The Daily Dot: Interesting idea, but not a great metaphor

Does the web really need a “hometown newspaper?” The founders of The Daily Dot think it does, so they went ahead and built one. The site, which has been in invitation-only testing for several months, launched Tuesday as an open beta. Editor-in-chief Owen Thomas and CEO Nicholas White say they want to write about online communities like Reddit and YouTube (s goog) as though they were real-world towns, with stories and personalities worth writing about. It’s an interesting concept, but how many of those stories will be of interest to anyone outside of those communities? And does the newspaper metaphor really make any sense for an online-publishing venture?

When I heard about The Daily Dot and the “hometown newspaper of the Internet” idea — which I wrote about when it launched in alpha in April — my first thought was that even actual newspapers don’t really want to be seen as newspapers any more, since the idea of a daily printed collection of news now seems anachronistic at best (although even digital news apps like AOL’s (s aol) Editions seem determined to copy this format for some reason). So why would a brand new content site like The Daily Dot want to adopt a newspaper metaphor, and even create a design that mimics a small-town paper?

Are Reddit and Tumblr like small towns?

The point, as Thomas explained at the time — and as he and Nick White emphasized in a recent interview prior to Tuesday’s launch of the open beta — is that Reddit and YouTube and Twitter may be worlds that exist only online, but they are real communities, with gripping stories that deserve to be reported the same way a hometown newspaper would. This idea, which White credits to co-founder and financial backer Nova Spivack (who founded EarthWeb in 1994), resonated with The Daily Dot’s CEO because he comes from the fifth generation of a newspaper family: the owners of Sandusky Newspapers, which publishes community papers like the Sandusky Register in Ohio. Said White:

These online worlds are as much a community as any town, and in some cases, the online version is far more vibrant. We want to cover those communities the way the newspapers I grew up with covered their communities.

I’m all for the idea that online communities are similar to “real-world” communities, and probably more so than many people care to admit. And the idea of covering the stories that emerge from those communities makes a lot of sense as well, especially as we live more of our lives online. But that said, are Reddit or YouTube actually like small towns in any meaningful way? Not really. For one thing, although some people may spend a lot of time on them, no one actually lives there, and they don’t have the attributes that most towns have: i.e., stores, businesses, sports teams, local politicians, and so on, which is what most small-town papers write about.

Daily Dot wants to focus on the people

Reddit and YouTube and Tumblr have plenty of personalities in them, however, and that’s what The Daily Dot wants to focus on, says White, who quotes his newspaper-publisher father as saying “The names make the news.” And there are stories where the people behind the viral YouTube video, or the quirky Reddit link, are clearly interesting — such as the story that The Daily Dot wrote about the family whose young daughter recorded and uploaded a video of herself playing with a dead squirrel. Thomas says the video was widely criticized, but only The Daily Dot got hold of the parents, who explained that they saw the video as their daughter’s exploration of the concept of death.

There’s no question that was an interesting element to the story — but at the same time, it about a video of a girl playing with a dead squirrel. And based on my reading of the site while it was in invitation-only beta, many of The Daily Dot’s stories fall into this category: There’s a viral video and lots of people are wondering if it’s real, or there’s a link to a picture that may or may not be Photoshopped(s adbe), or people on Reddit are talking about a soldier who adopted a kitten during World War II. On a recent day, four of the “front page” stories were about photos or videos of cats or other animals.

Are these small-town stories of broader interest?

One of the problems with The Daily Dot’s newspaper metaphor is this: If you’ve ever lived in a small town or read a newspaper from one, you know that many of the stories printed in them are of interest only to the people in that town, and in some cases, not even them. It could be the cat in a tree, or the butcher shop getting a new slicer, or the bookstore owner whose daughter got a scholarship to a big-name university — but the likelihood of those stories appealing to anyone outside that small town is roughly zero. When asked about the preponderance of kitten-related stories, Thomas said the site would be a “mix of light and serious, of low and high culture.”

But the bigger problem for The Daily Dot isn’t just that some of its stories may only be of interest to a small proportion of Tumblr devotees or Reddit followers. Just like any newspaper, the site — which has so far gotten $600,000 in investment from Spivack and others — also has to worry about whether advertisers are going to want to appear on its pages next to the story about the dead-squirrel video. Smith says the company is in talks with some advertisers and other potential partners, but it’s not clear to me how many of those kinds of advertisers there are to be found.

That’s not to say The Daily Dot doesn’t have plenty of quirky or interesting material to work with, but will it be enough to make the site a destination of any kind? I’m not convinced. I admire what Smith and Thomas are trying to do, and I think in some cases they will be able to get behind a story that has appeared on other sites like Gawker or The Awl or Mashable and tell us something interesting about it. But will that happen often enough to make me want to subscribe? I don’t think so.