Local public service cannot be mandated by a remote corporation

One more article about the LoudonExtra.com collapse at the Washington Post (covered originally by the Wall Street Journal) and I might just scream (yes, I know — I’m not helping).

Steve Yelvington was the first I’ve found this week that understood the problem clearly and organically.

It wasn’t a “hyperlocal” problem; it wasn’t “too local” to be interesting or useful. It wasn’t a management issue. It was this, as Steve summarizes:

If you want to be a convener of community, you’d better be ready to get off your duff, away from the computer, and out in front of people. This is something you have to build by selling it in person to the people you want to engage.

Thank you! This was the primary mistake of the Washington Post Company with respect to LoudonExtra.com. “If we build it, they will come. We are the Washington Post!” Right.

Hyperlocal efforts require too much effort for too little payback in a for-profit top-down everyone gets paid a full-time wage corporate context. In other words, you can’t make money using traditional media methods.

Small local newspapers, by contrast, are different animals. They’re out there, in the community, visible and they have a physical manifestation in the life of the community (newsprint products distributed around town). They’re real. And they make money. Sometimes lots of it.

If all you have is a web site and you never go out and meet anyone and make real friends, you’re gonna have a tough time of it for two reasons:

  1. Your approach to covering the community will be “false,” because you’re never actually out there participating.
  2. No one will trust you because they have no idea who or where or what you are.

Rob Curley‘s success in Lawrence, Kansas was partly driven by his love of the community itself, his long history and innate knowledge of it, and then his technological and managerial chops on top of all that. He simply kicked ass there because he knew it and loved it and lived it.

Since then he’s bounced around, landing briefly in Miami and then Washington, DC at the Post. But now he’s off again, this time to Las Vegas, taking his whiz-bang web abilities (and his team) with him.

I have to wonder how “connected” you can be to a community where you’ve parachuted in — with your own entourage in tow — just to do “web stuff” and get paid big bucks. Hyperlocal efforts just can’t sustain those economics, nor can they make the designers or coders or writers develop a deep connection with the community.

The future of local efforts will be a blend of paid, professional efforts and unpaid amateur efforts and everything in between. But I don’t believe you can build a geographically-bound service without having a deep affection for your geography.