So Rob Curley has finally floppedmoved on. (See update at end of post) One of online journalism’s undoubted stars — the driving force behind a crew that created the award-winning, high on cool and low to the
ground sites like LJWorld.com and KUSports.com and the Naples Daily News site — has left LoudounExtra.com, which appears to be floundering. LoudounExtra was a model hyper-local news website template he was building for the Washington Post, but after about a year he and much of his team have decamped for … Las Vegas. Don’t get me wrong — I think Rob’s a brilliant guy, and classy to boot. He didn’t weave and bob when talking to Russell Adams at the Wall St. Journal, telling him:
"I was the one who was supposed to know we should be talking to Rotary
Club meetings every day," Mr. Curley said. "I dropped the ball. I won’t
drop it in Vegas, dude.’"
I’ve been an admirer of Rob Curley’s work for some time – and have high praise for his ability to engage and enthuse a newspaper audience – his early successes, his folksy optimism and his unabashed love of journalism and newspapers make him a sorely needed tonic. But there has always been a disconnect between his speech and his actions. His formula for success at Lawrence, Kansas, at Naples Fla and then in Washington—a highly motivated, tech-savvy young crew pouring resources into hyper local coverage – was clearly too rich for most papers. (All three papers had much deeper pockets than is ordinary, and all were deeply interested in creating quality on line, god bless them.) Furthermore, when you scratch Rob Curley, he bleeds ink – judge him by his actions, not his words, and we can see someone who still deeply believes in the "one to many" model of journalism, he’s just putting it on the net and bolting cool stuff onto it so that it works in fascinating and fun ways. But he’s not showing that he truly gets web culture. It says here the net is all about connections, about links – it’s the network of networks, stupid. People go online to get specific things done (info, email, travel, banking, shopping, distraction, research) and to connect to others. These connections, these communities swell and converge and gel and sometimes move on and sometimes put down roots. Really successful sites combine both the job thing and the community thing. When my students study local sites and look at Loudoun Extra.com the verdict seems to be that Rob and his crew got the ‘jobs to be done’ thing down cold – but aside from blogs and letting advertisers share the front page sell window, they’re largely missing out on the community side of things. (As I’ve said before, If you want to see a local news online site that has the community part down cold – and does a pretty good job of the "jobs to be done" thing, check out the News Challenge winner, Village Soup.) The other specific problem he faced is an all too common one: we don’t align our products with the true communities, because it’s cheaper to pretend a "county" is a community. It ain’t.
(UPDATE: After reading more widely on this topic – including a post by Rob Curley
himself, I’ve changed my mind on two pieces here: my original post
title was "Rob Curley’s crew admits defeat, flees suburbia for … Las
Vegas." That’s wrong – they don’t admit defeat, even tacitly. And
similarly saying he "finally flopped is, I now think, overly harsh and
incorrect. As Dan Pacheko
of the Bakatopia ably put it: "He’s a startup guy, and this industry
needs to give him (and others like him) credit for doing what he’s best
at". There’s been some fascinating and illuminating discussions on
lessons to draw from LoudounExtra, like this piece in defence of Rob on Journerdism blog, or this more critical piece on the Bivings Report. Be sure and read the comments as well – there’s a lot of thoughtful material there.)