Will Wash Post Take Another Run at Hyperlocal Under John Temple?

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After crashing and burning in Northern Virginia’s highly competitive hyperlocal space in 2009, the Washington Post has spent the intervening time passively watching competitors from old and new media alike populate its metro backyard — the fifth-biggest consumer market in the U.S.

But it looks like the Post is about to shake off its passivity and again take a run at local audiences and ad dollars. The big, signifying tea leaf is the Post’s appointment of John Temple as managing editor for local news. As editor and publisher of the now-extinct Rocky Mountain News, Canadian-born Temple led development of the YourHub local online network in metro Denver. YourHub was a pioneer in both community news on the Web as well as in enlisting average citizens to help produce that news. In 2010 Temple launched and edited the engagement-focused site Civil Beat site in metro Honolulu bankrolled by civic advocate/philanthropist Pierre Omidyar, founder of PayPal.

Reinforcing my hunch is what I was told by one highly placed media honcho who was interviewed by the Post about Temple before he was hired: “It was clear from the [HR staffer’s] questions that digital content was written all over them.” That jibes with what will be Temple’s informal but revealing title in the Post newsroom – “senior digital editor,” bestowed on him by executive editor Marcus Brauchli.

In his announcement to the Post’s editorial staff, Brauchli lavished praise on Temple’s achievements (“We’re excited to have someone of John’s luminous talents join us…”). But it’s telling that while Brauchli mentioned Temple’s role in helping to launch the pioneering Civil Beat, he conspicuously didn’t mention YourHub, Temple’s earlier, more ambitious digital undertaking in metro Denver’s many communities.

YourHub was ballyhooed by Temple as an exemplar of “citizen journalism,” but in reality it was mostly a conglomeration of press releases and puffery that was pumped through the network’s porous registration system. Mixed in with this bulking agent was hard and soft news reported by community contributors and staff reporters freshly recruited from schools of journalism who had seemingly little, if any, guidance from Rocky editors.

After the Denver Post took over YourHub in the wake of the Rocky’s shutdown by E.W. Scripps, it dismantled much of the YourHub structure developed by Temple and his team. In particular, it began emphasizing staff-written articles and providing more editorial oversight, but the network, shorn of Scripps’ original ambitions to scale it nationally, is still a work in progress. Compete puts YourHub’s monthly unique visitors at 72,805. That’s well ahead of the 45,004 UVs when the Denver Post launched the revamped site in August 2011, but a tiny fraction of the 1.3 million adults whom the Post counts as its readers.

With Civil Beat, Temple was much more successful as an innovator in digital news. The site is a stimulating mix of journalism produced by both staff pros and members of the community who are prompted to react to questions posed by the site’s editors, like why do Hawaiian Islanders use so many throwaway plastic containers. To prime the community on that particular topic, Civil Beat published nine stories on the subject before it created a forum for the plentiful “wisdom of the crowd” that followed.

The Post is not exactly a pitiful, helpless giant in the digital space of metro Washington (population: 5.6 million). It owns the long-established and highly regarded Gazettes that operate 14 news-packed sites serving 40 communities in Montgomery, Frederick and Prince George’s counties of suburban Maryland (109,282 UVs, according to Compete). The Gazettes also publish weekly print versions. The weak link in Post’s digital reach is in Northern Virginia, where, surprisingly, it has only one site that tries to cover all the communities in Fairfax County.

Says Mary Kimm, editor and publisher of The Connections, which serve 16 communities in Fairfax and others elsewhere in Northern Virginia with print and Web publications: “Every reader in the D.C. area will appreciate an expanded Post commitment to local coverage. But pursuing hyperlocal is hard work, both on the news/community side and the revenue side. The Connection is fully committed to that niche; we have no other mission.”

In close-in Arlington, which the Post does not cover close up, Scott Brodbeck, founder of two-year-old ARLNow, had this to say about the Temple hire: “I’m not too worried. I don’t think it will have any meaningful impact on my business. I think the Post will continue to have a higher-level focus on the metro area, which will leave organizations like mine to cover the more granular, day-to-day community-level news. On the business side, the Post will likely continue its sales focus on larger, regional advertisers, while ARLnow.com remains focused on smaller, local advertisers.”

The Post is co-owner of the Washington Suburban Press Network, which aims at regional and national advertisers. It can offer a slice-and-dice combination of up to 672,583 unique visitors from a mix of Post and non-Post sites in the region.

One potentially major revenue threat to the Post locally is equally old media WUSA-TV, the Gannett-owned station — formerly owned by the Post — which has established sites serving 52 communities and neighborhoods, six more than new-media Patch has in the area. The sites are a combination of press releases, merchant back-scratching and hard news that might shake heads at schools of journalism. But they are picking up respectable numbers of display ads — many more than editorially stronger Patch. I counted 46 on WUSA’s Arlington site, 50 for Alexandria and 17 for Reston, all in Northern Virginia, where the Post community digital presence is weakest. Ads are sold by middleman DataSphere from phone banks in Seattle and Tempe, Ariz. — so much for the “feet on the street” ad sales dictum.

How Temple would contend with all this old and new media competition, which looks like a clear threat to the Post, is hard to say. (He declined to be interviewed, saying ”I’d like to listen more than speak” as he begins his new job.) But as the Post’s “senior digital officer,” he surely will have to figure it out.

(Disclosure: I co-founded The Connections, but left the organization in 1994 and have no editorial or financial connection with it.)

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.


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