Wednesday, March 19, 2008

First Blood in the Consolidation of Loudoun News Started Online

A small article in last week's Easterner caught our attention - the fact that the Loudoun Independent, a small local newspaper in Ashburn, is in bankruptcy and has been sold. This isn't a surprise at all, and, frankly, took a bit longer than expected.

The last couple of years saw a proliferation in local rags hitting our driveway and mailbox, all striving in parallel for more "hyperlocal" coverage, as well as expanded delivery across Loudoun. Some appeared to be generating the right mix of good, unique content and volume of sustaining, paid advertising. For example, Leesburg Today and the Easterner have sustained their thick advertising sections, while the Independent and Connection's share have seemed abnormally thin. Here's the consolidation chain of events (a brief history, from our perspective - no doubt leaving out many more detailed items we'll let you fill in) in local news that seems to have led to this first blood, starting with the Washington Post's online adventures -

1 - Early last year, the Post focuses its considerable clout and financial backing squarely on Loudoun County, significantly upgrading its online presence and printed content on the hyperlocal scene - opening LoudounExtra.com. This immediately drew off large and smaller advertisers, once solidly the domain of the established locals. This also slowed the rapid growth of other online-only, local news sources (like loudouncounty.com and some local blogs, subsequently wrapped into the Post's stable of blogs).

2 - The Independent, also a little over a year ago, launched its own slick new website to accompany its mailed papers (vs. driveway-delivered) - but the outcome was an utter misstep from the perspective of all reasonable online advertising and marketing standards - no user feedback or online subscription capabilities, all in "Flash" leading to slow performance and nonexistent search engine visibility, and little thought to inline advertising placement. Its traffic and online exposure slowed to a crawl.

3 - In apparent defense of its turf, the Loudoun Times embarked on a considerable overhaul of its own user-generated content, adding RSS feeds, user blogs and other features - resulting in a very much improved online presence...seemingly catching up to the more established Leesburg Today, and eclipsing all other local, online destination sources.

4 - The Easterner's online presence didn't change much over the period, except to include more automated, 3rd party advertising network feeds among a set of mismanaged ad spaces across the website, which (1) aren't necessary targeted or of added value to the local content, and (2) seem only to indicate a void in online advertising and marketing capabilities of the paper. This situation led to a window of opportunity to claim solid 2nd place in the online news turf (2nd to the Post, and thereby attracting many lower-cost, local advertisers) - the Times stepped up an made a solid grab at this from Leesburg Today (and in our opinion won with its capture of the local blogosphere stars, though they've not yet achieved the traffic or online participation statistics of Leesburg Today, with its extensive user commenting activity, polls and photo submissions).

5 - The Connection's online presence and content management/usability capabilities continues to be abysmal, though still easier to locate and use than the Loudoun Independent.

6 - From a Google Pagerank perspective (an indicator of online popularity and presence), the war for #2 is still awaiting a clear leader - as all the local rags, plus online-only destinations such as Dulles South Online and LoudounCounty.com, hover between 4 and 5 in their page rank metrics. Only Loudounextra.com achieved a "6" at one point last year, though has dropped back a little since.

7 - Beginning with last year's local election activities, the Independent made a decent push to overhaul its online presence (having taken a run at this the previous year, with a partnership with the now defunct Backfence.com), and broaden its advertising base - with the launch of a set of online videos of candidates (the only news site to do this), some minimal efforts to introduce feedback and RSS subscription options, increase its online presence through a few SEO-driven changes, and a limited expansion of advertising space options...outside of this, complete managed overhaul and conversion of the site from fully Flash-based to a more user and search engine-friendly html/text-based format never materialized as expected.

Nor did the Independent fully manage and leverage a number of proprietary digital content additives - these "inserts" and extra content produced as standalone PDF files could have been leveraged and distributed much more widely through many more online and offline channels. Note also it partnered with the Purcellville Gazette to extend advertising reach - but didn't take advantage of this cross-county partnership online in any way to share advertising, news or user-generated content.

8 - Search in Google today for "Loudoun News" or "Loudoun County News" - you'll find the Times and Leesburg Today having fully re-established themselves in the face of the Post, with the Observer, WTOP, the Easterner, the Connection and even the Independent still hanging on the 1st few pages of search results (along with the online-only sources). This is most apparent searching for the term "Loudoun County Newspapers", plus "Loudoun News Online".

We think the message here is that the significant and coordinated online push into this local advertising and news market by the Post resulted first in a rapid consolidation and drawdown of medium-sized advertising first from existing online outlets (i.e. papers), and second from existing printed publications. The more established and Internet-savvy papers rebounded fairly well, due mainly to their local "connectedness" with local advertisers, businesses, readers and community organizations (which Loudounextra we think really only achieved through its "Living in Loco" blog and local sports reporters) - as well as their complete online focus on the County (vs. the Post, which, although it claims "hyperlocal" focus, still works in a lot of more regional and even national content and advertising).

Without taking its cues from the Post and the Times, nor simply modeling its basic provision of advertising content and online accessibility after the solidly established Leesburg Today, the Independent seems to have quickly tumbled as the first major casualty of the contracting news outlet market.

There's a whole lot more analysis and themes to discuss about this (we're not obviously paid journalism professionals, but we are online marketing and technology professionals), but it's a great lesson to local newspapers - adapt quickly and smartly, coordinate online and offline activities and advertising, use metrics to attract advertisers, embrace "Web 2.0" and your eager hyperlocal community, seek partnerships in advertising and content networks, manage your proprietary digital content and copyrights as the valuable and extensible assets they truly are, and deliver true usability and accessibility to both readers and search engines. Driven by LoudounExtra's lead, the Times appears to understand most of these points, and Leesburg Today is getting them (albeit slugglishly); but the others seem to be falling behind, with the Independent as the first casualty of probably more to come.

Fairfax is next on the Post's radar - therefore, other locals, heed these lessons (Chronicle, Times, Connection, Sun Gazette).

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