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In the midst of Seattle’s biggest snowstorm in a decade, and what she called “an incredibly sleep-deprived week,” Tracy Record, editor and co-publisher of West Seattle Blog was somehow able to carve time to answer a few questions so that you, the readers of this blog could benefit from her knowledge.

I’ve long been a fan of West Seattle Blog and asked Tracy a few weeks back via twitter if she wouldn’t mind a little Q&A about her passion. (She’s both @westseattlenews and @westseattleblog)

Lucky for me, she didn’t mind at all. Here she shares her thoughts on everything from why her blog isn’t really a blog to why it takes a 24/7 commitment to succeed.

Angela: What made you start a neighborhood blog?

Tracy Record: It’s not a neighborhood blog. West Seattle Blog is a commercial, journalist-run neighborhood-news service. “Blog” is just a publishing format; it wouldn’t be in our name except for the fact that three years ago, we started the site as a more classic “blog”-format site, with personal opinion and observations. And “Blog” isn’t even our only format – we also send out content via Twitter, Facebook, Blip, and are always watching for any other way that a fair amount of people are starting to procure news/information.

Angela: Why do you think it’s so popular?

Tracy: We are providing accurate, reliable, timely (often real-time), thorough neighborhood news and information 24/7, as well as facilitating community discussion of what’s happening, and thousands of people in West Seattle clearly are interested in that. We also keep our opinion out of it as much as possible – and our personalities – the site’s not about us; it’s about
West Seattle.

Angela: Is the local media threatened by your existence?

Tracy Record: Again, a matter of words – we ARE part of the media. Credentialed, even.
But if you mean is the “conventional media” threatened, kind of mixed. There is a weekly newspaper that has served this community capably for 85 years but has been very slow to do much on the Web. Its former editor had said he considered our site “competition.” He lost his job recently in what the newspaper-owning family called a cost-savings move … days later
he contacted us, and so far we have run one well-received editorial he wrote (and we are paying him, of course, as we do for all freelance assignments). But the citywide media doesn’t quite seem to know what to think – they deal with us in a variety of ways, from suggesting
partnerships to requesting story leads.

Angela: How difficult is it to build community around a blog, where everyone invested has their physical community in common?

Tracy: Funny thing is that we didn’t TRY to build community, though now that we have it, we spend time making sure that the community has what it needs (on a tech level too, such as adding forum features that members request). It naturally grew around the neighborhood coverage we offered that could not be found anywhere else. Our greatest evidence of that has come in the week-plus snow/ice semi-crisis that has gripped our neighborhood and much
of the rest of the region — the comment sections of our weather posts have turned into incredible neighbor-helping-neighbor discussions with people sharing information on everything from whether the bus is running to where to buy/borrow a snow shovel.

Angela: How long does it take to create a substantial online community?

Tracy: If you start out with a vision, which we didn’t, it can be done within a half-year or so, as Cory Bergman has shown with in another Seattle neighborhood, launching it in late 2007 and gaining decent traction by summer. He is one of the few others around here that is operating an editorially overseen, journalist-run site, as opposed to multiple contributors who can publish directly to a site.

Angela: Why haven’t news organizations figured out how to own hyperlocal?

Tracy: The question for some is really, SHOULD they? I think that newspapers, which even with their much-lamented cuts still have comparatively HUGE content staffs – I spent most of my old-media career in TV news, where you might have a dozen reporters/editorial managers spread across seven days and three dayparts, while big dailies still have dozens – should focus on context and perspective. Until and unless we add more staff, I can’t do that in a major way, though we do longer-form articles and enterprised stories/features when we can, and look for alternate ways of offering context and empowering people to find it themselves. Aside from that, some companies still think all they have to do is aggregate their content that mentions or targets a given neighborhood and voila! it’s “hyperlocal.” Doesn’t work. There’s no “there” there, and if ever you need a “there,” it’s when covering a “here.” You need a trusted guide, a sense of
neighborhood, even if that person/team (like us) doesn’t give opinions.

Angela: You’ve gotten lots of mainstream press. Was that unexpected?

Tracy: To some degree, yes – but we don’t kid ourselves that it’s because we’re brilliant or innovative – it’s mostly because unlike many neighborhood-news site operators (so far – certainly this will change), we are doing this as a business, and making a living. And we’re pretty hardcore about it, with the 24/7 commitment and a high volume of production, which some find fascinating – I was always the workaholic type anyway, so there was no question of doing anything less.

Angela: Do you have a five year or even 10 year plan or do you pretty much go with the flow.

Tracy: Given that even two years ago I couldn’t have foreseen this becoming a business, a 5-year plan is hard to imagine but when asked this recently, I said it’s pretty simple … we would like to have a few employees, both editorial and sales, to do a better job of covering the community and a better job of working with local businesses.

(…To be continued)

In my next post, find out how West Seattle Blog got its very first advertiser and just how long it took to make it happen. Also, Tracy’s entrepreneurial advice for laid-off journalists and what she’d do differently if starting West Seattle blog today.

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2009 will be the year of community convergence, according to Tracy Record.

Tracy is the editor and co-publisher (along with her husband Patrick Sand who focuses on sales and community relations) of West Seattle Blog, a very successful hyperlocal neighborhood blog that has gotten major press.

Tracy sent me that little gem about community convergence via twitter and I hope she’s right.

She also predicts that the evolvement of online communities will involve finding and adopting ways for conversations to continue across sites and services seamlessly.

Laura Norvig who focuses on social networking for non-profits says with more and more people gaining comfort with the tools, participation will widen, conversation will expand and we’ll see more points of view.

A self-proclaimed “chatterbox” known on twitter as Beta_Boy and evangelist for Current TV warns that user interaction will happen on and off your site. He says that RSS Widgets, iPhone apps, podcasts, and the like will all spread your content to a new audience who will then engage with you.

Those are the three predictions promised in the headline. Now, here are my thoughts:

I’ve long said this and truly believe that the conversations taking place in online communities can equate to a gold mine for the right marketers with the right attitude and willingness to invest time in an online community.

While I do understand the concept of scale, it seems that at some point, a targeted approach that can achieve success on a micro-level would be better than one on a macro-level that produces nothing? I’m no advertiser, but that alludes to the common sense factor in my mind.

It is my sincere hope that someone out there agrees with me, and will ultimately follow suit and make big, providing a model for the naysayers and non-believers.

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In part 2 of my interview with Tracy Record, editor and co-publisher of West Seattle Blog , we delve right into the concept of monetization. If you missed part one, be sure to read through it as soon as time permits.

Angela: How do you attract advertisers? Tell me how you got your very first advertiser for the blog.

Tracy Record: West Seattle Blog had been up and running almost 2 full years before we
decided to offer advertising. Not even AdSense (which we still don’t do, unlike even most old-media sites). We had actually been urged by a couple of people to sell ads sooner; finally in fall 2007, my husband and I talked and decided to give it a try. We talked long and hard about what might be reasonable rates (which we have not raised, by the way, though
our traffic has more than doubled since then), made up a flyer, and he went out to talk to local businesspeople we had already had some contact with through stories we’d done or events we’d featured on our calendar. He made a few stops for first and then we got a note from the proprietor of Hotwire Coffee, who’s very involved in the local merchants’ community, and
she said, hey, I heard you’ve been making the rounds, how come I haven’t gotten the flyer yet? He ran back to give her one, and she turned out to be the first to buy a ad, which debuted in November 2007, and she’s still with us – plus we’ve gotten involved in some of the community events she and the merchants community promote, such as summertime outdoor movies in the courtyard next to her shop – with community participation in
nominating and choosing movies.

Angela: Is this a viable option for laid off journalists? Talk to me about the barrier to entry and the work it entails on a day-to-day basis.

Tracy: Barrier to entry is threefold: 1 – Is your community already being well-served with timely, interesting, frequent, relevant, REAL-TIME local news/information? If not, jump in. 2 – Do you have a LOT of time to spend on it? This is not a 9-5 Mon-Fri endeavor. 3 – You do need some basic equipment – a decent computer, fast connection, still camera, video camera
– and a tiny bit of familiarity with how the Web works, perhaps even some HTML. Day-to-day work … Once you have been at it a while, there is a LOT of e-mail to deal with, both from official sources and from “hey, what’s going on with …” inquiries, and we spend a lot of time on that – we’re speed readers and speed typists so that’s OK. This is interspersed with
following up on leads, enterprising stories, checking with contacts, and also going to meetings and other events as well as breaking news scenes. During a normal week, we may have two public/neighborhood meetings every night Monday-Thursday – I go to one, my husband goes to another. If there is a third on a given night, we pay a freelancer. But again, it’s all in
how you want to position yourself. Most other neighborhood news sites are NOT doing it the way we are doing it, covering absolutely everything we know about, rolling to breaking news, etc. And that’s OK … for them, but not for us.

Angela: How long does it take to create a substantial online community?

Tracy: If you start out with a vision, which we didn’t, it can be done within a half-year or so, as Cory Bergman has shown with in another Seattle neighborhood, launching it in late 2007 and gaining decent traction by summer. He is one of the few others around here that is operating an editorially overseen, journalist-run site, as opposed to multiple contributors who can publish directly to a site.

Angela: Does one need a high business acumen to be successful?

Tracy: Guess not, because neither of us has that. We both had parents who tried small retail businesses and failed miserably, and we repeated frequently throughout our lives, “We’ll NEVER start a business.” Ha!

Angela: Is this a model to replicate? Will you branch out?

The fascinating thing about neighborhood news, at least as we’re seeing it here in Seattle, is that there are many models. I am partial to ours – IF you are going to position yourself as a reliable, accurate, professional neighborhood news site, with community collaboration. Regarding branching out, West Seattle is a relatively large section of Seattle and it’s plenty of work to keep it all covered – the only branching out we have done is to
partner with two entrepreneurs in the neighboring community of White Center to launch a news, information, and opinion blog-format site that so far is noncommercial. Unlike WSB, White Center Now is a multi-contributor site, and it’s been interesting to experience how both types of sites operate.

Angela: What advice would you offer to anyone who hopes to do this and make money?

Tracy: Prove you can provide a community service, valued by a significant amount of community members, before trying to get people to buy space on it. Doing otherwise is unfair to your advertisers – they may not get a return on their money. And even if you sell ads cheap, that is triply bad – for one, if you have few readers, that’s a high CPM you’re charging; for two, you are doing what the newspaper publishers now admit they wish they hadn’t done – teaching advertisers to undervalue online ads; for three, how many ads will you have to sell to make a living wage? We charge very low rates given our traffic and the resulting CPM, but in the end it’s a fair price that enables us to do OK as long as we have a decent volume.

Angela: If you could go back and do one thing differently, what would it be?

I would not have used “blog” in the site’s name. Though I am periodically reassured that many people do NOT see blog as a negative, I still spend way too much time explaining that while we publish in blog format, we are not an opinion site, not a small site, not a hobby site, and that we are not “bloggers,” but journalists who happen to operate a site that
publishes in blog format. The word “blog” still carries too much baggage. But I didn’t know when we started this that it would all turn out this way!

Angela: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your work?

Tracy: Hearing about people responding to something we posted, or otherwise making connections. Yesterday I posted an urgent request for people to brave the snow/ice and show up at a local food bank to help put together holiday baskets for hundreds of clients – and I was so happy to get a note from its executive director that lots of people DID show up. Close
runner-up, covering neighborhood groups and neighborhood-level government processes like development design reviews that just didn’t get much attention before.

Angela: What’s the next big move on your radar that isn’t proprietary?

Tracy: We’ve been working with a technical/design consultant for a while on a better design. I am very mindful, though, that it’s not about bells and whistles … it’s about enabling information and discussion access … I take to heart the recent online discussion about the Drudge Report’s bare-bones design and the fact site users don’t seem to have a problem
with it, so we’re being careful to not fix what’s not broken. Main need is to showcase more of the unique content that otherwise disappears fairly fast into archiveland because of the blog format.

Many thanks to Tracy for taking the time to answer all of my questions!

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