Before major media companies were investing in online local news ventures (such as AOL’s Patch), and even before many j-schools announced news-gathering partnerships to do the same, there were neighborhood blogs. Take, for example, Tracy Record and West Seattle Blog, which is known in the online journalism community as a particularly endearing success story. With her husband, Patrick Sand, Record maintains a news site that serves West Seattle, a neighborhood of 70,000. But don’t let the name “blog” mislead you. This is community journalism at its best. Record has a 30-year background in journalism, including newspapers, radio, online at ABCNews.com and several TV stations. For those thinking of striking out on their own, Record has some advice, and it has a lot to do with shoes . . .
You left a job as an assistant TV news director to start West Seattle Blog. What prompted that?
I didn’t leave to start it, but I left when we turned it into a business. We started in late 2005, and I was anonymous to boot. Nobody else seemed to be writing about the neighborhood. There was a turning point about a year later when there was a big windstorm, and it hit the (Puget Sound) region so hard, it was hard to find information about how it hit West Seattle. We got notes from people asking about the windstorm; very informally we turned into our own news-gathering team. We had lived in the neighborhood since 1991. By late 2007, we’d built up enough of a readership and people asked if we’d consider selling ads.
You started WSB before the boom hit and “hyperlocal” became the big buzz word. That was well before Patch and Yahoo! were investing money in local online news. Do you have any regrets about jumping in when you did?
The thing is, when we started it, we didn’t start with any expectation that it would become a business. We didn’t even run Google ads. It’s the perfect example of something you start out doing just because you want to do it.
Was it beneficial to do it then rather than now?
It was advantageous to start then. If you start with an expectation, that’s a downside. In our case, we didn’t start with any expectations.
Do you think sites like WSB are sustainable only in certain kinds of neighborhoods or cities? Is West Seattle more conducive to it whereas (Seattle neighborhood) Queen Ann, for example, might not be?
The interesting thing, and I wish I could name the sites off hand, is there are people from small towns all around the country who have had success (running local news sites), and these are towns that have a few thousand people. If you do this well, it’s really like the community newspapers of yore.
What’s been the most frustrating part of running WSB?
Honestly, the most frustrating is the fact that while there’s been a lot of investment in the new media world, a lot of it has gone to the technology, rather than to the content and the producers. When people invest in innovation, they’re always looking for the next aggregator or widget creator. It’s frustrating to know that people have invested so much money on sites that are geared to take my content, rather than buy me an employee for a year.
The most rewarding?
The part about working with the community, but in an organic way. We didn’t set out to say we’re going to put on seminars and forms on our site to sign up. It just happened. We didn’t set out in a very determined way to do that. We started to get reports about lost pets. So, we made a page dedicated to lost and found pets in West Seattle. And we don’t have an auto upload like Craigslist where no human ever sees it. Helping find Fluffy tends to be rewarding.
Do you ever feel you get lumped into the incorrect stereotype of “blogger” as a pejorative term just because you’re not working in what is still (unfortunately) called “traditional” media? Do you have to constantly explain your credentials to city officials and other sources?
In the beginning, when we set out to be official, we did have that problem. But I believe we were the first news site like this in the area to get police credentials. The name has absolutely been a stigma, like a catch-22. If I have to contact a PR person or someone from out of town, I have to explain to people that I have a 30-year journalism background and we’re the most-read news site in West Seattle, a community of 70,000 people. I have to say about 10 times a day that I’m not blogging, I’m reporting.
Obviously you can’t do everything on your own, and you have Patrick doing ads and even your son helping with graphics. And you have contributing writers, too. If someone comes to you and says, “I really love West Seattle, can I write for you?” what do you say?
We’ve been paying freelance writers and photographers for two years. I always say, “Great, what kind of experience do you have?” I will give someone a test assignment, and I’ll pay them for it. I’m not looking for free labor. We haven’t been burned yet.
There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there — the death of journalism and credible news and all of that. Frankly, it’s mostly misinformed noise. From someone who is part of the “future of news” ecosystem online, trying to find a way to make it work financially, how do you respond to people who say journalism as we once knew it is dead?
What we generally say is that for one, the advertising business model is not dead. The question is whether you can evolve your own organization to adapt. Even my old job, for example, they didn’t need someone in that position. In (AOL’s) Patch, with regional editors and regional ad managers, they’re not learning from the mistakes of the past (by having that kind of infrastructure). We came across this a lot when the (Seattle) Post-Intelligencer stopped printing, everyone was lamenting the loss of investigative journalism. The truth is, there wasn’t a whole lot of that happening anyway. In some cases, a lot of civic issues are getting more coverage (now).
To someone branching out on their own in entrepreneurial journalism, what advice would you give?
You can keep expectations low, but the most important thing I tell people is don’t over- think it. I have met people at conferences and meetings who have spent months researching business plans and getting people to design their site. I say the Nike slogan: Just do it. There’s nothing to say you can’t turn on a dime. Don’t over-think it. And don’t set out trying to fill a need that doesn’t exist.