In December 2005, West Seattle Blog was just what the name suggested — a new blog, a “personal project,” in the words of co-founder Tracy Record, with no news or advertising. A major windstorm that struck West Seattle and King County in December 2006 changed all that, and in the nearly 10 years since, WSB has become a highly regarded inspiration for independent digital community sites.
Record, who began her multimedia news career at age 17, and her husband, Patrick Sand, a one-time station announcer who turned to selling advertising, have run the WSB as co-publishers since it became a full-service community site. Record is editor-reporter-videographer and Sand is in charge of advertising and business, but also fills in as videographer on heavy news days.
To get caught up with WSB as it approaches its 10th “news” anniversary, we put these questions to the peripatetic Record:
What are the biggest changes for WSB since you went big on news 10 years ago?
The one big change in news coverage is volume. Seattle is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country and, as a neighborhood close to downtown, West Seattle has grown dramatically as well, so there is more to cover.
Regarding revenue generation, we have long bucked the punditry’s contentions about advertising trends. Several years ago, pundits said “daily deals or die,” currently they say “native advertising or die,” but we don’t get trendy — we continue to offer local businesses excellent exposure via online display advertising.
Do you still do most of the editorial heavy lifting, including video, yourself, or do you have help beyond your husband?
We co-publishers (Patrick and I) are the only full-time employees. The amount of part-time/freelance help fluctuates. Still seeking experienced Seattle-based hard-news journalists interested in freelance work!
You said in your 2011 Q & A with Street Fight that there’s no template for hyperlocal. But after 10 years of experience with WSB, haven’t you developed a model?
Our model is to cover as much news as possible. Cover breaking news 24/7. Make yourself hyper-accessible. Sell local advertising and don’t dilute it with national junk, intrusive design, et cetera.
You no longer have to compete head-to-head with KOMO and Datasphere. What happened?
The “Communities” sites just faded away. Don’t have any insight into why, though I suspect they realized neighborhood news would not be a cash cow after all. Then DataSphere at least for a while was trying to sell local ads on a couple other regional legacy-media organizations’ event calendars.
Patch has several sites in metro Seattle, but not West Seattle. Did you scare them away?
If you look closely, they don’t REALLY have any local sites. They have automated setups that appear to have no local content aside from aggregated features such as real-estate listings. Even in their heyday in the early part of the decade, they never did open a single in-city neighborhood site in Seattle — just a few suburbs.
Your big story on Sunday was a Seattle woman becoming the first person in 50 years to swim the 10.4 miles from Bremerton to Alki Point in West Seattle (in the record time of 4:09:20, in the mid-50-degree waters of Puget Sound). You told the story entirely through photos, a video and reader comments. There was no article by a reporter. Is this is an example of using your resources efficiently?
That’s not really an accurate characterization of how we covered the story. What we do is actually use the open Web the way it’s supposed to be used — with links, so that any item is a hub with many spokes of information. Since we had published the announcement of Erika Norris’s swim two days earlier, the link to those details was part of the Sunday story, as well as links including one to an archived 1959 story about the previous person to swim the route, and a link to her background as a college Hall of Fame swimmer. We had also reminded readers earlier that day that the swim would be happening. So by the time we got to mid-afternoon and Patrick hiked out on the rocky shore to join the group waiting for her, the only major thing to report was: She did it! There just wasn’t much else to say or show, for a general news publication. If we were a site focused on swimming, perhaps some more granular detail might have been in order. Meantime, we DO run long stories when appropriate — see the “Saving Salmon” report we published a day later.
West Seattle Blog has a lot of connections on Facebook (24,279 “likes) and Twitter (44,700 “followers”). How important is social media to your site?
We were early adopters of both, going back to 2007 (although we had to start over on FB a few years back due to a glitch, or else we’d have more). Currently, FB is more important as alternate ways for people to reach us than as ways for us to reach them. We work hard to ensure that people know our website is the only place to find everything we offer — news, event calendar, the area’s only dedicated lost/found pets board, etc. Some news-media outlets seem to spend more time promoting Facebook than their own sites, and besides being a grave strategic mistake, that’s also a grave disservice to the people they serve, who should be able to access everything on the open Web rather than in social-media silos.
Advertisers today have many choices, including social media. What do you need to do to keep them coming to West Seattle Blog?
For as long as we remain the community’s news and information hub, businesses interested in reaching community members will be wise to do it via WSB. Our area has strong sentiment about thinking local, buying local, supporting local. Sending money to the non-local billionaires who run social-media companies is the antithesis of all that.
WSB began a news-sharing partnership with the Seattle Times in 2009. How is that going?
It’s dormant. The person who was the liaison left the Times a while back. There was a redesign that eliminated the spot on the home page where “partner headlines” were showcased.
You have expanded modestly — creating White Center Now serving another community next door to West Seattle. You say the site is a “true blog,” featuring more contributor content than WSB. How is that going?
We have been running WCN, covering a smaller community immediately south of West Seattle but one with strong ties to it, since 2008. It started as a partnership with a couple of local business people but their priorities shifted after a while, and we have kept it going as a low-volume, non-commercial news site. Some days there’s nothing new to report, some days we have multiple stories.
WSB began turning a profit its first year. Is it doing substantially better today?
Revenue has increased but so have expenses — technical costs in particular.
If you were giving advice to a would-be community news publisher today, what would you be saying that would be new?
I don’t think there’s really anything new to say. For us, the most important factor has been, listen to our community, listen to our gut. Our overall advice to would-be community publishers remains twofold: a) if you want to do it, do it, don’t study it or plan it to death, just get going; b) don’t do something no one needs.
Do you and Patrick have any plans to retire, or at least slow down?
Slow down? If anything, we should be speeding up! There’s so much to cover. But only so many hours in the day. And as for retire … that is to me one of the scariest verbs ever. “Retire” and do what?
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.