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So What Do You Do, Rob Curley, President/Executive Editor, Greenspun Interactive?

This media innovator generates high Web traffic from a galaxy of local content and harnesses Web video as a model for TV

- July 1, 2009
Rob Curley, a self-described Internet nerd, has been a regular on the "future of news" conference tour for years, where he is often tasked with describing how local newspapers can successfully move online by embracing the kind of deep-in-the-community street corner coverage that often gets short shrift these days. He and his Web team have created database-heavy "hyper-local" news Web sites for newspapers in Kansas and Naples, Fla., as well as at The Washington Post over the past decade, treating topics like high school sports and community politics to the same thorough and professional coverage that national events get in other papers. A little more than a year ago, Curley decamped for Las Vegas, where he became president of Greenspun Interactive, the online arm of the company that owns the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly. mediabistro.com recently spoke with Curley about where he got his start, how his thinking has evolved on "hyper-local" journalism, and Greenspun's unorthodox new Web-and-TV show, 702.TV.


Name: Rob Curley
Position: President and executive editor, Greenspun Interactive
Birthdate: January 10, 1971
Hometown: Osage City, Kansas
Education: Osage City High School, Emporia State University
Resume: Started as a reporter at the Ottawa (Kan.) Herald; became a reporter and then new media editor at the Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal; managed online content development for the Morris Newspapers chain; served as general manager at the Web site of the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and then director of new media and convergence at the World Company; became director of new media/convergence for the Naples (Fla.) and Bonita Daily News; joined WashingtonPost.Newsweek Interactive in 2006 as vice president of product development; moved to Vegas and his current position in May 2008.
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday Times: "I'm a Washington Post guy, but it's only delivered in Washington. I started off with the sports section of the Post when I lived there."
Favorite TV show: The Sopranos
Last book read: Double or Nothing by Tom Breitling
Guilty pleasure: "I am addicted to Disney amusement parks and go multiple times a month. I have season passes to both Disneyland and Disney World."


How did you get started in journalism?
I was putting myself through college stringing for newspapers across the state of Kansas, anyone who would pay me. And then realized I could make more money if I would string for newspapers not in Kansas. So I learned everything that I could about indoor soccer, you know, the old major indoor soccer league? And hockey. And then began stringing for newspapers across the country. And when the Houston Arrows would play the Kansas City Blades of the International Hockey League, I would write the story for the Houston Chronicle.

In '96 I started working at the Ottawa Herald, which is a very, very small daily newspaper in Ottawa, Kansas. It was part of a very small chain in Kansas and they had an automated [online] system that was really very slick and very ahead of its time, and I shouldn't have monkeyed with it at all. But I asked if I could, and they let me, and I began working on their Web site. Then I was a writer at the Topeka Capital Journal, and I loved it -- but I was also fairly tech savvy and they knew I knew HTML. When they were having a leadership change in their Web department, they asked if I would do it. [...] And of course I loved the Web thing; it was awesome.

Did you already have a passion for local news by them?
The newspapers that I read when I grew up, they were just local papers. We got the Topeka Capital Journal in the morning, we either got the Ottawa Herald or the Emporia Gazette in the afternoon, and then we got the local community weekly newspaper. And these were all very inherently local papers. They covered high school sports and covered the local schools and it was just -- they were all three just local, local papers. So it's not that I had this passion for local news; it was the only thing I knew.

"The idea wasn't that we were going to have a reporter for every community; it was, how do we get really great information for the community and then just layer on the stories that we know will interest the most amount of people?"

You've built up "hyper-local" news sites all over the country, now. How has your thinking evolved about these kinds of sites that you and your team create? As you import this model to different communities, what have you refined along the way?
I'm very lucky because I get to work with who I think are probably the greatest Web team in the world, and for whatever stupid reason, when I go someplace, they say, "Sign me up, I want to go there." When it became obvious that I was going to leave The Washington Post to go to the Las Vegas Sun, I thought I would be going alone -- I mean, if you're a journalist, The Washington Post is about as cool as it gets. And it was just the opposite. They all came again.

One of the things that I realized when we got to Las Vegas was that sometimes we've done things because we knew how to do them really well instead of because we should do them. Like, I know no one is ever going to be able to cover high school sports the way we cover high school sports. I mean, slam dunk, that's it. And so before we even landed in Vegas, we knew we were going to do this -- but should we have?

So one of the things that all of us agreed upon was that we were going to benchmark everything. We were going to look at the traffic, and look at the data, and look at what our readers were doing and try to understand what our readers were doing better than any place we've ever been. Because when you look back at the incredible success that we had in Lawrence (Kan.), that's what we were really good at. We were really good at giving our readers what they really wanted. I don't know that we were so good at that in Naples (Fla.), and I don't know that we were that good at it in Washington, but we weren't going to make that same mistake here. So we kind of launched in Vegas with the basis of "let's try these things." Our strategy from last June to this June is very different because we've realized what our readers want and what they don't want.

So what's working and what's not, so far?
Unlike Kansas, I can't get anyone to look at this high school sports stuff, and we dedicate a tremendous amount of our team's thought power and resources to that. We're still going to cover high school sports next year in a way that's really vibrant and cool, but it's not going to take the resources that we've done in the past to pull it off. Because we realized, "Why spend this amount of resources to do this when it gets this amount of traffic when I can spend a tenth of those resources covering a UNLV basketball game or a UFC fighting match and get a thousand times the traffic?"

"Maybe this is the Kansan in me, but I can't get enough hooker knife-fight stories... I feel like I've died and gone to journalism heaven. This is one of the coolest places in the country you could want to do something like this because you totally get to embrace schizophrenia."

Las Vegas is a much bigger community than the previous ones you've covered. Has that been difficult at all?
It's a top 50 market. One of the very last projects we were working on in Washington -- and we actually got it completed, but it never launched because unfortunately we were the ones who knew how to run the site -- was a site for Fairfax County in Washington. So a lot of what we learned there about how to cover a big community with limited resources we applied here.

And so how are we doing it? Things that can be done via databases really, really, really feel powerful and local -- like the crime database, which we're about to relaunch... Home foreclosures and home sales and that sort of stuff. It's like databases that are imminently very local, but you don't have to have a reporter or reporters to gather that data. We've databased everybody in Las Vegas' water bill. You can type in somebody's address and we can tell you how much water they're using and how it compares to the national and local average.

So you automate all of that stuff, and then the stuff that really matters that's easy to do that gets big traffic, like crime stories and updates on local government and things like that -- stuff that you literally need a human to do, but you know if you cover it, it will get read -- we have humans do that.

We now geo-code every story on our site, every piece of content. We either add an exact latitude and longitude to it or, if we don't have that, then we try to at least get it down to the zip code. Soon, if you give your zip code you can have all of those stories now on one page. You can have all of the home foreclosures and homes that have been sold on that page; you can have all the crimes. We can show you all the rotary club meetings, all the high school shows that are in your zip code, the movie listings that are closest to you... We've build the page so that it works very much like iGoogle does, so you can move all the boxes around in any order that you want.

But the idea wasn't that we were going to have a reporter for every community; it was, how do we get really great information for the community and then just layer on the stories that we know will interest the most amount of people?

I love it here. I love our newspaper. I mean, if you're a real news person, then you can't not get excited about the idea that we have a mayor who has a liquor sponsor. Maybe this is the Kansan in me, but I can't get enough hooker knife-fight stories. Plus you have all these stars who come to Vegas and just behave badly. So you've got all of that plus you've got a governor who vetoes something like 50 bills this legislative session. Plus we've got UNLV and we've got UFC, there's just so much going on. I feel like I've died and gone to journalism heaven. This is one of the coolest places in the country you could want to do something like this because you totally get to embrace schizophrenia.

I almost hate to ask this question, but where does the money come from? Part of the idea of hyper-local, as I understand it, is to sell ads to pizza places and mom-and-pop shops. Is that the plan?
We have three or four different revenue strategies. Number one, for lack of a better term, would be like big fishing. How do you support -- how do you give really cool advertising opportunities at work for all those big casinos? How do you strike a really big deal with MGM Mirage or Harrah's or The Palms or Stations? I wouldn't say we're great at it, but we're pretty good at it. We're good enough at it that we can feel it in our bottom line.

Then you have the very, very local Roberto's Taco Shop restaurant stuff. Which is more like a hundred dollars a month. We don't have classifieds in our newspaper so all of our classifieds are online only -- and we have this really uber-smart classifieds guy here who gets that. And our job section is very "Webby" because of that. So that's another revenue stream. Then we have our video production.

These aren't things that will work maybe in Boise, Idaho, but unlike when I was in Lawrence, Kansas, I'm not trying to make them work in Boise, Idaho. I'm trying to make sure that the Greenspun family has a media company for a very long time, and if I can help that so that Brian Greenspun's grandson has a company to run when he's 30, then I think that's okay.

Tell me a little bit about 702.TV and what the thinking was behind that.
[Even before we left D.C.] Brian Greenspun said to me, "I would love for us to figure out a way to try to inform people who don't even know they need to be informed -- but who, if they were a little bit more informed, might make this a better place to live. Because there'd be more people understanding the ramifications of this decision or not voting or not caring or those sorts of things." And I'm just like, man, who says that? So right there, I was like, I was already a pretty big fan of Brian Greenspun, but at that point I became the president of the Brian Greenspun fan club. And we came back and thought about it and thought about it and we told him, we think the idea as a video program that's kind of reverse-engineered from the Web.

"[702.tv has] kind of disguised itself as this really, really crazy fraternity that's always on party mode, but then when you look back you realize that all the members of the fraternity have the highest GPA in the college."

Our idea was that we can create this show that's fun and cool and kind of edgy and has this weird take on Las Vegas and right in the middle of it, we would put a very quick, somewhat-irreverent-but-accurate news segment that would tell you very quickly what's going on related to your life in Las Vegas, whether it's local government or anything. But do it in some sort of interesting, colorful way, and then we get right back into the other stuff.

We do segments on where you can go hang out in Vegas if you don't want to be on the Strip. What sort of cool entertainment stuff is happening. Where you can go drive fast cars. What's happening with UFC? What's the latest with fashion? What bars have the coolest drinks right now? Interviews with people who are kind of funny. We do profiles on the DJs and we do profiles on restaurants and lots and lots of sports stuff. We do a segment every week on cool, famous people who live in Las Vegas, who grew up in Las Vegas and we call it "home grown." Instead of a traditional studio, we recreated a high roller suite. We modeled it after the whiskey suite inside Green Valley Ranch. We have a studio with a pool table in it and a full bar. So this is not a traditional TV studio. It just looks and feels different. There's music throughout the whole thing, really kind of great music, actually, and it's just fast-paced. The graphics don't look like what you would probably typically see on a local TV show. So it's kind of got this really fast feel to it. And all of our on-air people are kind of young, cool. And hardworking as crap. They shoot and edit all their own stuff. So they are these very, very multitasking sort of young journalists. We also have like very kind of South Park-ish/Monty Python-esque kind of cartoons that go along with the news segments. It's kind of disguised itself as this really, really crazy fraternity that's always on party mode, but then when you look back you realize that all the members of the fraternity have the highest GPA in the college.

And even though it runs on air, it's really a Web site. That's why we named the show after its URL. And we don't just throw the episode up on the Web. There's a link at the top right that says "latest TV episode" and you can click and you can see the archives of all the episodes and you can watch them exactly the way they looked on TV. But if you just visit the Web site, we've also got all -- they're the real versions of the segments. They're the three- and four-minute versions that have the full cussing and the full -- you know, what we couldn't get on TV. Whereas on TV, the segments rarely last longer than 90 seconds, because we edit them way down. And then you can watch them in any order or you can skip them, and they're embeddable and you can download them. They just work the way the Internet really works.

The official launch date was June 12th, which, I'm not going to lie, was a complete and total coincidence. The day that analog TV died in the United States.


David Hirschman is editor of mediabistro.com's Daily Media Newsfeed.


[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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