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

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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.