Making a living from hyperlocal content in Seattle
Residents know that within minutes of any significant event happening in the area, they’ll be able to get breaking news as it unfolds on the blog – day or night. They’re also be able to find out about restaurants opening and closing, traffic conditions on the West Seattle Bridge (the only way in and out of the neighborhood, for many residents) and who are the best roofers in the area.
Launched in 2005 as the personal blog of editor Tracy Record, WSB attracts weekly visits from more than 35,000 homes and businesses including more than 10,000 who visit daily. Thanks to strong support from readers and advertisers, by 2008, Record was able to convert her hobby into a family business. She quit her job to edit WSB full-time and her husband Patrick Sand joined her to take on ad sales. This bold move by the husband-and-wife team made WSB the first financially self-sustaining local online news organisation in the Seattle area. Advertising revenue generated from almost 100 local sponsors is the sole source of income for their three-person household and also covers business expenses, including paid freelance journalists, photographers, and developers.
While the look and feel of the blog has remained mostly unchanged over the years, Record has embraced new digital technologies as they emerged and today WSB has more than 35,000 Twitter followers, almost 20,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook and over 2,600 Instagram followers.
Running a 24/7 neighborhood-based news blog with a very small team is hard work. Most West Seattle residents would recognise Tracy by sight as she is usually present at emergencies, neighborhood watch meetings and the wide range of community events that make West Seattle a vibrant and desirable neighborhood. ‘Relentlessly reporting news and information of interest to the community, including the news and information that community members want to share, as well as the news and information that comes in via other channels—breaking crimes/fires/crashes, news releases, government decisions, etc.—and doing it 24/7. We are always on call and encourage people to call or text us if they see or hear breaking news. So if something catches fire at 3 a.m., and one of us wasn’t already in front of a scanner, we’ll get word of it and get out the door,’ said Record.
This commitment to serving the community, combined with solid journalistic skills thanks to her time at KOMO-TV as an executive producer of new media and executive producer for ABCNEWS.com, has earned Record and the WSB a string of awards including the Society of Professional Journalists’ regional first-place award for Best Hyperlocal Site in 2013.
The WSB is one of more than 60 hyperlocal online news sites in Seattle that have found new ways of operating and financing a news organisation in a city which has seen closure of two daily newspapers – the King County Journal in 2007 and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which stopping printing in 2009. Some of the other startups which have stepped in to fill in the void include Crosscut, InvestigateWest, the South Seattle Emerald and South King Media, which runs five blogs and one internet radio station.
A network of local news sites
South King Media’s founder and publisher-editor, Scott Schaefer, also had success converting what was essentially a hobby – started after he was laid off from a corporate marketing position – into a self-sustaining business. After six months, when he started to get requests from advertisers, he knew he had a viable business opportunity. Today, the company runs blogs that cover six cities near Seattle, which collectively attract 75,000 to 90,000 active and engaged monthly readers. South King Media also became a family business when Schaefer’s wife Theresa joined as sales director. Thanks to her efforts, sales increased by around 25 per cent, which allows the couple to live off the income generated by local advertising.
Like WSB’s Tracy Record, Schaefer believes that heavy community involvement is critical for success in the hyperlocal space. ‘We’re involved with local chamber organisations, we work with local nonprofits like the Rotary, we sponsor farmers markets and are well known in the business communities. We’re also proud to be nimble and fast with posting local news, and it helps that we’re friendly with local police,’ he says.
Taking hyperlocal to the airwaves
Joining the burgeoning hyperlocal radio movement, this year, South King Media launched original hyperlocal news/podcasts on SoKing Internet Radio for all their communities. ’It shows people that we’re not only serious about local news and events but also about local music. We see it becoming a bigger part of our network as more vehicles become Wi-Fi enabled, and we foresee a time in the near future when we do radio news broadcasts/programming that source from our blogs,’ said Schaefer.
The hyperlocal radio scene in Seattle is about to get a boost thanks to the approval by the Federal Communications Commission of fifteen low-power FM stations around Puget Sound, which will use a weak radio signal to broadcast to a hyperlocal geographic area—roughly a 3.5-mile radius. Rainier Valley Radio’s 105.7 FM is one of these new stations that aims broadcast localised content created by community members and amplify the diverse voices in the Valley, share experiences and deepen the sense of community. Befitting a community-based organisation, the station is actively soliciting programming ideas from listeners.
While hyperlocal blogs and radio stations use different funding and operating models, there does appear to be a case for making a living by connecting deeply with a community, delivering content that readers want and attracting advertisers to support the business.
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