Fast Company

Hyper-Local Hero

Ten years ago, Rob Curley was covering city hall for the Topeka daily paper. Now he's lighting up the entire industry. How a "nerd from Kansas" discovered the web, and hit the big time.

On a Saturday afternoon in August, Rob Curley is holed up in a video-production studio in Naples, Florida, with a couple of sleep-deprived colleagues. Between yawns and sodas, they're editing high-school football footage that's scheduled to air tonight on the Web (and on iPods and PlayStation Portables), as well as on local cable. These are only preseason games, but this being football country and all, Curley, the head of new media at the Naples Daily News, wants PrepZone Playbook, his team's newest creation, to rock. Pulsing music, action-packed highlights, slick animation--the works. So he keeps nitpicking. When a reporter appears on-screen, unnamed, to offer postgame analysis, Curley interrupts: "Okay, we have to say who that is right away." The rest, though, looks "fricking awesome, like something on ESPN!"

This may not sound like newspaper work, let alone serious journalism. And Naples--a haven for powerboaters and putter-wielding snowbirds on the Gulf of Mexico--may seem an unlikely hotbed of innovation. But executives at The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and throughout the beleaguered newspaper industry think otherwise. They believe that Curley, a 35-year-old overcaffeinated and entrepreneurial "Internet punk" (per robcurley.com) is onto something. "He's clearly an icon in the industry, partly based on what he's done and partly based on his personality," says Randy Bennett, vice president of audience and new business development at the Newspaper Association of America. "There's so much gloom and doom that gets bounced around this industry, people are hungry for his wild-eyed optimism. They look at what he's done and say, 'Wow, who knew a newspaper could do this?'"

Curley--"just a nerd from Kansas," as he puts it--hasn't won a Pulitzer or worked at a major daily. But since teaching himself to build Web sites 10 years ago, he appears to have figured out what most newspapers haven't: how to do the Internet right. He calls it "hyperlocal" multimedia journalism, and his news and entertainment sites are sucking in audiences, advertisers, and revenue; they're racking up national and international awards; and, most important, they've begun delivering profits. The sites Curley and his team build grow out of an uncanny feel for what matters to customers and an ability to translate that knowledge into imaginative, indispensable tools that forge a connection and habit with readers--just as newspapers once did. But his sites allow readers to do far more than they can with print: Users can compare historical home prices, street by street or neighborhood by neighborhood; receive a text alert about a Little League rainout, the weather, or the fishing report; click on a map to assess local hurricane damage; chat with the subject of a story or its reporter; check out a weekly high-school sports roundup and daily news "vodcast" (short for video on demand).

"Most people still think of a newspaper Web site as a digital version of what went on the press last night, but that's a small part of what we do," Curley says. "I want a site to be so cool and important to people that they talk about it the way you talk about having a great park where you live. It's a local amenity."

The newspaper industry, meanwhile, has come to resemble a once-mighty tree now in sad, slow decline. Since 1989, papers nationwide have lost 8 million subscribers; the percentage of adults who read a daily during the week has plummeted to scarcely half the population. Not surprisingly, total ad revenue, which saw double-digit increases in the 1970s, was up just 1.5% last year. And papers consequently have been laying off employees, offering buyouts, shuttering foreign bureaus, and cutting costs with a vigor they once reserved for exploring meaty stories.

To make matters worse, the same digital shock waves that are transforming a host of industries--music, photography, advertising, movies, you name it--have given newspapers an identity crisis as well. When Craigslist offers free online classified ads and Google and Yahoo link to breaking news, what's the role of a newspaper exactly? What do you do when your core product is, literally, yesterday's news?

You go online. Online advertising across the newspaper industry is up 31% this year, online newspaper readership is growing, and during the past 18 months, there has been a flurry of investment in new media by the old. True, the rates and the number of advertisers are still considerably lower than those in print (online ads typically represent less than 10% of a paper's total revenue), but it's clear newspapers believe the money will come.

Which leaves them with one last problem: Once you're online in a big way, what exactly do you do? Ten years in, most papers are still struggling to integrate digital and print journalism. "By and large, newspapers are in a panic," says Jan Schaffer, the executive director at J-Lab: the Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland at College Park. "They don't have a clue what they should be doing with the Internet. They're stuck in the old definition of news and how they cover it. There's a need for drastic experimentation."

And then along comes Curley, unburdened by pieties about "how we've always done it." Unlike previous ink-stained generations, he and his mostly young charges practice journalism with software code, video, podcasts, audio, slide shows, blogs--whatever works. Multimedia storytelling comes as naturally to him as satire did to Mencken. Likewise, interactivity: The notion of a newspaper as a conversation rather than a lecture doesn't strike fear in Curley, the way it does some newspaper purists. It's exciting, full of promise.

What his crews have built at various small papers mirrors that excitement. The Mark Twain site at the Hannibal Courier-Post, in Hannibal, Missouri, is a cross between a library and a museum; it features Twain's letters, stories, books, even video of an impersonator performing his sly, wicked works. The Topeka Capital-Journal's legislative site included texts of every bill and each representative's top campaign contributors. And kusports.com, one of Curley's better-known projects, covered the University of Kansas Jayhawks teams in ways the Lawrence Journal-World couldn't. In addition to live play-by-play, it featured an animated playbook of the basketball team's most effective plays, and a writer who previewed coming matchups by simulating them on a computer game and covering them like real games. The result? Three years after Curley took over, monthly page views soared from around 500,000 to a peak of around 13 million. Not bad for a town with 82,000 residents.

"Dude," Curley recalls, "I'm sitting there at a table with Don Graham and Ben Bradlee thinking, 'This is not right.'" says Naples publisher John Fish, "Nobody does it better."

That's why Curley routinely fields calls from executives who have been in newspapers longer than he has been alive. That's why papers and industry groups fly him to places he has never been--places he never imagined seeing, like Bangkok and Madrid--to hear him speak. Editors, publishers, and programmers from around the country and abroad regularly make the pilgrimage to Naples (circulation: 103,000 in peak winter months) and to Lawrence, Kansas (circulation: 20,000), where Curley first made a name for himself.

Yes, it's pretty strange being Rob Curley at this moment, precisely because he's so of the moment. But wait, it gets stranger.

Last March, while the Washington Post Co.'s senior executives were in Naples for their annual retreat, Caroline Little, the CEO of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, and Jim Brady, vice president and executive editor of washingtonpost.com, one of the top online news sites, toured the Daily News new-media shop (Curley calls it the "nerdery"). And Don Graham, the CEO and chairman of the board of the Washington Post Co., asked Curley to give a presentation. The night before, at a group dinner held at the Ritz-Carlton beach resort, Graham made a point of introducing Curley to "Benjie"--as in legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee. Rarely at a loss for words, Curley was struck dumb. "Dude," he recalls later, "I'm sitting there at a table with Don Graham and Ben Bradlee thinking, 'This is not right.'"

Ordinarily, after being introduced as an award-winning digital journalist (the Newspaper Association of America's 2001 New Media Pioneer), Curley jokes to his audience, "I'm going to try not to suck now." But on a Tuesday in August, at his publisher's request, he doesn't utter a single "suck" or "dude" while addressing nearly 200 business leaders at a breakfast with the Naples Chamber of Commerce. He does, however, warn them that he has condensed a six-hour PowerPoint presentation into 20 minutes (he did it on his laptop at stoplights on the way to the Hilton), and is "jacked up on six Mountain Dews and four Red Bulls." He's kidding, of course. He's only had one of each. So far.

At first, the suits gathered here are reserved, uncertain what to make of the fast-talking Web whiz in his beaded choker, rectangular Versace glasses, and black short-sleeved shirt and black slacks. But Curley, with his infectious zealotry, wins them over one slide at a time. "He's the king of the dog-and-pony show," says Naples Daily News publisher John Fish, who also worked with Curley at papers in Topeka and Augusta, Georgia. "Nobody does it better."

Curley demonstrates three news sites, for Naples and nearby Bonita Springs and Marco Island; like his earlier work, they are based on certain core strategies. For starters, "master the obvious." Twain in Hannibal. Politics in Topeka. Basketball in Lawrence. Real estate in Naples. Each topic defines the local community. Obvious, yes, but the genius is in the execution. And there, too, he follows a deceptively simple rule: "There's no such thing as overkill." On the bottomless Web, there's always room for more detail, more depth. That, in essence, is the "hyper" in hyper-local. With national and international news now practically a commodity online, the value of local and regional papers, he says, is in using the Web to cover not only "big-J journalism" but also "small-J journalism"--events that rarely make headlines but loom large in our everyday lives. "We can't out-CNN CNN. But we can make sure that no one out-Naples us."

The irony is that Curley is teaching newspapers to do the very thing they did so well for so long: cover the local community. "I don't think I'm new media," he says. "I'm old school. I think newspapers lost their way and started focusing on big investigative stuff and forgot to cover the prom or 10-year-olds playing baseball." Not the Daily News. It's running a yearlong series exploring the lack of affordable housing in the area, including an online database of 100,000 home sales during the past three years. And it's "covering Little Leaguers like the New York Yankees," says Curley.

He shows the Chamber of Commerce what he means by hyperlocal--video of a football coach sizing up his squad's offensive line and running game as if he were Bill Parcells. Cut to the players: tykes in oversized helmets, teetering like bobbleheads.

He also shows the audience Studio 55, the daily-news vodcast. Shortly after arriving in Naples last year, Curley capitalized on the absence of a local station by hiring a young broadcast-oriented staff and building a studio. In less than six months, the Daily News was in the vodcast business. ("We wanted a newscast you could watch on your iPod at the beach," he says.)

Studio 55 consists of news items based on the print reporters' stories for the next day's paper, and those reporters are also interviewed as experts on the show. Thus the virtual news reinforces the physical paper, a shrewd extension of the brand. "It's an infomercial," Curley says, without shame. PrepZone Playbook also epitomizes the collaboration between old and new media that papers are eager to emulate: A print reporter, still photographer, and videographer cover the same game in their respective media. Then, building on the game story in the paper, the Web site features a contest for the big hit of the week, marching bands' halftime shows, cell-phone alerts with quarterly updates, photos submitted by readers, reporter podcasts, and "stats on steroids." And how do a couple dozen employees do it all? "Internology," says Curley, only half-joking. He relies on a staff that's mostly young, single, and "willing to go through a wall for Rob," says Brady, the washingtonpost.com editor. And he relies on the new tools they've mastered: "This is what journalists will look like in five years," Curley says.

Before the digital bug got him, Curley grew up with ink in his veins. His devotion to University of Kansas basketball and football cemented his loyalty to The Topeka Capital-Journal, starting in the third grade. His father, a plumber, and his mother, an office manager, were more than happy to pass along the sports section--and their newspaper habit. "Other kids wanted to be a policeman or fireman," says Curley. "All I ever wanted was to work at the paper."

His first experience with Web development came in 1996 after an editor at The Ottawa Herald, in Ottawa, Kansas, asked the cub reporter to help out with the paper's nascent online site. Curley picked up a manual and built his first Web page that night. The following year, a Philadelphia Inquirer series called "Blackhawk Down," later a best-selling book, served as his digital awakening. As riveting as the catastrophic military mission was on paper, the online account had chats with author Mark Bowden, Pentagon video, and audio interviews with surviving soldiers--their stories, their voices. "It was like doing journalism in black and white versus doing it in color," Curley says. "How could you not want to tell stories that way?"

New media wouldn't last, skeptics told Curley. One argued that it was "like the second coming of the CB radio."

On joining The Topeka Capital-Journal that year, fulfilling a childhood dream, he took to enhancing his stories with additional material online. For a piece on two new roller coasters, he included video shot while riding Mamba and Mr. Freeze. Eventually, the editors asked him to become the full-time new-media editor. "I made them promise I could come back to my reporting job," he says. "But I never went back."

Instead, in 1998, he took a job propagating the sort of dynamic Web content he'd created in Topeka across the Morris Communications chain, including stops in Hannibal and Augusta. Because the prevailing fear was that free online content would cannibalize the print audience, many papers at the time treated Web sites as an afterthought, a place to pile up print content, not scoop yourself on tomorrow's headlines. New media, the skeptics argued, wouldn't last. "I had one publisher tell me, 'Look, this is like the second coming of the CB radio,'" Curley recalls.

He didn't buy it. Newspaper sites weren't profitable, but he believed it was only a matter of time. The business was in its infancy. "There's a Warren Buffett quote, which I'm paraphrasing, that says there has never been a venture that's accumulated massive eyeballs and audience that's failed," he says.

Although Curley had won a number of awards and had been recognized as an industry pioneer by that point, working for the Lawrence Journal-World from 2002 to 2005 elevated his profile. The paper was a privately held, family-owned outfit known for being cutting-edge. When Curley arrived, the company's print, Internet, and cable TV staffs already shared a newsroom, making it an early textbook example of media convergence. Literally a textbook case: It was written up in journalism books. Papers would visit Lawrence to see how the Journal-World worked, and they'd find Curley, Mr. New Media, managing the entire converged newsroom.

He was also tackling one of the industry's toughest problems: how to engage the elusive 18- to 24-year-old set. His team did it by remaking lawrence.com, a site separate from the paper's online home, as an alternative-entertainment hub for college students. The sarcasm and profanity sounded authentic to readers, but behind the attitude was a sophisticated approach to service and interactivity. Databases of local-music gigs and daily drink specials made the site useful. Offbeat reader blogs made it unpredictable. "The site belonged to them, not us," Curley says. That was an important editorial and philosophical shift and one that traditional-minded newspapers are loath to accept. The other smart decision was taking the online content and putting it in an ad-rich weekly tabloid called Deadwood Edition, an oft-cited example of reverse publishing.

At E.W. Scripps Co., which owns the Naples paper, Curley arrived in fall 2005 to be "a disruptive missile," says Bob Benz, the company's general manager of interactive media. "Someone who's thinking, 'What if,' from the time he gets up to when he goes to bed." There's no question Curley found the winning formula: Online profits in Naples are expected to double this year. Nor is there any question that his hyperlocal approach resonates in an industry in which 85% of papers have circulations under 50,000.

But the solution isn't as simple as replicating what he does, particularly at larger papers covering local, national, and international news. "A newspaper the size of the L.A. Times is a lot more complicated," says Los Angeles Times managing editor Leo Wolinsky, who visited Naples last spring. Reporters can't call every bar or restaurant or photograph every high-school athlete in L.A. And managers can't expect a veteran staff to work the long hours and practice the style of multimedia journalism that the mostly young, single staff in Naples does. Curley insists it's about working differently, not necessarily more, but that's sure to be a hard sell at union papers, where the question of expanding job responsibilities is not insignificant.

Also, a new business that Curley created to pay the new-media bills--assigning a few animators and designers to create agency-quality commercials for local companies--treads too close to the sacred line between advertising and editorial for some. That's "not something I can imagine our editorial department doing," says Wolinsky. Still, despite his misgivings, Wolinsky thought Curley's overall strategy and execution were impressive. "The newspaper world is definitely moving in Rob's direction," he says.

Curley doesn't claim to have it all figured out yet. But he does believe that hyperlocal journalism is the best approach, even if the specifics vary from one market to the next. The crucial ingredient, regardless of a paper's size, is the right culture for multimedia innovation. In Naples, the environment is fearless, driven, and playful. Fish, the publisher, whom Curley calls "the grown-up in the room," gives him free rein, allowing him in turn to give his staff a lot of room, as anyone can see who makes the pilgrimage to Naples.

Across the parking lot from the Daily News newsroom, the new-media department is a hectic and cluttered cross between a startup and a college paper. There's a large-screen TV, XBox console, restrooms labeled women.com and men.com, a kitchen that doubles as a podcast studio, and a dark couch that gets plenty of use. The small fridge in the corner, stocked with Red Bull, Mountain Dew, and other sodas, empties fast. "Informal" doesn't do it justice; site manager Levi Chronister pads around the office in shorts and bare feet.

Welcome to the nerdery. It's not hard to imagine that in five years, this is what a newsroom will look like.

After Curley wowed the senior execs from the Washington Post Co. in Naples last March, Len Downie, executive editor of the paper, asked him to address the newsroom staff. A few weeks later, Curley flew to Washington, more nervous than he could remember ever being for a presentation. "Dude, I was fricking terrified. I was afraid my ideas wouldn't matter to them," he says. "By nature, journalists are cynical, and these are the best in the business."

More than 100 reporters and editors from the Post and Newsweek listened to him for more than two hours. Once he saw them nodding and laughing, he relaxed. They got it. "What he's really good at is getting people fired up," says Brady. "He helps them understand and dream about the possibilities of the Internet instead of just seeing the limitations of the paper."

Soon after, Little, CEO of the interactive subsidiary, offered to create a new position for Curley--vice president of product development. As one of just nine vice presidents, he would run a small team whose role was to innovate, and innovate fast, across the company, for the Post, Newsweek, and Slate. "We're looking for tools and databases to make life easier to live in Washington," Little says. "This is an experiment: How do we develop and release new products more quickly? That's Rob's specialty."

He was stunned and flattered, to be sure, but he didn't accept. His wife was days from having their third baby. Also, unlike many newspaper journalists, Curley had never aspired to work at the Post or The New York Times. He had a different journalism goal, which sounds simple, but is equally ambitious: "I just want to build cool s--t."

A few months later, though, when life had calmed down, he and Little reconnected. Curley accepted the job. He was set to start in early October. And despite his insistence that he's not out to save the industry, he nonetheless realizes that he can have a bigger impact by working at the Post. "I want to prove that what I do can work anywhere," he says a few days after deciding to make the leap. "I don't want to be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I want to make it float again."

The News: Bad and Good

Total ad revenue 2005
Print | $47.4 billion (+1.5% since 2004)
Online | $2 billion (+31% since 2004)

Blacker Than Ink

Percentage of newspapers reporting profitable Web sites
In 2002 | 62%
In 2005 | 95%

Papers Thin

Daily newspaper circulation
In 1980 | 62.2 million (U.S. population = 237 million)
In 2005 | 54.6 million (U.S. population = 296 million)

Number of daily papers
In 1980 | 1,745
In 2005 | 1,452

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