Interview with Rob Curley
Rob Curley is vice president of product development for Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive.
Rob Curley has made his name with a deft combination of hypertext and the hyper local – harnessing multimedia to make the most of the minutiae of community life.
In the process he made a huge splash working for smaller newspapers in Kansas and then in Naples, Florida but when he was poached last October by Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive the question arose as to how his hyper-
newspaper techniques: So does The Washington Post cover the prom?
Rob Curley: No, it doesn’t – yet. I’ve never worked at an 800,000 circulation newspaper before, but what they’re asking is very familiar. In fact the way my job responsibility is broken down is really not so different from anywhere else I’ve been.
Forty percent of the job is hyper local – really embracing community journalism, the stuff I’ve done for a very long time. Then 30 percent is working with the amazing journalists at The Washington Post doing Journalism with a capital ‘J,’ and then the last 30 percent is about dreaming up stuff we hadn’t even thought of before – some of which might work and some of which might fail.
nt: How does ‘hyper local’ translate to a community the size of Washington D.C.?
R. Curley: It’s very interesting because we’re not defining hyper local any differently from before.
When you work in Kansas you only have two teams to worry about; the high school football team and the unit team.
Well, in Washington people still think about things the same, to us focusing on the local teams is still hyper local. Whether you’re covering sports or politics it’s still local – only it just so happens the president works in our part of town.
That said we’re trying a new strategy in 2007 where we take one county outside Washington D.C. and see what happens when you zoom in like we did in Naples [Florida]. So we are going to do the crazy in-
You take the local stuff we’ve always done then layer on blogs and the citizen journalism then on top of all that you get The Washington Post coverage so it’s a lot of the same approach plus some new tricks.
We’re positive it will work when we build the hyper-
What the paper has always been good at is the Washington bit, what we want to do is build up the Arlington bit.
A lot of people have said you can’t do hyperlocal when you’re as big as the Washington Post, but my gut reaction is that when they have it in front of them it will be a case of ‘Ah, OK... I see now...’
nt: Was the hyper-
R. Curley: A number of people were already working on hyper-
Part of that is selecting a community in the suburbs to focus on – but even then the community in question still represents the largest community my team has ever tried to build.
nt: In Naples you brought local politics to life with a mix of database statistics and personal direct comment from those involved. How do you approach local politics when this time they also happen to be national?
R. Curley: I’m not going to lie; I can tell you how city council works but to me the big time politics is not my speciality so I'm not going to pretend to know how to do it.
The good thing is that I don’t need to know – the team here are already frickin’ amazing at that stuff; they don’t need me.
Look at the congressional votes database they have and you’ll see they’ve already got this boiled down to syrup; everything from what the politicians are voting on to how often.
nt: So what do you bring to the party?
R. Curley: With the rest of the team working so hard to keep the trains running on time I was brought in to do the research and development for the special stuff.
You’ll be seeing a lot of special projects built using the Ellington Django platform [a publishing platform from The Lawrence Journal-
It’s so nimble and quick development that you don’t need a huge development team – you can get something done in six hours with this stuff. So, for example, the WP owns Slate.com and their editor called us to ask if we could write a program that would run to several gambling sites across the world and find how people were betting on American politicians. So we brought that data in, constantly updated for the site. Version 2, ready for the next elections, will be a total blast.
nt: At Naples you introduced VODcasts (downloadable Video On Demand). The Post already has a well established video staff – how are things working with that?
R. Curley: The Washington Post has a massive video staff which just won a national Emmy so there’s no doubt in my mind that they are producing world class video journalism.
So when I’m thinking of doing local level video I go to the director of Visual Journalism and ask ‘Can I have one of your videographers for a week?’
We have an amazing relationship with the video and photo team and one of the first phone calls we had was with Tom Kennedy of Washington Post photography.
These guys have bent over backwards to help and we have so many game plans that you get giddy – it’s like Christmas.
nt: How are you finding the cultural differences?
R. Curley: It’s such a different culture here from any I’ve been in and I’ve made no bones, for example, about how I don’t like meetings (and we do a lot of meetings here).
The whole thing is so much bigger – it’s huge, the Washington Post dot com staff alone is bigger than any newspaper I’ve ever worked on. It totally hits you in the face.
Our offices for the Post dot com are in a different office from the paper but when you go to meetings and walk in the building to see reporters who are like rock stars.
It’s hard not to be in awe, and it’s very humbling to walk past [Bob] Woodward’s office. There are moments where you have to pinch yourself. (Editor’s note: Bob Woodward is now an assistant managing editor of the Post who has also written and co-
nt: So when do we get to see the results?
R. Curley: We’re working on stuff for Newsweek for January, but when it comes to the big projects for the Post they won’t pop up until March/April. That said there is a video project that goes live in January.
Jen Crandall is the person behind this and it’s about what it’s like to be someone from the Washington area – not [former U.S. Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld or someone from Capitol Hill but locals going about living their lives.
These are really poignant video clips of everyone from construction workers to nuns – long interviews of 60 or 90 minutes edited down to just two.
I love it, and I thought ‘wow’ I want to be part of that so we decided we wanted to take these videos and throw so much technology on top that it would scare Bill Gates.
So we built a custom video player to download them to any device, including an HD [High Definition] version with all these weird drag and drop capabilities and the ability for the reporter to blog about the videos and the readers to comment.
It’s all very dynamic and Jen Crandall and Jesse Soltz [the Flash developer] did something very beautiful to build this amazing environment. That’s what ‘special projects’ is for.
This interview was conducted by Ifra correspondent Steve Shipside.
Page first published: 01.02.2007