Are Big Media’s Partnerships With Seattle ‘Indies’ the Future of Hyperlocal?

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In the furiously expanding, highly competitive and often conflicted hyperlocal space, some pieces appear to be coming together. Just possibly, highly digital Seattle may be the birthplace for what has long eluded hyperlocal: a sustainable  business model.

I’m talking about the new and recent partnerships between Seattle’s hyperlocal “indies” and the bigger media guys in the very active local space.  The newest, and most robust, of these partnerships bring together Fisher Interactive Network—the online division of multimedia Fisher Communications—and two “indies” in Southeast Seattle, Beacon Hill Blog and the Rainier Valley Post.

Southeast Seattle, about five miles from downtown, is the perfect seedbed for hyperlocals. Once home to a predominantly low-income population and public services that other sections of the city shunned (like a shelter for the homeless mentally ill), Southeast is in the middle of a broad-based gentrification that benefits from the light-rail line connecting it to downtown.  The demographic and economic transformation of neighborhoods is producing a high number of activists, like Beacon Hill Blog founder Wendi Dunlap and Rainier Valley Post founder Amber Campbell. Southeast’s 98118 ZIP Code is often called the most diverse in the country (“10,000 are Caucasian, 10,000 African-American and 13,000 Asian-American, as well as smaller numbers of Hispanics, Hawaiian Islanders, Somalis and Filipinos, and many other racial and ethnic groups,” according to one account in the Rainier Valley Post).

Under their partnerships with Fisher, Dunlap and Campbell and their basically one-person operations get access to the company’s considerable resources, including KOMO TV station in Seattle—staff and equipment like video copters—as well as exposure on KOMO and Fisher Interactive’s own 55 community websites. In exchange, Fisher/KOMO gets access to the often deep neighborhood coverage of the two indie sites.

Kevin Cotlove, executive producer at Fisher Interactive, says the partnerships are not a prelude to Fisher gobbling up the indies: “They’re doing great work. They’re doing what they want to do. We want to help, but we don’t want to insert ourselves.”

The partnerships don’t involve any exchange of cash or ownership, so the two indies will keep their independence as they acquire goodies from Fisher that they can’t obtain on their own.

Through hard work and smart entrepreneurship, Dunlap and Campbell have firmly planted their sites’ flags in the Seattle region’s hyperactive hyperlocal market.  Both of them see the partnerships helping them to take their sites to a new level.

Says Wendi Dunlap, who founded Beacon Hill Blog three years ago: “BHB is currently just me, though there are some neighbors who occasionally contribute (and whom I appreciate greatly!). I have another job, and can’t always have the depth I want in the blog. I’m hoping the partnership with KOMO will help mitigate that, but it’s too soon to tell.”

Dunlap says partnerships like hers with Fisher may point the way for other hyperlocal entrepreneurs to succeed. “So many local blogs are one- or two- person operations, started by people with day jobs to pay their rent, etc.,” she said. “There’s only so much that most people can do under those circumstances. Some folks may be able to expand, sell ads, and become the ‘big boys’ without partnering with others, but not everyone can manage that.”

Amber Campbell, who started her site four years ago, puts the benefits of the partnership in these direct words: “We all have to eat, and so far, KOMO is the only major media organization in town that’s willing to put their money where their mouth is and support hyperlocal journalism with real dollars. Bottom line: KOMO is helping me do my job bigger, better and stronger than before.”

The partnerships are not the first example of hyperlocal indies in Seattle teaming up with somebody bigger. Two years ago, the Seattle Times, the city’s surviving daily newspaper, got together with about 10 community-based websites, including the Beacon Hill Blog and Rainier Valley Post sites.  The network has grown to about 40 community sites. But these partnerships have been mainly limited to sending more traffic in both directions.  They have produced only two examples of journalistic collaboration, but one of them – “Invisible Homelessness: The Families You Don’t See”—showed how the Times’ big picture could be filled in with revealing close-ups supplied by neighborhood-focused sites (including, in this case, Beacon Hill Blog and Rainier Valley Post).

“We send tens of thousands of referrals to our partners every month, because we feel such a partnership helps fill gaps in our coverage,” says Bob Payne, partnerships and audience engagement editor at the Times. “Meantime, several of our partners tell us they get a boost from the credibility that association with the Times gives them.”

Tracy Record, editor and co-publisher of the highly regarded West Seattle Blog, one of the Times’ partners, says of the relationship: “Certainly, it gives us a bit of extra traffic—by no means a fire hose, but at least a few hundred pageviews a day. (Our current average daily traffic is 32,000 pageviews.) Most important: Their links to partners’ stories go directly to the partners’ sites.”

The big question—not only in Seattle but across the entire hyperlocal space nationally—is whether such partnerships will expand to include the other cogs and wheels of a sustainable business model, including revenue generation.

No one knows if this will happen, but Fisher’s indie partners are looking at the possibility from the same field of vision. Says Beacon Hill Blog’s Wendi Dunlap: “I hope so, particularly advertising.”  Says Rainier Valley Post’s Amber Campbell: “I certainly hope so!  There’s a lot of potential here.”

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.