People who visit Allbritton Communications’ still-unnamed metro D.C. news site when it launches in June will see elements that have been employed elsewhere — aggregation, geocoding, community engagement — but not quite in this formula.
“People think we’re biting off a pretty big chunk here, covering the whole region, hiring this many people,” said Jim Brady, president of digital strategy for Allbritton, which also owns Politico and two Washington TV stations.
“If you look at the past, there are some sites that just tried to do the community angle, there are sites that just tried to do the data angle, there are sites that just tried to do the original reporting. The truth is, I think that for a local site to be effective, it’s got to be a mix of all those things.”
Users will find a site that highlights major, area-wide news and micro, neighborhood-level information — and doesn’t clutter the page with content that doesn’t fit into either category.
The site will have a staff of 50, including 20 reporters and seven members of a community engagement team. Erik Wemple and Steve Buttry were brought on for key positions, and a few more hires were announced this week. The name of the site will be revealed shortly, Brady said — perhaps today.
Brady the gardener
Washington Post journalists who are nervously anticipating the launch of the site run by their former colleague may be consoled that he doesn’t believe Allbritton’s new site will become the single, dominant news source in Washington — because he doesn’t believe in such a thing.
The Web “has allowed so many flowers to bloom,” he said by phone this week. “We’re looking to be the one that not only acknowledges there’s a lot of flowers blooming in those pots, but we want to work with as many of those flowers as possible.”
Shoot high and low
With 5 million people in the Washington metro area, and multiple media outlets in every corner, Brady knows this site can’t compete on every story.
He described a two-pronged approach to presenting news: Give users the top 10 percent of news for Virginia, Maryland and the District — “the stuff everyone cares about” — and the bottom 10 percent that pertain to someone’s neighborhood — “the stuff that really matters to you because it happened a half-mile away.”
And don’t worry too much about everything in between, “all this stuff that we can make an educated guess that you’re probably not going to care about,” he said.
The top 10 slice of news will be originally reported and aggregated. The bottom will be a combination of original reporting, aggregation and data.
Stick to a few targeted beats
There will be a limited number of beat reporters with familiar-sounding specialties such as transportation, arts and entertainment, sports, local politics and public safety, as well as general-assignment reporters. (The beats haven’t been finalized.)
The site will coordinate some coverage with the news staffs at Allbritton’s two TV stations, WJLA, an ABC affiliate, and News Channel 8, an all-news cable channel. (Once launched, this site will replace both news sites, which appear to share a lot of content.)
Brady doesn’t anticipate covering schools, at least not at first, and he doesn’t envision a lot of business coverage. They’ll look for partnerships to fill such gaps.
What the staff doesn’t report will be represented on the site through aggregation.
Brady doesn’t believe an aggregation-only site can survive, but he thinks it can work in partnership with original content. So the site will “happily point to the other sites that are producing good and original content,” he said. “There’s really not a great aggregation model in the city yet.”
Buttry’s team will be responsible for finding and surfacing relevant content produced by others around Washington, including niche bloggers and neighborhood sites. One of the new members of that team, for instance, blogs about vintage and thrift shops around Washington.
“There’s not a square block in this region, I’m relatively convinced, that there’s not somebody blogging about or someone writing about,” Brady said. “And certainly when you get into public databases of restaurant listings, and crime reports and home sales, those occur on every block in the entire region, and I think there’s going to be something there for everybody.”
In some cases, “aggregation” may simply mean geocoding and linking to content elsewhere. The site also will employ geocoded data sources similar to those used by EveryBlock, though Brady isn’t sure how much of that will be ready for the launch.
He doesn’t aim to create a central hub for bloggers, something like ChicagoNow. “What we want to do is point to the blogs that are in the network and the other sites that are in the network and try to drive traffic to them, and to sell advertising against those,” he said.
Geocoding as personalization
Geocoding will be key to delivering that bottom 10 percent of news — information relevant to the diverse audience within the large metro area. “We are going to pretty much geocode everything that’s on the site,” he said.
Users will be able to enter several ZIP codes to indicate areas of interest. Though Brady doesn’t think this will supplant topic-based navigation, it will be an essential way of finding relevant content.
“Localization helps to surface things they wouldn’t know had occurred,” he said. “There’s an amazing lack of knowledge, even in neighborhoods, about blogs that write exclusively about those neighborhoods.
Geocoding will be central to the site’s mobile presence. Brady wouldn’t describe it other than to say it will be comprised of both a mobile site and an app and that it will be free. (He recently said there’s a lot of potential for paid mobile services that would tell someone, for instance, about problems on the interstate.)
Applying the Politico mentality to local news
Remember the Politico memo that surfaced last year, the one that outlined the characteristics of a “Politico story” and emphasized the importance of driving the day’s conversation? Brady said his site will adapt those principles for a local news site.
Politico, with its urgency and its willingness to publish incrementally, sometimes just a paragraph of news, “really seized … on the DNA of the Web,” Brady said.
“Things don’t have to be fully formed, 18-inch stories before they can go up on the Web,” he continued. “I think they were able to use their knowledge of how places like the Post and other big places operate.
“We’ll absolutely do the same thing … There are certain limitations that I think we’ll be able to exploit.”
Brady described a strong utility element of the site, saying it will aim to provide information that time-pressed people can use to make decisions immediately — anything from deciding how to get to work or how they’ll spend their evening.
So don’t look for feature stories here. Around the country, Brady said, “a lot of what is in the metro section still falls in the category of ‘human interest story’ — things that are really strong pieces or good reads, but less and less of it is what really matters like how you live your lives on a daily basis in the city.”
Included in this approach is a “light and targeted” home page without hundreds of links. “Efficiency is an underrated thing on the Web,” he said.
Get people to come when there’s nothing going on
Brady noted that he used to get congratulated for high traffic to washingtonpost.com on Election Day, even though he knew it had little to do with his management of the site and a lot to do with the Post’s reputation for political coverage.
The real challenge was getting people to come on days when there wasn’t an obvious reason. “We had built enough hooks into the site that people felt the need to come to us regardless of whether there was news or not, and I think that’s the secret sauce on the Web,” Brady said.
That, too, will fall to Buttry’s team.
Serve local businesses with targeted advertising
Though he acknowledged that basic display advertising is an important way to bring in money, Brady said it doesn’t have much of a future. He sees more potential in GPS-based advertising and in acting as an online services agent for local businesses.
Most local businesses, Brady said, don’t have an online presence and don’t really know how to get ads online.
It’s not that valuable, he said, to tell an advertiser, “I can get you online and then I can deliver the ad for your one store to the entire Washington region … [But if] I can get you online and I can get you the right audience — then maybe there’s something there.”
CORRECTION: This post originally misspelled Allbritton.