Battle in Seattle: ‘Indie’ West Seattle Blog vs. Corporate KOMO

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Seattle is arguably the most hyperlocalized metro region in the country, with more than 100 community sites in and around city. But one community is the crucible for what is shaping up as a dug-in competition for eyeballs and dollars that may have implications for hyperlocals everywhere. That community is West Seattle, a peninsula jutting into Puget Sound that is rich in nature, heritage, and civic involvement.

West Seattle has two major hyperlocal news sites, and they represent 180-degree-opposed forces in online community news: independent sites that entrepreneurs fund from their wallets, and big-media-financed sites that draw on millions of dollars from corporate treasuries.

The independent West Seattle Blog was founded and is run by Tracy Record (co-publisher and editor) and her husband Patrick Sand (co-publisher and business director), both of whom have strong news backgrounds.

Meanwhile, West Seattle KOMO is one of the 55 neighborhood sites in metro Seattle launched by local television station operator Fisher Communications, with  tech and advertising support from Seattle-based Web middleman Datasphere. The site has one full-time staff reporter, Rose Egge, a West Seattle native who, though only 25, has three years of journalistic experience in the area. Egge is backed up by other KOMO news staff.

Record, who is deeply embedded in West Seattle civic life and widely admired in the independent hyperlocal community nationwide, says, “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… have done.”

Gary Cowan, SVP of marketing and sales at Datasphere, is unfazed: “This is not a winner-take-all-type market. Some of our most successful community sites are those where other players are also strong. Scale is the future of hyperlocal.”

So how do these two hyperlocals with such totally contrasting visions stack up in serving the same, Web-savvy community? To find out, I examined a week’s worth of their West Seattle coverage (Nov. 19-25), looking at the type and amount of content and the community feedback it received.

WSB published more than twice as many articles as KOMO, and covered more topics (e.g., government, transportation and nature). WSB was also superior in audience engagement, with some of its stories attracting 15 to 20 and more comments.

Driving WSB’s numbers is its heavy use of social media — far more than West Seattle KOMO:

  • On Facebook, WSB pulls 5,209 “likes” compared to KOMO’s 132, and 509 “talking abouts”  to KOMO’s 2.
  • On Twitter, WSB has 37,908 tweets compared to KOMO’s 3,334, and has 11,957 followers compared to KOMO’s 341.
  • On its Forum, WSB’s open discussions have attracted 77,580 posts to the 7,319 topics.

WSB’s strong engagement with its users goes straight to the bottom line. The site’s 75 display ads — all small squares bought by local merchants — are behind Record’s 2009 assertion that revenue is in the “six figures.” WSB’s revenue surely has been increased by the site’s rapid increase in traffic in recent years.

West Seattle KOMO runs about 55 small display ads from local merchants. Datasphere wouldn’t disclose revenue from those ads, but Fisher’s 125 Web sites generate  about $5.6 million revenue annually, based on a projection of results in the company’s third-quarter 2011 report. That averages out to about $45,000 per each Fisher site. Is that enough to cover costs? Cowan says current advertising revenues make West Seattle KOMO and Fisher’s other 119 community sites “sustainable.”  He adds: “Why do you think the cost of running one of these sites is anywhere near close to $45,000? Remember, the basic premise of our approach is that we leverage existing assets and spread fixed costs across a large new base. Yes, there are definitely incremental costs associated with setting up and running these sites, but nothing like what would be required to set up and run a single standalone site as a compelling business.”

In short, KOMO expects to benefit from the network effect, which West Seattle Blog’s independent-minded Tracy Record happily rejects.

Pick your winner.

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.