The Drilling Down on Local conference kicked off this morning with a presentation and conversation with Rob Barrett, the LA Times’ VP of Interactive.
The underlying theme was how the Times is reengineering its online product to be … an online product. What it is now, Barrett admitted, is mostly a “dump” of the content that appears in the print paper (similar to the model we see at most online papers). This not only fails to take to heart the way online users consume content, but also has a geographic scope that isn’t differentiated.
In other words, the LA Times, like The New York Times and other major metro papers, has a national and international focus. But online national news has become a commodity given its saturation and accessibility. So online, the strategy should be to focus on the uniquely local stuff that can’t be replicated by The New York Times, Google News, Yahoo! News and the like (as argued in the past).
Work in Progress
In Barrett’s three-year tenure, he claims, the majority of things he’s worked on haven’t been seen yet. But we’ll start to see almost monthly product launches from now until the end of the year, involving various local mashups that are relevant to the 800 neighborhoods in the L.A. area, as well as the topics germane to the area.
Barrett names these as entertainment, car culture, the environment and immigration. Others are the key verticals that exist everywhere but for which there is a need for specifically local coverage and community, such as parenting. For all these topics, the plan will be to tap a combination of paid and unpaid editorial resources (staff reporter blogs) community experts and UGC.
Barrett’s goal for this new product is for online to drive half of total cash flow by 2011, when compared with print (amounting to 20 percent of total revenues). The higher engagement of locally and topically specific content, he predicts, will also make the LA Times’ local page views surpass national page views (as measured by topic) by 2009.
Optimizing for Local
One example of the many local mashups he gave was a photo site called Backlot, which is essentially an online forum for Hollywood news and gossip, whose centerpiece will be the photos taken by a prolific Hollywood photographer who has spent years developing a trust relationship to gain access to every major Hollywood studio. He previously supplied the back-page photos for Premier magazine but will now be the primary source for Backlot — photos which will be fed back into the print product.
These photos, according to Barrett, will be optimized for search engines — an implicit nod to the universal search trend whose name is hardly mentioned in the same room as newspaper people. After his first mention of SEO, I kept a running count that reached nine by the end of the presentation. The combination of good optimization practices plus sticky content and a trusted local name is hoped to be the winning combination.
“If you see our content, it’s probably because you Googled something,” he said, “and hopefully in the future you’ll see it because you went there directly.”