four big national newspapers in the United States.

And I guess I disagree with Wall Street and with the people. Do we have to cover this area best? Yes, but I don't think that covering Los Angeles and doing a better job on local coverage means that you have to give up anything. You can do that by simply redeploying and continuing to be very aggressive on a national and global scene, if you want to call it global.

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posted feb. 13, 2007; last updated feb. 27, 2007

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