A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2017

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West Seattle Blog -- A community embraces an award-winning local news and information site

 

by Candace Brown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Robert Jackson and his wife, Voicelyn, awoke to the sound of sirens in the middle of the night. They smelled smoke coming from somewhere close to their new home, a condo in the Admiral District of West Seattle. They needed to find out, immediately, just what was going on.

 

“We hadn't been here long when a big hook and ladder truck went by with sirens blazing,” Voicelyn Jackson told me, “then another, and another, and another. I counted eight emergency vehicles flying by and knew something was happening right down the street.” Then she remembered seeing the web address for the West Seattle Blog in a “Welcome to West Seattle” brochure.

 

“I came in to my computer, and within minutes there were photos up and descriptions of a fire in an empty house about three blocks from us,” she said. “The reports came in quickly and went on through the morning, filling in the facts and the aftermath events.

 

“Another time, there was a serious windstorm. The power went off and I rummaged for candles, then looked off the deck and saw darkness for as far as I could see. I went on the West Seattle Blog and saw pictures being posted of various intersections. Those are two of many times I've gotten news I needed ONLY on the West Seattle Blog.”

Robert Jackson, a retired University of Washington Tacoma associate professor of social work, applauds the blog for bringing residents together. “Community-building is based on the informational and affective ties between people,” he said. “The West Seattle Blog builds a sense of connection. Everyone reads it.” The Jacksons now count on it.

This nationally award-winning hyper-local news website—called WSB by many—ranks as the No. 1 source of local information for thousands of enthusiastic and loyal readers who consider it vital. And the whole thing began in 2005 when a woman named Tracy Record decided to start “blathering about the neighborhood,” as she puts it.

Record and her husband, Patrick Sand, moved to West Seattle back in 1991. It offered views of mountains, Puget Sound, ferry boats, and the lights of downtown Seattle at night. But the locals offered advice, suggesting they should quickly replace their car’s California license plates that marked them as outsiders. Now, as owners and operators of the West Seattle Blog, they not only feel accepted, but dwell at the center of the information and social hub they created, with the community’s life force spinning around them in ever-widening circles.

 

 

 

 

 

The story of a phenomenon

 “The growth has been more heartening than surprising,” Record said. “Currently 30,000 homes/businesses check in at least once a week. We are getting more than 900,000 page views a month. WSB is the most-read news source in West Seattle.” Over 9,000 of those homes and businesses visit it at least once a day according to Quantcast, a service that provides publicly comparable statistics, including all those in her statements. WSB also stands out as the only local news source updated around the clock, sometimes as often as every few minutes.

The Online News Association recognized the WSB with the 2010 Online Journalism Award for Community Collaboration. It received numerous other awards based on popular vote—such as KING 5- TV’s “Best of Western Washington”— and a Citizen Appreciation Award from the Seattle Police Department in 2008. I asked Record what led to their success and all these honors. She replied:

“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.”

How it makes a difference 

 

West Seattle resident Debbie Sandvig reads the blog daily, as her primary source of local news. She looks at everything on the site, from crime reporting to garage sale notices. “I think it is a quick and easy way to know what’s happening in your neighborhood at any given time,” she said. “No matter what it is—accident, traffic jam, fire, event, new business arriving, etc.—you will find the information in their blog. I love it!” It even alerted her to the unexpected presence of wildlife.

“Until reading about it in the WSB, I wasn’t aware that coyotes were running all over West Seattle,” she added. “They have been spotted in numerous places and don’t appear to be too scared of humans. So I’m more cautious when letting my little dog out at night. People write in with their sightings, or if a home or car break-in happens, and they tell you where it happened.  I find this really helpful.”

 

Someone posted a notice inviting citizens to participate in a garage sale to benefit victims of the recent tsunami in Japan and she planned to contribute. Recent stories focused on serious transportation issues, public referendums, a shopping center’s new owner, and concerns about bright signs on the city skyline. I asked Record to what degree she thinks they impact local issues by the coverage they provide, and by getting citizens engaged.

 

“We would not be so presumptuous as to think ‘we’ have affected local issues,” she replied. “We have presented information, covered stories, and maintained a place for issues and happenings to be discussed. If we have made any difference, it is because of the same thing that got us going down the neighborhood-news road: stories and issues were going uncovered.”

The blog started up about the time Seattle’s major newspapers faced uncertain futures and tight budgets to pay reporters, putting coverage of local neighborhood news lower on the list of priorities. Record and Sand came along and filled that void. She still sees “a multitude of stories, issues, and entities in this area that no one else covers but our organization.”

A journalist’s view

Author Joe Follansbee lives in West Seattle and reads the WSB, keeping up on the latest through an RSS feed. He has been involved with media of various kinds since the 1980s, including newspapers and public radio. He also founded, and serves as the executive director of, Fyddeye (fid-i), an online community focused on the preservation of maritime history. Follansbee believes the blog is “on the leading edge of huge changes in journalism as far as how news is gathered, how news is delivered, what kind of news is delivered and audiences’ expectations.”

He says the West Seattle Blog often reminds him of the small daily and weekly newspapers he worked for in the past, citing its community-oriented coverage of activities, non-profits, local businesses, and other items typical of small town life.

“Some of the news only affects a few people within the community but there’s a big appetite for that kind of thing,” he said. “So it reflects those values. But then it puts a 21st century spin on it,” he added. “There’s video, a Twitter feed, which I’m also following, and they are taking advantage of social media.”

 

  Credit -  Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance 

A place apart

West Seattle covers a peninsula that juts out into Puget Sound opposite and west of Seattle’s downtown, just across Elliot Bay. Settlement began in 1851 at its northernmost tip, first called “New York” and later named “Alki,” a point of land known for its popular beach, breathtaking views, lighthouse, monument honoring pioneers, chilly winds in winter, and a miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty.

 

The City of Seattle since annexed it in 1907, but West Seattle still seems like a separate and well-defined entity. Nearly surrounded by Puget Sound and the Duwamish River, it rises from the low-lying industrial area near Todd Shipyard. Trees, parks, and public beaches enhance residential neighborhoods distinguished by distinctive business districts. Its hardworking, middle-class roots still foster a sense of pride and independence. Expensive beach condos, homes dating back to the 1800s, brick Tudors, and modest houses built during the post WWII boom co-exist as comfortably as the people who live there. Many older buildings have been lost, but generally, citizens value history and try to preserve what’s left.

 

 

Factors contributing to success

Record and Sand both have good credentials that contribute to their success in this endeavor. Record’s professional background in media, beginning at age 17, includes television, radio, and newspapers. She spent eight years at KOMO-TV and was made executive producer of new media, a position no one else there had ever had. She worked for the Walt Disney Internet Group for two years, and that included the role of executive producer for ABCNEWS.com. She was assistant news director at Seattle’s KCPQ-TV until WSB became a full-time job at the end of 2007. She has received three Emmy Awards for her outstanding work.

Patrick Sand’s journalism degree is a plus, but so is his 25 years of advertising sales experience. Income from ads helps sustain the viability of the blog. WSB’s advertising rates never moved up, despite a six-fold increase in traffic since 2007. That example of community-mindedness helps advertisers deal with tough economic times. Record and Sand never sought sponsors. The advertising became part of the picture as the site demonstrated growing readership. In 2007, a few business owners suggested the idea of including advertising on the blog. Record said, “We decided in fall to become a business and started offering ads. Several were bought immediately.”

“They announce a new advertiser every couple of weeks it seems,” Follansbee commented. “That’s a real pioneering thing, because the big missing piece for most online journalism is ‘What is the business model? What kind of revenue can you gain to support your operation?’

“They were very media savvy going into it,” he added. “They knew from the beginning what it would take to make a success out of this. And I think they’ve proven that the advertising model still works. So hyper-local is a possibility, but it takes an incredible amount of work and you have to do the right kinds of stories to bring in the traffic.”

An approach that draws readers

“However you feel about how television news works in terms of their story selection and the things they focus on, what Tracy has done is transfer some of those television news values to WSB,” Follansbee said. “If you look at it, there are a lot of car accidents, there’s a lot of crime, and police blotter stuff.” He gave an example of coverage of a tree falling on a house as being emblematic of the kind of news values they bring to their coverage.

“Probably those kinds of stories are one of the reasons for their success, because like it or not, those kinds of stories pull in audiences. We know that’s true. TV news has known that for 30 years. People want to see pictures of the tree falling on the house.  I was interested too.  I own a house and there are trees around me, and I thought, ‘What’s that like?’”

The hard work involved

“I know that as a former daily news journalist myself,” Follansbee said, “that just in the amount of material they pour out, they’re working their fingers to the bone. These guys are working extremely hard. That’s a big piece of it. I often wonder how long you can sustain that. It’s got to be not only exhilarating but exhausting.”

I dared to ask Record—who is also a mother—how much time she spends at this every week.

“It's hard to count,” she said in an email. “Right now I'm writing this at 3:41 am. I have been working since about 8:30 a.m.”  She was referring to 8:30 a.m. on the previous day, saying it was “really late to sleep in.” In addition to Record and Sand, their website lists ten contributing reporters, editors, photographers and researchers.

This team offers readers—in addition to top notch local news coverage—an events calendar, a forum for discussions, web cams, traffic reports, links to other regional news sites and blogs, coupons for local businesses, and much more. The “Pets” page ranks as one of the most popular. But WSB can’t be all things to all readers. Follansbee says their model doesn’t support the kind of National Public Radio journalism a lot of people are interested in, but he doubts if they are getting any complaints.

 I asked Record how this intense endeavor rewards her on a personal level. Her reply:

“Every time somebody says they found their lost pet through the Pets page, or they got a great recommendation for a handyperson through the Forum section, or there is a comment thread on a news story with people interacting and sharing information, educating each other, (and us!), those are the kinds of things that are rewarding.”

“So is being able to go to a school and roll video on an assembly honoring a cherished librarian and share that with tens of thousands of people who will probably never set foot in that school. Or digging up information about a chronic criminal who is bedeviling a neighborhood, so at least neighbors have more information about what that person is up to—and whenever possible, sharing information about the tools used to dig that information, so they in turn might learn to look it up themselves.”

“Tracy and Patrick are definitely adding value to being in West Seattle,” Follansbee stressed. “I think if something happened and they had to close down, or they handed it to somebody else and that person didn’t have that same kind of drive, people would notice. I know I would notice. I would miss it. People would say, ‘Remember West Seattle Blog?’”

Walking along California Avenue, West Seattle’s main drag, or down on Alki Beach, I can feel the familiar friendly vibe of this place. It seems much the same after decades. Obviously, the owners of the West Seattle Blog feel it too. Maybe back in 1991 when Record and Sand drove their car with the California license plates down California Avenue for the first time, they heard Fate whisper, “Welcome Home.”

 

 West Seattle Blog editor, Tracy Record, at work   -   Credit: West Seattle Blog

 

© Candace J. Brown 2011  - Reuse with permission

 

 

 

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