Rob Curley: King Of the World

By: Carl Sullivan

Like film director James Cameron at the Academy Awards a few years ago, Rob Curley was king of the world at both E&P‘s and the NAA’s new-media award shows this year, where he visited the stage frequently to pick up trophies for CJOnline.com. So Curley’s decision this summer to leave The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal‘s site to run the new-media operations at a rival paper surprised many.

Curley, 31, talks about his decision to become general manager of World Online, the Web division of the Journal-World in Lawrence, in a new feature from E&P Online, “5 Questions For…” We’ll periodically profile the brightest minds working in newspaper new media today. Please send your profile suggestions to csullivan@editorandpublisher.com.


1. Why did you recently leave the award-winning Capital-Journal‘s Web site to join rival Journal-World?

Curley: I loved working for The Topeka Capital-Journal and its parent company, Morris Communications. I grew up in this part of Kansas and when I was in grade school, all I wanted was to be the sports columnist for the paper. [Curley was the Capital-Journal‘s government reporter for a number of years before moving to its Web site.] But it was time to move on.

I’ve always thought the Lawrence newspaper was probably one of the best, if not the best, small newspapers in the country. Until you have visited this paper and looked at all that it does daily, it’s hard to appreciate just how different it is. I’ve never seen a company so committed to quality and its community. It’s inspiring.

At a time when my creative juices were beginning to wane, I wanted something to give me a little jolt. Coming to the Journal-World has been a blast. I’ve always been blessed with bosses who have given me a lot of freedom and inspiration, but nothing could have prepared me for the burst of energy this move has given me.

It’s kind of like having an IV of Mountain Dew running straight into me. I’m more motivated and having more fun than I ever have.

The one thing that I think young journalists sometimes don’t understand is that creating great journalism has absolutely nothing to do with how many newspapers you sell on Sunday. Why try to keep moving to bigger and bigger papers when you’re already having more fun than should probably be allowed?

2. What do you have planned for your first year on your new job?

RC: When I was in Topeka, nearly everything we did had a statewide flavor to it because we were in the capital. And when I was with Morris corporate, some of the best stuff that we did was when we were in SWAT-team mode, going from Morris newspaper to newspaper for a few weeks at a time.

I love that right now I can focus on just one city and one paper, and because of that, we’re doing everything that we can to make sure Lawrence has some of coolest local sites on the planet. I love being focused on one very hyper-local project.

We really need to renew our newspaper’s commitment to its three core sites — LJWorld.com, KUsports.com, and Lawrence.com. The Journal-World‘s online operation has become too splintered.

Lawrence is the home of the University of Kansas, and we wasted no time re-building KUsports.com. We had a re-designed and completely re-vamped Jayhawks athletic site before KU’s first football game just a few weeks ago. We’re still a long ways from being done with it, but I’m very proud of this new site.

Next up is to re-design and tweak the main news site, LJWorld.com. This is going to be fun because the newspaper also owns the local cable company, and has a full-time TV news staff that produces nightly newscasts, as well as all of the local stuff that you see on CNN Headline News.

We’re going to give it a healthy dose of attitude, and try some things that I’ve always wanted to do. We’re definitely going to take some chances. I’m sure more than a few eyebrows will be raised when we’re done.

Lawrence.com is the one site that I haven’t really thought enough about. We don’t have a timeline or gameplan ready for that site yet.

Another thing that we’re going to do is really spend some time nurturing our partnership with KU’s journalism school. It’s one of the top j-schools in the country, and we really need to be working closer with them. I’m now an adjunct professor at KU, teaching online journalism. But we also want to hire a flock of interns from there, and really work closely with the student newspaper.

3. You helped create and run an award-winning and profitable site in Topeka. What was your secret?

RC: There really isn’t a secret. The key is having huge buy-in from the publisher and the parent company. Once everybody in the building knows that the guy in the glass office is committed to succeeding, the rest falls into place. That’s not to say that it isn’t very hard work, coupled with some luck.

A lot of newspaper sites are still holding on to the idea that banner ads are going to pay the bills. I just don’t believe that.

I see the two biggest revenue streams for a newspaper’s Web site to be a very solid relationship with the print edition’s core revenue generators, and a big-time focus on outside commercial Web development. If there is a big-time “fiber-cyber” relationship going on at a newspaper, things just work better. When people say that these sorts of relationships are “just the print edition subsidizing the online edition,” I become infuriated. The online numbers are there. The demographics are there.

People really do use online advertising if it’s not just some silly banner or button ad with a slogan. Those are nothing but virtual billboards. When online ads help people (like with real estate or automobile searches) or through great value propositions (like highly integrated online coupons), then they are totally effective.

If your ads help people, advertisers keep on renewing. And when this is done well, the advertising becomes as much “content” as any story, photo, or piece of video is. If I know that LJWorld.com has some killer online-only coupons where I can get a dollar off Krispy Kreme donuts, you bet your bottom that I’m going to be downloading that little coupon and printing off a few hundred of them.

I’ve learned a ton about advertising simply by watching my wife read the newspaper. She may look at the front page or the metro page for a minute or so, but her real goal is to get to the inserts and see what sales and coupons are in there. I only had to see this about a hundred times before I realized that banner ads that just have a company’s logo and slogan on them really do suck.

We’ve also had a lot of luck selling sponsorships of larger sections of our sites. Even in small markets, these types of underwriters can go for thousands of dollars a month, which means a lot here in Kansas.

4. Speaking of advertising, do you think most news Web sites will be free or paid five years from now? Why?

RC: Free. That doesn’t mean that user registration isn’t going to be every where, but I can’t really envision the subscriber model working for the majority of newspaper sites.

I just think it makes more sense to get the content out to as many people as possible, and then monetize those numbers. That model will work, and does work. There are Morris newspapers from Jacksonville to Juneau that are already making it work, and bringing in some impressive dollars.

And it will work here in Lawrence. This community’s Internet penetration is staggering.

I could be really wrong here. Twenty-five years ago, everyone laughed at the idea of paying for television, yet now it’s dang hard to find households without cable television.

5. What are your favorite Web sites and e-mail newsletters?

RC: I’m a news junkie, so I visit a lot of local news sites here in the eastern part of Kansas.

I like E! Online. I like ESPN.com. I visit RollingStone.com each week or so, but I don’t really like the look of their site that much. But being able to search through all of those old album reviews totally rocks. I visit RockKansas.com at least once a week to see what’s going on with the local music scene.

I put myself through college by stringing for a ton of papers across the country, and by playing in numerous bar bands. I used to have the worst-looking long curly hair you have ever seen in your life!

I really love the goofier side of the Web. Sites like HotorNot.com and HowManyWouldItTake.com totally entertain me. I don’t even want to know how many hours I’ve burned on those sites.

Shockwave.com is still fun for me, though the child of the ’80s in me tends to gravitate toward the site’s old arcade games.

I love F*ckedCompany.com, which I visit almost everyday. I used to love AdCritic.com, but I don’t go there anymore since it became a pay site. I also go to Apple.com’s movie-trailer section at least once a week.

I love message boards, and there is a great one here in Lawrence called Larryville.com that I visit nearly everyday to see what people are talking about.

I subscribe to several Yahoo groups for things that interest me, and spend at least a couple of hours a week on those sites.

As for e-mail newsletters, I always read Rob Runett’s Online Publishing Update from the NAA. Steve Outing’s list is great, too … but it will definitely force you to learn how to use the filters on your e-mail program.

I know this isn’t a Web site, but I use LimeWire all of the time. I also really like AOL Instant Messenger.

E-mail Rob at rob@robcurley.com.

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