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

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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.