WSB’s Tracy Record: You Can’t Do Hyperlocal on a Template

When West Seattle Blog launched, the site didn’t carry any ads — not even Google Adsense ads which co-founder Tracy Record thought were “ugly and cluttery.” At the time, the site was more of a passion project than a business. But when they finally got advertising two years later, Record says it didn’t take very long before she and her partner were turning a profit: “It was rather rapid in terms of people embracing us and we were in the black in the first year.”

Here she talks with Street Fight about how the blog’s mission evolved, what she thinks is wrong with companies like Patch and Datasphere, and why she doesn’t want ads from Pepsi, Apple or Microsoft.

Tell me a little about the opposition you see between smaller indie hyperlocals and larger corporate networks.
There’s something of a body of us who have achieved some measure of success; we’re actually in the black. We don’t have jobs on the side — this is our business and it does sustain us and family, and some employees, depending on who you’re talking to.

And continually there are these glowing pieces about one of these mass corporate sites, your Patches or your Dataspheres, it just goes on and on completely uncritically as if they’ve already achieved both unanimous acclaim and love in their communities. And they’re allowed to get by with no traffic figures. And so we get a little grumpy about that.

Do you think there’s potential for these larger networks to succeed?
My blanket statement is rather radical: it’s that there is no room for the corporations in here if they’re going to be templatized and cookie-cutter — which is what Patch and the Datasphere sites out here and elsewhere have done. You can’t do this on a template and be truly successful and truly serve your community. It’s crazy. And the worst part is to see that the neighborhood community news world, in particular, has the potential ruination thrust upon it so early in the game when it took decades for corporations to ruin the old media world.

I worked for corporations; I worked for Disney, I worked for Tribune. I know how those things run. And to see corporations rush right into community news and say: “Hi, we’re going to serve hundreds or thousands of communities and it’s going to be just great.“ It just made my heart sink.

Even if they are corporations, aren’t the networks still employing local reporters to report on local news?
Frankly, some of what they’re doing — aside from the crappy stuff, like “Hey its Wednesday, it’s ‘mom day’ because we want to grab SEO from moms,” separate from that — it’s what we’ve been doing, to some degree.  It’s this feature and that feature, although its not presented in as easy-to-read a format.

But the problem is, all of these great people — and they’re wonderful, I know people working for [the networks] that have a journalism background, which is what I always advocated in this particular space because that’s where I came at it from — they’re working for this giant corporation. Why didn’t they start their own site and make it happen themselves? Why are they doing it for a giant corporation so that the ad money is flying out of town, out of state, to this big, massive, bloated corporation?

And then the other half of that is, I used to watch their job listing section to see where were they going, what were they looking for, just kind of curious to see what their pattern was. And just like any old media company, they have this big old middle-management layer. You have these regional editors, the regional sales managers, and you have the home office in wherever it is that they’re headquartered, and that’s a layer that you don’t need in this, if you do it community by community. … I’m no business genius, but if something sinks them those are the expenses that will, not the fact that in 900 cities they have an editor making 40, 45, 50, whatever thousand dollars that they make.

If I were to be the Pied Piper blowing my flute past their communities, I would say “Please everybody please come on out, start your own site, do your own thing, have real control, have a stake in it, get in the game, have the possibility that you could make more of a profit than just drawing a salary that you can get by on.”

If I were to be the Pied Piper blowing my flute past their communities, I would say “Please everybody please come on out, start your own site, do your own thing, have real control, have a stake in it.”

Street Fight defines “hyperlocal” somewhat broadly — including check-in services and daily deals. How do you think these fit into the local advertising ecosystem?
I think saying a Groupon or a Foursquare is hyperlocal… well, you could say Pepsi is hyperlocal too, because they are delivering bottles of soda to every store in every market in the country. Just because you label it and say, “I’m checking in at such and such market and that Pepsi doesn’t have such and such market stamped on it.” That’s still a really fine difference. It’s still a national company that just happens to be serving its bottles of check-in or whatever at a million different outlets. That’s why, for my definition, I think [hyperlocal is] something that truly has its genesis within the community.

But these other services are still about consumers behaving hyperlocally, no?
The same thing happens if you open Applebee’s in a thousand places and it still says Applebee’s out front and it’s the same menu.  Just because you walk into the Southcenter Mall Applebee’s in Tukwila versus the Boulder, Colorado, Applebee’s… there may be a tiny bit of regional difference. At McDonald’s in Hawaii they serve Saimin noodle soup, because that’s what Hawaiians want — it’s still a big central templatized thing.

Some of what we’ve been doing is trying to educate our community and consumers: “If you really want to support local… where is your ad coming from? Where is your coupon coming from? Where is the money the small retailer isn’t getting from their cut of the daily deal?” It’s going off to Chicago, or it’s going off to New York.

How long did it take for West Seattle Blog to become profitable?
We didn’t set out to do what we wound up doing, and so we had a Web site running for two years before we ever ran a single ad. I didn’t even do Google Adsense; I think it’s ugly and cluttery. So there we were and it was year two and people started saying “Why don’t you sell some ads?”  And then very rapidly within a couple of months of making that decision, that’s when we turned the whole thing into a business. By then we had a few thousand regular readers so we certainly had a base to sell them. … It was rather rapid in terms of people embracing us and we were in the black in the first year. The first year we had to go to Costco a lot, and live on things creatively made with American cheese, but by the time we got to year two I could buy lattes again, it was great. …

We [made the decision to] think of ourselves as a 24/7 site; we said if something happens at 3 o’clock in the morning, we will be there, and those are all of the things that we went out on a limb for when we said “Okay, we’re in this now fulltime, we’re a business, here’s who we are, here’s what we’re doing.” And then the growth we had in 2007, when we had one and a half million page-views and last year we had nine million, so it kind of kept going from there.

I don’t want Pepsi, I don’t want Coke, I don’t want Apple or Microsoft or whatever, because the whole point is to offer space at a reasonable price in a place where a lot of local eyeballs go to showcase the local business.

How big an area do you have to cover for a site to be profitable?
West Seattle is a geographically very clearly defined area, so what we were covering when we decided to start this is the same thing we’re covering today. … It depends on where those ten thousand or five thousand or twenty thousand or thirty thousand people are because I hear that Manhattan is just rife with Web sites and some of them doing quite nicely, and I’m sure that if you have five thousand people living on one particular street that’s just thick with businesses you can do okay.  But I also went to a conference … and met some folks from this little tiny town — they were doing just fine. Their business community embraced them and they were doing okay. I think they had a collection of little towns like three or four or five thousand population type towns that were all in the same area.

And that’s where I come back to the whole corporate thing. … If you do this independently it’s: “What does your community want, what does your community need, what does your community ask for, what do they respond to?” As opposed to showing up and saying “Hi, here’s how we do this, it’s worked in these 650 other communities, so we know it’s going to work for you!” You can’t replace an ear with an algorithm.

You can create a lot of efficiencies with a national network. You can get major advertisers in there, if you want to do that. For example, there’s a regional ad network that a couple of organizations that we’ve been involved with out here have started, and we’re not participating in it. Our current stake in this is that we’re here, and we’re here to be local. At the moment we have kind of a finite amount of space at some point if we change our format that may change, but I don’t want a national lag. There may be one or two national companies that happen to have an outlet here, we’re kind of franchise-low in West Seattle, but I don’t want Pepsi, I don’t want Coke, I don’t want Apple or Microsoft or whatever, because the whole point is to offer space at a reasonable price in a place where a lot of local eyeballs go to showcase the local business.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Related Street Fight Interviews:
Patch Editor-in-Chief Brian Farnham on the company’s local/national dance with HuffPo.
The Batavian’s Howard Owens says hyperlocals should start selling ads the day they launch.
Baristanet’s Debra Galant compares Patch to Wal-Mart.

  1. TR
    May 26, 2011

    Hey! Just when I thought I was on the cutting-room floor. It should be noted that this was conducted about a month ago, not because that matters so much except for the fact that we joined in with the Authentically Local founders since then, or else I would have mentioned that extensively. Everything I said really dovetails with that anyway. P.S. For non-locals reading this and wondering … Southcenter is in Tukwila … if we had a Tech Willow, I think it might be over in Redmond with Silicon Forest …

  2. May 26, 2011

    Thanks Tracy! Made the edit.

    May 26, 2011

    Great article! Very interesting and great points, Tracy.

  4. Hilary
    May 26, 2011

    fantastic interview. i love the strong point of view and I agree. local is good.

  5. May 27, 2011

    At the end of the day a template is just a content management system. Whatever the corporate structure of an organisation better tools to do the job will offer a competitive advantage.

    West Seattle Blog is arguably the best hyperlocal web site in the US and by definition that probably means it is one of the best in the world. It has done this on a platform that seems to be wholly unsuited to what it is trying to do. WordPress is fine for occasional bloggers but for a news gathering organisation that is trying to commercialise it just doesn’t work.

    The site updates too often for the processional nature of WordPress. This is well illustrated by the site when I looked at it yesterday. I scrolled down through a series of dull but worthy stories (not knocking them – they are the staple of any good hyperlocal) to find amazing dramatic pictures of a car teetering on the edge of a flyover. This wasn’t an old story – it had just happened. If prime content like this is difficult to find it is being underused.

    WordPress also isn’t designed for commercialisation. No numbers were quoted in the article about profits or revenues and I couldn’t what the corporate ownership of West Seattle Blog was from the site – surely it must be owned by some corporate entity for legal protection reasons alone. If you were to take the 9mn page views per annum and assume a CPM of $5 that would give you a revenue of $45,000. However when I look at the site I don’t see an ad unless I scroll down. There seems to be an amibivalence about advertising reflected in Tracy’s interview. The long line of small static ads which are not particularly visible suggests customers are seen as a necessary evil and I’m sure that is something customers will pick up. The large site banner at the top of the page is wasted space.

    The idea that hyperlocal can’t be commercialised is to me demonstrably untrue – the UK already has some good examples. In my view West Seattle Blog would get a multiple of its current revenues if it took a different approach to advertisers and had a different platform.

    1. May 28, 2011

      Actually, the ads themselves are just part of the ways that our sponsors are promoted, and we are proud to have them all. The current display format and the fact we publish high volume, in blog format (newest to oldest), work together well. In addition to the display ads (we chose 160 x 160 though the Internet-standard tile is smaller, 125 x 125), we write extensively about local business, our sponsors included, and evangelize it like mad. 

      Totally agree that a different design would bring more advertising space – we’ll get there – and we need to, to continue investing in more journalistic firepower to cover our community, beyond the two full-time people and dozen or so freelancers that our revenue allows now (not to mention other myriad expenses such as multiple redundant ISPs to reduce our chances of ever losing access, whether at HQ or away), and to make more room for local businesses to reach our area’s largest news readership.

      As for corporate governance, terminology may be different from wherever you are, but we are an LLC (limited liability company), which is common for US small businesses. There are no partners or investors; the company is owned and run by my husband and myself.

      1. May 28, 2011

        The problem you have seems to be typical of similar businesses that I have looked at in the UK. You’ve built a successful online news business on a free/low-cost platform. The returns you generate are big enough to keep the business going but not to provide capital for upgrading your site applications. Given the quality of your content generation there isn’t much debate that a new CMS, an ad management system with rotation, a newsletter application and a user management database would cause your revenue to explode and deliver a quick cash return on the investment. I can’t imagine it this would be news to you and am sure you have looked into doing this. In the UK what similar businesses to yours tell me is that the banks are uninterested in lending to them and the VCs don’t see how the business will scale.

        At the same time you have larger players seeking to enter the market. They have the capital to invest in specially designed applications and get potential economies of scale and network benefits. Certainly in the UK and from what I’ve seen of Patch in the US this strategy has not yielded anything like the audience of the established independent players in this market. However, although Patch and other similar large company enterprise probably won’t be able to take on well-entrenched incumbents they probably will kill at birth more recent efforts to set up hyperlocal sites and will discourage others from doing so in areas they have moved into.

        Don’t really know where you go from here. One business model that could work is for a company to invite sites like yours into a network and gradually upgrade and standardise platforms funding the development work in return for some equity participation. Done with some intelligence this approach would allow a network of sites to be built up with as big an audience as Patch for a tiny fraction of the investment.

        1. May 29, 2011

          Kevin, I come from a traditional media background, like Tracy, so it’s not that we’re not aware of the things you’re saying. But I can tell you from practice, and suspect Tracy would agree, that running an independent hyperlocal site is a completely different animal.  Your prescriptions make some sense, in theory. But the practical applications of them are likely to turn a hyperlocal site into a traditional media site, complete with all the problems that go with that.

          It’s as if you’re looking at a giraffe and saying, “You know, that cheetah would run a lot faster if it didn’t have such a long neck.” Well, sure it would. But it still wouldn’t eat meat, and it would no longer to be able to reach the leaves on the trees.

          1. May 30, 2011

            dbrazeal, I can’t begin to see how you think any of the suggestions I am making would turn Tracy’s site into ‘a traditional media site’ unless you think being more commercially successful is a bad thing.

            Better management of ad inventory, more prominent presentation of your best content and an e-mail newsletter are not theoretical prescriptions, they are standard practice across most of the best run news sites on the internet. There are other hyperlocal sites with news content which is far inferior to West Seattle Blog that do these things and get a bigger audience and revenue as a result. If you are so fearful of enhancing a site then an ostrich rather than a giraffe is probably a better analogy.

          2. DB
            May 30, 2011

            First of all, ad management software is not inconsistent with WordPress.  My 12 year old hyperlocal runs WordPress and OpenX for banner management.  We run about 5K visits a day and about 12K uniques a month and the two systems work smoothly together.  WordPress is a CMS, period.

            Second, if WSB is successful in its current blog-style format, why change?  One can certainly pimp for more page views and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but there’s also nothing wrong with the alternative.

            Third, it is sometimes a disadvantage to have excess cash to throw at ideas and projects, like a redesign.  Some of the absolutely worst-designed sites on the web have the most money behind them. 

          3. May 31, 2011

            ‘ad management software is not inconsistent with WordPress’

            I’ve never seen a good example of this – could you show me one?

            ‘if WSB is successful in its current blog-style format, why change?’

            Blogs present the most recent post first but news doesn’t work like that. All user behaviour studies show that the majority of visitors to a page will not scroll down. WSB publishes 4 or 5 items a day so even something published that day will be missed by many readers.

            ‘sometimes a disadvantage to have excess cash to throw at ideas and projects, like a redesign’

            What a bizarre view.

            This determined amateurism is something that seems to be also prevalent in the UK. We often hear hyperlocals say ‘we are not in it for the money, we are in it for the community’. The best way to serve the community is to build a commercially sustainable business that generates sufficient excess cash to constantly improve its product.

          4. June 3, 2011

            “All user behavior studies show that the majority of visitors to a page will not scroll down. ”

            Bull shit and simply not true.
            That hasn’t been true since 2005.  There are ample studies now that show people do and will scroll.The fact of the matter is statistically and empirically I can prove to you that people don’t click links as much as you think.  I’ve been in a position to study click-through paths for more than 100 daily newspaper sites.  None of them show great CTRs on individual headlines.

            Present a user a page of headlines and links, the typical user scans the page and leaves, clicking on nothing.  And since the typical newspaper site with this design uses the limited inventory model (ads in rotation), the vast majority of sold inventory is never even seen, making the ads less effective.The fact of the matter is, the best way to present content and ads online is in what is known as the blog format (and I read all of your previous comments, Kevin).  It’s what readers prefer, it’s the most user friendly format and it’s why it’s been very successful for us.

          5. May 31, 2011


            I agree that there are better ways to present the best content. Those kinds of solutions can be found in various WordPress themes for very little money (less than $100 for a high-end magazine-style theme).

            An email newsletter is a great idea, too. I’m setting one up for a new site I’m about to launch, using MailChimp’s free option.

            I guess I take issue with the assumptions you seem to bring to the discussion. They’re the same assumptions I heard when I was working for a big media company. Like so many others, that company still doesn’t quite understand the implications of social, local news coverage.  You say,

            “In the UK what similar businesses to yours tell me is that the banks are
            uninterested in lending to them and the VCs don’t see how the business
            will scale.”

            I just don’t agree that a business has to “scale” to be a success. Most hyperlocal bloggers don’t need a loan to get started, and are perfectly happy to make a good living covering their community, doing a job they love. In many cases, they’re journalists who wouldn’t be making that much money working at their small local newspaper anyway. It’s not fear of success that makes them this way. It’s that they have a different definition of success.

            I don’t hate money.  But if I get to flex my creativity, innovate daily, and build a business from the ground up— and I’m making just as much as I did before, or maybe even a little more, I count that as a success.

          6. June 1, 2011

            I wasn’t advocating scaling as a means to success, just saying that when VCs look at this sector they are not interested unless there is some blue sky in potential revenues and the RoI is very limited for them if there are no economies of scale.

            There is a good argument that strong hyperlocal news sites should concentrate on what they are good at and stick to one area so as not to dilute management time. On the other hand if they have developed sound processes and expertise in the business it could make sense to expand into other areas where returns should be higher because variable costs of expansion are limited.

            Not expanding does come with risks. Competition will come and, while brand loyalty counts for a lot, if a new entrant could match WSB news gathering effort they could hit their revenues hard if they were working off a bespoke platform as opposed to a reengineered blogging tool. That’s why I think it is important for WSB to think about reinvestment now.

            WSB is not a hyperlocal blog despite the name. It is a news led site that for historic reasons uses WordPress. It is a proper business whereas most hyperlocal blogs are not – they are a hobby. The problem with being a successful business is that you will attract competition. Two things will happen in the next few years – either there is no real workable business model and hyperlocal sites are only sustainable if operated by owners willing to work hard for a meagre return or they are and it is possible to generate a good revenue from this business. Although there are only a few examples of genuine commercialisation the important fact is that they are showing that it can be done and this is probably why Patch are making such a big commitment to the sector. Others are likely to follow and effective, well funded competition will come to West Seattle. It would be best to be prepared.

  6. May 27, 2011

    I just don’t think it’s possible to agree with someone more than I agree with you, Tracy. National networks looking for efficiencies and scale are missing the central selling point of hyperlocal, which is really just about community service. Community service on the news site, community service on the sales side. If you’re not doing both of those, you’re just a Gannett for neighborhoods.

    This was just a fantastic interview, and you’ve done all hyperlocals a service by putting your thoughts out here.

  7. Tommy Butler
    May 30, 2011

    Great post. would say you can do hyperlocal on a template, it all depends on your content I run  hyperlocal websites. all based in geo locations. and first thing would say is get the right domain for your local area. 

    Would also say that most of the big guys dont have a clue how hyperlocal works, they dont understand  the true value of  local community.

    Hyper local is all about community and also knowing about that area. you have to  know every street every shop keeper you got to know the bricks  and streets of the area that you are promoting  and most of all you have to know the people.

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Street Fight Daily: 05.26.11