Stop Drinking The Sand

This classic scene from Sorkin’s “American President”
resonated with me today. In the argument between the president and Lewis, you
get the leadership metaphor of people crawling across the desert, looking for
an oasis. When they show up and it’s only a mirage, they’ll drink the sand
anyway. Lewis argues that it’s because they’re thirsty for leadership. The
president says it’s because people don’t know the difference. My take: In some
cases, it doesn’t matter, as long as we realize it and stop drinking the sand.

This amazing piece by Amy Kingsley shows us all what we
already know on this site: when you make journalism about the toys, you will
end up losing. The Las Vegas Sun is only the most recent of those who have
found that at the end of the Internet rainbow, there’s no pot of gold or
anything else of value. The article details the “deal with the Devil” they
found themselves in when the Sun kept sinking and eventually was sucked into a
JOA with the Review-Journal that essentially made the Sun an insert into the
LRJ. However, the Sun took the lemons and made some awesome lemonade. Instead
of simply parroting the news that the LRJ would publish, the Sun decided to
become more investigative and more of a community voice, which won them great
praise and a number of awards.

However, the biggest swing came when Rob Curley (as the
article describes him “a self-described Internet nerd from Kansas”) came in to
recraft the paper’s Web site and boldly strike out in search of profit online. The
mantra in Internet news has been for a while that Curley can conjure gold,
unicorns and Internet win by simply arriving to run your show. He gained fame
in the late 1990s while in Topeka, Kansas by moving from a state-house reporter
to a new media editor. His work on the site of the Topeka Capital-Journal was
radical and amazing, as he focused on things people cared about: local politics
and local sports. His work was a hit and he moved up to the Lawrence
Journal-World, following a similar pattern and saw similar successes.

In a career of any professional on the cusp of greatness,
there is always a defining moment. It’s the moment where you decide if you want
to be the big fish in the small pond or try your luck at surviving life in the
big pond. There are high school basketball coaches who stay in one town for a
lifetime and become a legacy, while others strike out for fame and fortune on a
bigger stage and either make or break it. Athletes take bigger contracts and
either shine or wither under the bright lights of L.A. or New York. Local actors
either make it to Hollywood or land in the Valley. In short, you can stay where
you are comfortable, or you can go for broke. Curley did the latter.

Riding a crest of adulation that cast him as the “next big
thing,” Curley moved to Florida to help the Naples and Bonita Daily News engage
in innovation and convergence. Less than two years later, he moved to
Washington, D.C., where he led the Washington Post into the world of
“hyperlocal” coverage. Again, two years later, he landed in Nevada.

While his act played well in Kansas, it gradually became
more and more threadbare with each move. Friends from Florida who worked in
Naples told me that Curley had become a “big picture guy.” This roughly
translated into “I’ll punch out the ideas, bless them as coming from Rob Curley
and you will love them because they are certified Rob Curley ideas. Then, you
guys go implement them while I head off to something more important.” He wasn’t
a detail guy nor was he around much.

I got a chance to see him at a media convention in D.C. and
I found myself staring at the giant images of high school football and local
restaurants he put up. “We cover every Friday night game like it’s the
Redskins,” he bragged. However, several of us snapped out of the glitz haze and
noticed that this really didn’t have a lot of steak behind the sizzle. It was
great Web, but there wasn’t much journalism there. Once the excitement of
seeing your 15-year-old kid catching a pass on the WaPo Web site wore off, what
else could they do to keep you coming back? The answer was “not much” as the
Post began dismantling the hyperlocal site soon after its launch. Curley was
already cutting a deal to head to the desert.

The Sun’s Web site essentially seceded from the paper under
Curley’s watch, wrapping itself in the trappings of “cool ‘Net folk” such as
video games, nice furniture and more. While the paper journalists bristled when
dealing with the splashy nature of Curley’s dominion, it was clear they
probably wouldn’t have hated him and his folks so much if they actually brought
some serious game to the table. Instead, according to Kingsley, they launched a
failed TV project, crashed out the Web site with coverage that few wanted to
see and was at least partially to blame for massive cutbacks at both operations.

It’s now 2010 and if his pattern holds, there’s probably
another leap coming in Rob Curley’s future. Someone, desperate for an improved
Web world, will pony up big cash and heavy prizes for this messiah of the
Internet. What’s funny about this is that people are looking at Curley like
he’s the answer, just like when we’re fat, we look for a pill or a fad diet to
cure us. The pill won’t make us thinner, but exercise and good nutrition will.Rob Curley isn’t the answer, but at one
point, he did have the answer.

He just forgot it.

As a Kansas kid, he knew Kansas. He went to Emporia State
and then worked as a reporter at the Ottawa Herald in Kansas. He moved to
Topeka and then to Lawrence. He knew what made the people of Kansas pay
attention to something. He understood his folks and their background. Just like
a pastor knows his flock, Curley knew how to reach those people. However, to
borrow a phrase, he’s not in Kansas anymore.

The Internet is about niches. It’s about knowing how to
reach a very specific audience with a very specific message. It’s about
understanding people in a geographical area or an interest area. That’s why
Curley succeeded and that’s why Curley failed. It took him more than half his
life to know what the people of Kansas wanted. He then packed up his “Web in a
box” approach to journalism and peddled it out of the back of his covered
wagon. It wasn’t specialized to their needs and he wasn’t interested in pouring
his soul into learning about Naples or D.C. or Las Vegas. Thus, when he hit
them with local politics and local football, they wondered, “What the hell is
this crap?”

Hiring Rob Curley to run the Web for the L.A. Times or Beaver
County Tidbit in Flea Speck, Washington isn’t going to make that site a winner.
In fact, he’s more likely to kill it than save it. If you want to put together
a site the people want to see and are willing to pay to view (or at least
advertisers are interested in), you have to find out who you are trying to
serve, what they want, how they want it and how best to get it to them.

You also need to stop drinking the sand.

One thought on “Stop Drinking The Sand

  1. I saw the headline and thought it was going to be an “Obama and the Republican Caucus” post. It was a very “West Wing” thing to do.

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