Update, Aug. 19: TBD’s current coverage is a long way from what I propose below. The Alexa Web traffic measurement service is hardly scientific, and besides, TBD has just started up; but if the service on the mark, the new site is far from an instant success. I lack access to TBD’s internal stats. – D.R.
My first editorial in my high school newspaper called for a traffic light at Gum Springs Road and Route One near Alexandria, VA.
You see, my school bus chugged along that way. And I could easily imagine an overgrown truck smacking into it, maybe right where I was sitting. But only after passionate pleas did my alarum reach print. Why bother with such a trifle? Didn’t student government count more as a topic? Safety risks be damned.
My high school editors from decades ago might as well be running the local side of Washingtonpost.com today. The Post is stellar in many ways at the national and international levels, but not as a hyperlocal or even local news source for the fast-growing suburb of Alexandria.
And I suspect that many other D.C.-area residents find Washingtonpost.com to be as sublimely useless for them as a hometown paper. I myself spend far more time nowadays reading the New York Times than the Post.
Without decent local coverage, and with chaotic Web navigation compared to the Times, what’s the point? A gaping hole exists for competitors to fill.
So TBD.com—the local Web start-up owned by Allbritton Communications and tied in with the company’s WJLA-TV—could conceivably use geo-targeted Web pages and other strategies to kick the Post’s butt at the local level. I’d also suggest a mix of more Web savvy, local and hyperlocal databases and crowd-sourcing (even, with due precautions, in the tricky area of investigative journalism). The right business strategies wouldn’t hurt, either.
Washingtonpost.com offers an Alexandria page, but much of this hometown news first appeared days ago, including the June 26 account of sex charges against a 72-year-old T.C. Williams high school teacher. Would you believe, that’s the news item at the top of the screenshot above, taken today, July 9. The next antique down is 5 Northern Virginia men convicted on terrorism charges, given 10 years in prison. They’re from near-by Fairfax County, where I grew up, and the date on that one is June 25.
Missing from the top of the Alexandria page is Fairfax board to revisit plans to transform Baileys Crossroads, a story dated July 8, just yesterday. For civic-minded Alexandria residents along the Fairfax County border, all kinds of questions arise about the 530-acre plan. Will Alexandria share in the economic benefits? What about the traffic, air pollution and perhaps spill-over people moving into Alexandria itself rather than Fairfax County? Another burden on Alexandria public schools? Or is this a Good Thing? Should everyone cheer, and should Alexandria get ready to piggyback on the Fairfax effort? Better in the end for property values and quality of life? Within the Post’s Virginia section online, as I write this, you will find the Baileys Crossroads story, but it’s underplayed, even considering it’s literally yesterday’s news; and why the devil can’t it also show up near the top of the Alexandria page? This is the Web, Ms. Weymouth and Mr. Brauchli, not print.
Now imagine TBD letting readers choose an Alexandria-focused online edition that would link not just to the Post story and those in other papers such as the Alexandria Times and Alexandria Gazette Packet, but also to bloggers passionate about their neighborhoods. And suppose there could be forums and comment areas in the actual TBD edition, with similar material linked or directly reproduced from affiliate blogs in my city? Instead of the Post broadcasting the news to me, so to speak, TBD would be serving up a truly community-oriented and comprehensive site that blended news and discussion, far more skillfully and completely than does Topix.com.
On the positive side, TBD is wisely cementing relationships with sports blogs, hobbyist blogs, hyperlocal dining guides and other specialized sites, the very kind of narrowly targeted content that so many advertisers could potentially cherish, especially if TBD skillfully aggregated the goodies. On the negative, will this by itself really be good local journalism? You also need to report civic news, like development-related topics, and that’s a challenge when so many local bloggers are driven by narrow passions and don’t want to write about their neighborhoods per se—just about dining there, for example.
TBD will either have to hire more than the approximately 50 staffers planned for the start, or try even harder than now to find the right local bloggers—or perhaps it can start or buy partial interests in local blogs or use a mix of these approaches.
Yes, to TBD’s considerable credit, it already is trying to offer detailed local and substantive coverage. When I last checked, just 22 or so of the bloggers were using a civic- or general neighborhood-oriented approach. Since then TBD has added at least several more blogs within that category, not just hobby blogs, and efforts are ongoing. But for now we’re still not talking about coverage of civic affairs as thorough as I have in mind.
One partial solution would be for affiliates to turn to invite readers to send in heartfelt hyperlocal commentary and even videos. Look at the above YouTube and the explanatory article from New York City’s Westside Independent, about which I wrote on July 2 while discussing TBD and the civic blogging issue.
"Just two weeks ago," Independent Editor Avi Salzman emailed me when I asked this month for details about his operation, "there were a couple of very serious accidents around the same intersection on the Upper West Side. Two different people sent me photos of each of the accidents, and after I posted them along with info from the fire department another person made a video of why he thinks the intersection was dangerous. It was very heartening." Avi, in fact, gets half a dozen “good tips” in a typical week. “If I had a staff,” he told me, “I would have two or three times as much original coverage.” TBD’s blogger affiliates ideally can draw the same participation—and perhaps pass news tips themselves to TBD, one way to stretch the 50-person staff.
For TBD and its civic bloggers, I would also suggest elaborate databases of local and hyperlocal information and crowd-sourced monitoring of them, along with tools for citizens to take immediate action. The databases could track crime and traffic accident statistics and individual incidents, real estate values, proposed zoning changes, other local laws, health code violations and local political contributions, among many other categories. Ideally there would also be full records of city budgets, as well as timely transcripts of city council and county board meetings, plus government salary records, as well as school test scores and other educational information and census data, citizen-written reviews of services such as schools, and other Yelp-style opinions—with the affiliate bloggers and TBD teaming up to push for information from government sources when politicians and bureaucrats did not offer it. The MSNBC-owned EveryBlock network, in Chicago, New York, D.C. and 13 other cities is a worthy endeavor, but I see the project as just a start, especially when it comes to presentation of content.
TBD and its affiliates, in particular the Georgetown Daily Dish, which has picked up Web talent from AOL, could package local and hyper local information to make it easy to digest and as actionable and spreadable as possible.
What do I mean by easy to digest? I can envision a home-page “dashboard” showing major trends of the moment and also offering links to in-depth information. Readers could benefit from numbers and colorful graphics offering all kinds of data at both macro and micro levels. For example, TBD and its network could not only come up with statistical criteria to help rate the overall quality of life in neighborhoods for the population as a whole, but also break the information down by income or educational level or other demographics, such as by race.
Readers could even supply their own rating systems for optional use. Potentially controversial? Yes, but in a constructive way that helps people get more engaged as readers and citizens. Similarly readers could create filters and other means for their fellow community members to process the information.
Furthermore, trend-related statistics could be sources of anecdote-enlivened news stories encompassing both the “why” and possible solutions to problems. TBD could teach affiliates how to express the numbers in human terms—both positive and negative. We could learn about the neighborhood girl who overcame socioeconomic barriers and got into Harvard, having helped to jack up those test scores. Tie in stories about individuals with the stat-based news and vice versa, just as newsweeklies have done. The big difference is that the stories would be fresh. The New York Times has also excelled in making numbers come alive; and with proper guidance, so could most civic bloggers among the TBD affiliates if they wanted to.
Proposed zoning changes and development in general would be steadily monitored by TBD and affiliates, so that readers would learn immediately of plans from stores, restaurants or builders—and follow the decision-making process effortlessly. "How did I not know this was happening?" Maggie Hilliard, an e-book-related marketing manager tweeted earlier this week. "There will soon be a @Target in Manhattan—very close to my neighborhood. I. DIE." Whether she loved or hated Target, the journalism world may have failed her, just as the Washington Post local section on the Web constantly disappoints me. Did she regularly read a hyperlocal site, and if so, did it send her emails on topics of her choice?
Ideally, hyperlocal sites could also let readers mix and manipulate information—in a spreadsheet way, not an evil press agent way—to determine, for example, if a strong correlation existed between successful zoning variance applications (or city contracts) and local political contributions. Let the contracts database and the donations one be tightly linked. In general, in fact, I’d suggest that TBD work with affiliates to structure information within the databases so that it was usable as possible. Make this easier via a master database in the cloud, perhaps, with affiliate backups encouraged? “The majority of newspapers take the time to collect this information—which is the hard part—but they dramatically reduce its value by not storing it in structured formats,” the Online Journalism review has quoted EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty. “Instead, they distill it into big blobs of text for publication in their print editions, and then they shovel those big blobs of text onto their websites. At this point, all structure is lost: Crime reports can’t be sorted or searched intelligently, and event listings can’t be viewed in any sort of user-friendly way." TBD, please, help your affiliates overcome these challenges, if this isn’t in the plans already?
But what is actionable information? The dashboard could include super-simple forms for contacting appropriate officials—for example, city council and zoning commission members. What’s more, people could easily email the information to friends and use social networks, in addition to sending copies to TBD and affiliate blogs. What a contrast this would be to the Washington Post, which, although letting readers comment on various articles, really does not play up interactive capabilities in the systematic way I’ve described above. Facebook links and Twitter links and the like are pathetically inadequate by themselves. Same for "Fix this" forms that some newspaper sites offer to help you to complain about potholes and the rest.
So what would this mean in terms of investigative journalism? Well, with comprehensive and well-structured databases and enough engaged readers, the grassroots could regularly scoop the pros at TBD—for example, identifying a heavy political donor with a suspicious knack for bagging down government contracts (the Post has very laudably experimented with crowd-sourced scrutiny of some documents to identify important points). TBD could pick up the highlights and package the alerts in fair, professional ways, taking advantage of access to many databases and civic-minded affiliates to spot and write about area-wide trends. At the same time readers—actually, reader-researcher-writer-citizens, aka RRWCs—could see and act on the data at the hyperlocal level. We’re talking about some major crowd-sourcing. If nothing else, I’d certainly advise TBD to consider the use of carefully vetted experts to help digest complex information for at least certain investigative stories. In Florida, Gannett recruited accountants, engineers and government-hip people as volunteer advisors on a sewer story.
But how to keep all this affordable, beyond using free open source software? That is one of the advantages of a network approach—spreading the costs. TBD and the affiliates could agree on technical standards and practices and slowly build the technical infrastructure and stock it the databases with information. Is it necessary for all of these miracles to happen this very nanosecond? Of course not. Just allow for future scalability. I’m merely suggesting that TBD and affiliates prioritize and work toward comprehensive and ongoing neighborhood profiles and news alerts (discoverable via email or RSS feeds, of course, not just readable on the dashboards).
I’d also suggest that if the TBD staff is not large enough to cover such a wide geographical area in detail, then the Allbritton interests could consider starting new bogs and investing in appropriate existing ones, with the understanding that there would be sufficient neighborhood coverage. The existence of the databases would make this much easier, since so much of the news would be easy pickings—already identified trends at the local and hyperlocal levels.
The databases would be handy tools, too, for prospective advertisers, some of whom might pay for more detailed demographical information. TBD and affiliates could also work with advertisers to build their own community pages, to which the main site and the others could link, with sponsorship information and other identifiers to avoid confusion with independent sites. All kinds of possibilities emerge. For example, without imposing on residents who didn’t want to go public with their interests, a large apartment complex might find that X percentage of people in it were canoeists or watched a popular TV program or enjoyed a certain kind of book, and consenting residents could even be featured in advertisements, maybe in return for reduced rent. In other words, certain advertisers could sell community along with their products or services. For pay, TBD’s business side could even set up and maintain online communities for the residents of specific complexes to enjoy.
Without financial sustainability, the journalism I have in mind here can go only so far. "I am far from a hyperlocal evangelist (the revenue potential is very sketchy right now)," Avi tells me, "but running the site has been a revelation for me, in terms of community engagement." Is there a way to turn this engagement into dollars and cents without compromising the Independent journalistically and while still looking out for readers’ interests? Same for TBD. Perhaps even though Avi is in the New York rather than Washington area, he and TBD should be partnering up in various ways, assuming that the New York Times or another NYC giant doesn’t buy him out first. Meanwhile TBD would do well to make Peace Corps-style appeals—community service and all that—and be very, very restrained about the financial potential, especially of civic-oriented blogs. What’s the point of bragging about “’no cap to the upside’” if the revenue is low for now and maybe forever?
I’ve made these friendly suggestions in a TBD context, but if the Post is paying attention—I won’t get my hopes up—then so much the better. Alas, for now, in many ways, L Street’s current metropolitan-heavy approach may be discouraging citizen involvement at the hyperlocal level. Metropolitan news is essential, given how intertwined the people of the Washington area. I agree that more than a few work in suburbs across town from their residences. But shouldn’t the Post do more to alert people about news in their own backyards—even the neighborhood level? Will the Post forever make the mistake it did with LoudounExtra and fail to think sufficiently about individual neighborhoods, as opposed to an entire county or counties? Anything positive? Has the Post allied with EveryBlock (founder Holovaty, pictured, once worked as a techie-journalist hybrid for the Post and is still active in his neighborhood-news company despite the MSNBC ownership)? Or might it strike a deal in the future with EveryBlock, before a competitor like TBD swoops in, assuming this hasn’t happened already?
No, I won’t dismiss the Post as a superb local or hyperlocal news source in the future if it can learn; and remember, there’s the tricky little issue of whether TBD.com can gracefully evolve from an embryonic site to a genuine reporter and aggregator of news and opinion. But for the moment, TBD seems to be far more sensible about community engagement, and some months or years from now, the results could be bad news for the L Street if it does not come up with a suitable response, especially since WJLA-TV can spread around TBD’s highlights and help generate traffic. If WJLA eventually moves to the Net in a big way, increasing opportunities for direct linking, that could make even more difference.
As if the above isn’t enough, the Post may have to contend not just with TBD and EveryBlock but with a slew of other hyperlocal competitors such as Main Street Connect, which hopes to start up 450 URLs in the New York DMA alone.
Simply put, the Post and TBD will both need coherent strategies and good execution. Think grand visions if you want. But don’t forget Gums Springs Road and Route One.