B-Town Blog’s Schaefer: Hyperlocal Means Being ‘On the Ground’

Scott Schaefer, Founder, Publisher and Editor of B-Town BlogScott Schaefer is the founder, publisher and editor of B-Town Blog, in Burien, Wash., which was named the best hyperlocal news Web site by the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Chapter. B-Town Blog, one of six hyperlocal content sites operated by Schaefer’s LOL Dudez, aims to “report news from a ‘location-based’ perspective.” Schaefer recently spoke to Street Fight about how that “location-based” principle guides everything the site does.

How does B-Town Blog define “hyperlocal?”
Hyperlocal to me is quite simple really – local news reported from a local source. Like one of our local reporters writing a story for our blog. To me, the term ‘hyperlocal’ implies news for a community that originates in that very same community. I don’t believe it can be done by someone several or hundreds of miles away re-purposing news from an RSS feed.

Everyone who works for our blogs — we have six web sites total — lives, works, eats, drinks and spends their money locally…  And we’re all very much involved too; we’re members of the chambers of commerce, and many of us do a lot of volunteer work for local non-profits.

There is room for the smallest events on our blogs as well, because, as our mission statement says: “If it happens in our community, we’ll report it.” How this might relate to a story with a more national (or worldwide) scope would be: “How might that news affect our community?” For example, when the tragic earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, I read a bulletin released by the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) that a very small, 4.5-inch wave actually struck the waterfront in downtown Seattle. Since our community has an extensive shoreline, obviously that same wave hit Burien. I think that’s pretty interesting news. A gigantic, terrible event from across the globe can affect a small area in our own backyard.

Have old-media publishers dropped the ball or left holes in their coverage that you’re leveraging?
Since we’re truly “on the ground” and embedded in the neighborhoods we live in, when there’s any kind of local story or news that has any kind of impact on our community, we’re able to cover it more in-depth, and depending on the event, oftentimes faster than any mainstream media reporting from outside our city.

We also try to do more follow-up stories than the bigger local media outlets, and we try to focus more on the people who live here. Oftentimes our “competition” will just do a quick piece on a local news story, then leave it alone. We’ll do the same story, but since we often know the people involved (police, firefighters, local councilmembers, et cetera), we can dig deeper.

We’re now the leader in local news, and we’re growing stronger. … We’re often also the original source for many stories the Seattle media picks up.

Is there something particular about your community that makes it a good market for hyperlocal content?
Local blogs are definitely big in the Northwest, that’s for sure. I started The B-Town Blog as a hobby in December, 2007, because I wanted to find something to do with my family one weekend but the only local event listings I could find were three months old. I knew I had discovered something when, about six months later, local businesspeople were calling me and asking if I sold advertising… Here we are some three years later in the black and named ‘Best Hyperlocal Web site’ in the northwest by the SPJ.

Has your revenue model evolved since you were founded?
We are advertising-based, mostly from local businesses, and have been since our first sale in April, 2008 (I have the check framed on our office wall). We have a great sales team, comprised of local people who know a lot of the business owners because they’ve been customers. When a business owner recognizes, or knows you, it makes it a heck of a lot easier to sell an ad to them — because you’ve already spent money at their business. It’s a wonderful local cycle of commerce.

What have you learned that works and what doesn’t work in hyperlocal content?
We try to avoid posting much in the way of what I call “speculative reporting”… A lot of unconfirmed reports [are] about “apparent accidents in this intersection” or “overheard this on the scanner” posts, and I think that’s very dangerous journalism. We try to stick to confirmed facts as often as we can, and we don’t update the site just to update it. We let the natural news and event cycle dictate when we update, and I don’t think there’s need to update a blog like it’s a 24-hour newsradio station.

We’re always learning too, and we’re always trying new things, especially with advertising. We recently launched a “Live Twitter Feed” ad, where clients can control that day’s (or hour/minute) message by updating their Twitter account. Michael Brunk, our photographer and WordPress-code-God, also developed an ad that allows clients to update an HTML-based text area themselves. I think these are pretty innovative solutions, and we’re always trying to make our site better not only for our readers, but for our advertisers as well.

In the end though, if a job isn’t fun, I won’t keep doing it. I have a blast with this venture, and since I was originally a journalism major, and had over five years’ experience working for local papers just after high school, coming back to the news world was like riding a bike. It’s fun, it’s exciting and we think we’re making a difference for our city.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

  • SeaHac

    I appreciate what Schaefer has to say about the hyperlocal role and his aversion to “speculative reporting.”  Amen to that – when the West Seattle Blog posts that kind of stuff I feel it discredits the otherwise valuable reporting they do.  Serious blogs should not be in the business of rumor and hearsay (although they probably do it because it drives traffic and makes more cash money … more about business then journalism I suppose).

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  • http://www.facebook.com/howardowens Howard Owens

    When you don’t do scanner reports, you’re missing a key to audience growth and retention, and I think abandoning your ethical obligation as a real-time news service to keep readers fully informed.  Readers have a right to know what’s going on and I can’t imagine any ethical journalists purposefully denying them that information.  The idea that  something over the scanner isn’t confirmed is ludicrous on its face.  It’s coming from an official source, and like all official sources, even ones supposedly fully vetted, it can, yes, be wrong (like less than 1 percent of the time wrong, and if you know what you’re doing in scanner reporting, there’s a lot of wrong information you’ll never report). But the great thing about web reporting is a correction is just a click away.

    • http://www.facebook.com/scottschaefer Scott Schaefer

      Howard – I stand by my decision to not post ‘spec news’ I hear on scanners, and this is based on mistakes I’ve read on other blogs that seemingly post just about anything they hear before it’s confirmed. If you want to talk about ethics, I think that posting bad info is just plain wrong, even if removing it is just a “click away.” Plus, I have found that actively listening to a scanner distracts from getting the real work done! RSS feeds and Twitter are much more effective methods of getting breaking news, as is listening for sirens and calling the F.D./P.D. directly. It helps of course that our office is just about a block from the main fire station…

      • http://www.facebook.com/howardowens Howard Owens

        I dispute that a lot of incorrect information gets posted just by listening to the scanner.  Your ivory tower approach isn’t modern journalism nor taking best advantage of the web to provide real time news.  Also, we have a scanner on 24/7 and judging by the amount of work we get done and the success we’ve had, it’s taken noting away from any other duties.  It’s definitely adds to our business, not detracts from it.  But I really don’t care what you do. I just want to make the point for aspiring publishers not to listen to your advice, because it is misguided. 

        • http://www.facebook.com/scottschaefer Scott Schaefer

          Hmmm…talk about an ‘Ivory Tower’ Howard – thanks for the lecture! Remember, the point I was making in the interview was about posting speculative info, oftentimes gleaned from unconfirmed scanner reports, posted in a rush to be first or to just update a website. That’s the point here. There’s certainly a place for scanners in any newsroom (we have one), so please stop your own Ivory Tower Comments, Mr. Expert. But then again, perhaps you own stock in Bearcat or Uniden…?

          • http://www.facebook.com/howardowens Howard Owens

            “speculative info” on the scanner?  You must not listen to one much.  

          • http://www.facebook.com/scottschaefer Scott Schaefer

            Read closer Howard – ‘speculative info, oftentimes gleaned from unconfirmed scanner reports.’

            In case that doesn’t make sense to you, here’s a translation example:

            HEADLINE: Possible Accident at 35th & Morgan

            LEDE: According to a report we heard on the police scanner tonight, there may have been an accident at the intersection of 35th and Morgan…

            RESULT: Scanner call was wrong (happens), there was NO accident, yet the ‘Journalist’ posted the story without confirmation.

            And said ‘Journalist’ had done it before, and has done it many times since.

            THAT is what I’m referring to, and what I try to avoid.

            End. Over. Out.

          • Anonymous

            You don’t go with the initial dispatch, you wait until units get on the scene and radio back with what they got. Not sure why anybody would be reporting on accidents that don’t involve significant injuries, road closures or photos, but if you wanted to you can do so with 99% accuracy when the first arriving unit confirms the accident and the location.

            Get off your Journalism high horse, get into the trenches, and start paying attention to how first responders really do their jobs. Then you won’t have to wait a day to rewrite a police press release.

          • DB

            I’m with Scott.

            Remember the process involved in the information that one gleans from a scanner:

            Step 1:  A citizen calls in a complaint or a concern.  A citizen is not (usually) a trained observer.  That person’s definition of a “bad” accident is likely to be very different from the perspective of the emergency responders and journalists.  The observer could be drunk.  Could be a party to the incident.  Could be anything.  And as a journalist who has listened to scanners almost daily for 30 years, I can tell you that the information from Step 1 is unreliable.  Period.  I don’t know how many times I’d be glued to the scanner, only to hear the arriving unit radio back “GOA” (gone on arrival, meaning there’s nothing there) or “unfounded”.

            Step 2:  The 911 center dispatches units based on the information from the caller.  Again, since the initial information needs to be confirmed by a source capable of assessing the situation, this is unreliable information.

            Step 3:  Units on the scene radio information back to the mothership.  NOW we begin to hit useful information.  But I never trust my own ears.  I call the 911 center and confirm what I’ve heard.  Only then is it safe to publish.

            Why would anyone want to publish rumors?

            One more thing I’d like to throw in here.  Routinely, I will hear calls for “unattendeds” — meaning, there is a dead person whose death was not witnessed.  Could be murder, could be a heart attack, could be a suicide.

            Unattendeds can sometimes take time to sort out, and the investigation often looks like a crime scene investigation.   I leave these alone until there’s a determination, or until I can get someone to give me a hint that it’s a crime.  Do you really want to play up something that turns out to be a suicide?

            If that means I’m in an ivory tower, so be it.  I’d rather be there than in front of the family of a suicide victim, trying and failing to explain why I’m trying to juice up page views over someone’s dead body.

            Oh, and for those of us in New York State, I have always been told that it is illegal to publish or broadcast information straight from scanners.  Don’t know if it’s true, but since I’ve always verified what comes out of my mouth or keyboard first, it’s never been an issue.

      • Anonymous

         Every television station in the country has scanners on 24/7. Somehow they’re all still able to get work done. BTW, the info I pick up over the scanner is about as accurate as the local police PIO and slightly more accurate than the local fire PIO.

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  • Altadenablog

    I’m throwing in with Howard on this one.  We love our scanner, and it’s been very necessary for right-now information.  Yeah, you have to caveat it (“Scanner says — but not confirmed …”) until you actually do confirm it, and be ready to make corrections with necessary, but we’ve covered lots of real-time events where reticence is not called for.   We had California’s worst wildfire just on the periphery of our town in 2009, and some major police actions since then, and the scanner has been an invaluable resource.  In our town, if the police or sheriff’s rescue helicopter is orbiting, everyone in town can hear it and they come to me to ask what it’s about.  I also have a lot of scannerhead readers who help out immensely during these occasions.