What’s Really Making Seattle a Hyperlocal News Hotbed
Every time I read a story like TIME‘s “Are Hyperlocals Replacing Traditional Newspapers?“, my first reaction is generally a little thrill of recognition at seeing Tracy Record’s name.
Seattle’s hyperlocal scene (and social media mavenry for that matter) is the envy of the nation, and West Seattle Blog, as a more-than-full-time, news-breaking enterprise is the stuff of future HBR case studies. A six-figure revenue stream in the placeblog space? 750,000 page views per month?
But on the other hand–as Record would be the first to tell you–this is a dog bites man story. Listen to TIME characterize hyperlocal content: “Hyperlocal sites also frequently publish upbeat accounts of parades and high school sports, as well as information on which local vendors sell the best produce. Recent headlines on Record’s site noted a ‘mega-low’ tide and an upcoming garden tour.”
What does that sound like? TIME sums it up for you: “Record sits in her living room reinventing the role of an old-school newspaper editor.” Reinventing may be stretching it: Record is swimming with the online current, rather than against it, but she’s a journalist-editor in the mold of many newshounds who came before her.
West Seattle Blog is a local newspaper that’s not printed on newspaper, but otherwise, what’s different is a question of degree, rather than kind. It’s supported by local advertisers: insurance and real estate agents, yoga and massage practitioners, car repair shops and dog-walkers (thanks to “Sales Guy,” co-publisher, and husband, Patrick Sand). Its online presence makes community-driven (and -supplied) stories that much easier, but news tips are not new. The WSB forum fills in for classifieds, and augments reader contributions.
Record is fond of reminding people that a blog is just a delivery system. It would be a huge mistake to focus solely on the platform, and overlook the veteran, up-all-night journalist who knocks out stories on the hour. Coming from broadcast journalism, Record seems to have had zero fetishistic attachment to ink-smudged sheets; if there’s media (video, audio, social) she hasn’t leveraged in her quest to connect readers with WSB, please drop her a line, she’d love to hear about it.
She also has two other noteworthy qualities: perseverance (like any other small business, a large part of success is hanging around long enough for people to know you’re there), and opportunism (take a look at WSB’s nav bar: It makes little categorical sense, except that this is how West Seattleites use the site).
In other words, there is no secret to the West Seattle Blog’s success other than professionalism, long hours, and backing up a nose for news and community-building with canny business development. (N.B.: Not just ad sales, but ad sales to a group of under-served local businesses.)
Similarly, Capitol Hill Seattle‘s Justin Carder (full disclosure: who talked me into starting The SunBreak on the Neighborlogs platform, also the home of Seattle Post-Globe, Central District News, and Seattle Crime) is also a sleep-with-the-scanner-on newsie. His degree in journalism is from San Jose State University, and he worked at MSN News during its transmogrification into MSNBC.
Before Neighborlogs hired ad salespeople, Carder hoofed it around Capitol Hill himself, introducing local businesses to the site and the prospect of online advertising. A few years ago, I co-presented a seminar with him for the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, a sort of “Online Advertising 101.” After four years, CHS is so popular he’s running out of places to put advertising on the site.
Capitol Hill is just one Seattle neighborhood, but CHS is, according to Quantcast, pulling in about 300,000 page views per month (from almost 40,000 people). Carder is very much the daily voice of the site, but community engagement provides him with a wealth of tips, photos, and even write-ups, along with contributions from more regular writers, who are paid. Carder curates the stories that hit the site’s “Front Page.”
What is most likely to strike local visitors to CHS (as with WSB) is how it reflects the interests of Capitol Hill, as well as the news, and for that matter, how those interests drive the news. Seattle’s most dense, urban, hipster population wants and generates a lot of stories about bikes, transit, nightlife, and food.
(As with any good hyperlocal site, if you don’t live in the area, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the granularity of a post about sidewalk repair. But the other thing is, if you don’t live and work in the area, it’s next to impossible to achieve that granularity.)
Finally we come to Next Door Media‘s 11-site North Seattle empire, of which MyBallard is the flagship (with 600,000 page views per month). When you read the founders’ biography, you begin to sense a trend: “We’ve been journalists for our entire careers…” (Kate and Cory are associated with KING 5 and msnbc.com.) And advertisers are alerted that, “All of the Next Door Media sites are authored by experienced journalists.”
Interestingly, MyBallard also integrates data from EveryBlock.com, which crawls for things like restaurant health inspections and other public records. Outside.in also provides hyperlocal aggregation, but my sense is that these tools are more useful to the news junkies who run hyperlocal blogs than to the general public. Automation of data collection is one thing, but it takes work to turn it into a narrative or visual story that appeals to readers.
So there we have it. What’s driving Seattle’s hyperlocal scene is the commitment of talented journalists eager not just to leverage online platform strengths (and social media), but to live the niche level of interest of their readers. In each case, there’s the distinct feel of an entrepreneurial passion project, not all that different from the usual start-up M.O. In time, this has resulted in the kind of readership that advertisers can be talked into paying for the chance to reach, even though online advertising remains in a larval stage.
It’s a different stage of maturity, to be sure, than established media organizations. As a contrast, while local TV (KOMO) has made a substantial foray into neighborhood blogging, they tend to produce classically mass-market pieces that pale in comparison to the shoe-leather detail of independent hyperlocal blogs. To date, their sites haven’t displayed that webby, full-tilt engrossment in an area of interest that habituates regular reading. I’m not privy to their business model, but you could argue whether, purely as an extension of brand, this is worthwhile.
Or, there’s the stripped-down, shotgun-wedding Seattlepi.com, essentially running on “venture funding” from Hearst while they adjust the mixture of city beat reporting with their collection of reader blogs and celebrity photo galleries. It’s yet to develop–can it?–an editorial “take” that isn’t simply a remembrance of the P-I past.
You could see the conflicting currents of old and new most strongly in the Twitter follower-count of grizzled political columnist Joel Connelly and “online reporter” and “net native” Monica Guzman, before Guzman left to try a genuine start-up. But in general the neighborhood reporting from their reader blogs is not consistently on par with our leading lights, above, and so the choice of who to follow for hyperlocal news is an easy one to make.