Mar 2, 2009

The Times Just Doesn't Get It


One suggestion for how the newspaper industry can save itself has been for it to go hyperlocal, focusing on individual communities with the sort of local news usually provided by weekly Pennysaver type publications.

Patch Media
, a heavily VC (and Google) funded company, has jumped squarely into this space and, as of today, so has the New York Times. Both efforts are happening right in my hometown. The only problem is, The Times is not doing a very good job of it.

The Times site (like Patch) is aimed at the towns of Millburn, Maplewood and South Orange in New Jersey, commuter suburbs about 30 minutes outside Manhattan. But that’s where the similarity ends and the Times’ problems begin.

Maplewood and South Orange are known as the Park Slope of New Jersey for their liberal, artsy residents, pretty older houses and large gay population. The two towns share a school system which draws decidedly mixed reviews. One side denigrates them as gang-riddled hotbeds of chaos, while the other praises them as a Xanadu of tolerance, arts education and diversity. The result however, is that housing prices are fairly low for the area (hence the influx of artistic types.)

Millburn/Short Hills, on the other hand, is one of the wealthiest communities in the US, with a prized school system that winds up on most all the “Top 100 Public Schools” lists the various national newsmagazines compile, a factor reflected in the higher-than-average housing prices. It also has a large (if not majority) Jewish population (Millburn was the setting for Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus.) And while the Short Hills section takes up the majority of the township and is far better known due to the eponymous upscale mall, the township and its schools are confusingly known as “Millburn.”

So let’s take a look at what the Times did wrong, because the lesson is easily translated to any brand, newspaper or not. And, fortunately for them, is easily fixed.

The Problem

It starts with the home page url. Patch has wisely used three distinct urls, one for each town, accessed via the patch.com home page. This way each town’s residents feel like they are getting something designed uniquely for them. The content plays out the same way: if you are on the Millburn section of Patch, the listings, events, simchas and the like are all only for Millburn. Patch gets the whole hyperlocal thing. In spades.

But the Times, for some reason, has only one url: maplewood.blogs.nytimes.com. So immediately they are marginalizing Millburn residents, many of whom are likely savvy enough to come to the conclusion that “oh, they just stuck us in there to bring up the median income so they can sell more ads.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, the welcome post from Tina Kelley, the editor in charge of the site, is a paean to being a hip artsy liberal Maplewoodite and Kelley does not miss a single hot button. It’s about as unwelcoming to Millburn residents as you can get and all but shouts “you're only here because the sales force made us include you.”

Now the Times’ news content itself is quite well done, but the mix of the various towns’ news seems forced and unnatural: the internal battles of the Maplewood and South Orange town councils are of no more interest to Millburn residents than the success of the Millburn High School lacrosse team is to the South Orange/Maplewood crew. (NB: Despite their proximity, the towns have very little to do with each other: with the exception of soccer, the high school teams play in different divisions, they’re served by two different YMCAs for youth sports, and the South Mountain Reservation, a 2,000 acre park, separates the bulk of Millburn from Maplewood and South Orange.)

Patch, on the other hand, provides separate and distinct news content for all three towns, which again emphasizes the hyperlocal nature of the site and reinforces the impression that nothing and no one is an afterthought. Even the grouping on Patch seems natural enough: this is just round one for the site and more towns will be added to the list in time. No forced lumping together of disparate elements.

The Fix

Fortunately for the Times, their issues are easily fixed: adding two additional unique urls is certainly simple enough, as is parsing the news content to ensure that Millburn residents only read Millburn specific news, etc. And a note from Kelley apologizing for the exclusionary tone of her initial post wouldn’t hurt (or, conversely, a new welcome post from someone else whose job it is to specifically cover Millburn would make even more sense.)

But Kelley must act quickly to save the site: first impressions are everything and people will be judging the site by their initial take on it. This is even more critical because the Times is playing catch-up here and as Patch is already doing the hyperlocal thing right, the Times may not get a second chance for their effort.

I’ll keep you posted on how things play out, but change “resident” to “customer” or “type of customer” and it’s easy to see how this plays out with brands, when we ignore or marginalize a portion of our customer base. The web makes it very easy to pay attention to everyone, or at least give the impression of doing so. And it's always surprising how many companies forget this.

Even the New York Times.

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