Seattle Experiments With Hyper Local News

The morning I was scheduled to talk to the co-founder of a collection of popular neighborhood news blogs in Seattle, he had to put me off for almost an hour because he had been busy covering a fire.

In the early hours of that day, a fire had broken out just a few blocks from my house, almost completely burning four shops and damaging an adjacent community theater. Cory Bergman had already spent hours filming and writing about the massive fire and was trying to make his way to his regular job before talking to me.

It was a day in the life of Bergman, co-founder of Next Door Media. Next Door Media's five Seattle neighborhood blogs are at the forefront of a hyper local news boom in Seattle that has grown just as traditional media -- including the late Seattle Post Intelligencer -- has busted. The competitive local news scene here shows that there's an appetite for neighborhood news and that different models are emerging to deliver that news.

The nearby fire started at about 4 a.m. "We wake when we hear sirens," Bergman said. He and his wife, Kate, who co-founded the company and now works there full time, turned on the police scanner and heard something big was going on. They headed over to the site for a while until the writers for the blog covering the neighborhood with the fire turned up to take over.

This was big news, so the daily newspaper and TV stations also covered it. The daily paper posted a story online the morning of the fire and within three days followed up with a blog post about the theater and a short piece summarizing news from the PhinneyWood blog, with which it now has a partnership.

The PhinneyWood blog had 11 stories by three days later.

With pictures, words and videos, the stories detail clean-up efforts, offer facts about the police investigation, update readers on where the theater group is performing until the building is repaired, detail what happened to the rescued cats from the nearby cat adoption center and cover the "Greenwood Fire Wake," a get together open to anyone who wanted to talk about the fire (miraculously, no one human or feline was injured).

As if that coverage wasn't enough to keep me satisfied, I could also check out another new blog covering news in my neighborhood. The KOMO GreenwoodPhinney blog was started by Fisher, a large communications company that also operates 13 TV stations, including the local KOMO news, and eight radio stations. Three days after the fire, that blog had 10 stories, similarly filled with videos and photos, covering the fire and its aftermath.

I tie the emergence and success of these blogs to the downfall of one of our local newspapers. Bergman reminds me that his blogs started before the PI failed but acknowledges that the demand for local news sites like his is definitely related to the challenges facing newspapers.

"They had to cut back on their reporting staffs so then the focus is on larger issues and stories that affect more people and the granular neighborhood stuff, unless it's really interesting, hits the cutting-room floor," he said.

But what I find most interesting about my neighborhood blogs is that they offer me something that the daily papers never have. I typically visit these local news sites daily not to get more in depth coverage of a subject that the big guys are also covering, like in the case of the fire -- I keep coming back because they write about subjects that the daily paper doesn't cover and never has.

Chances are, PhinneyWood will write about a new shop moving into the empty storefront up the road before I even notice any changes there. I now hear in advance about neighborhood council meetings where I can discuss palatable ways that my library can deal with budget cuts. I read about opportunities where I can protest the massive Fred Meyer discount store that will likely move in too close to my house. And I can chime in to let my neighbors know that my car got broken into recently too, right out front of my house.

While PhinneyWood and GreenwoodPhinney are two blogs covering my neighborhood, other areas of town have blogs from different sources. All of the blogs have slightly different missions and operate differently and it's not clear yet if one model will win out.

PhinneyWood is a truly local phenomenon. "All of the ad revenue we make stays local," Bergman explained. The "vast majority" of revenue each site makes goes to the editor of the site, who lives in the neighborhood covered and has journalism experience.

The 44 KOMO blogs, which cover suburbs as well, are owned by a company that has been covering news in the region since 1926. Five producers aggregate content for the sites and the stories can be written by any of the more than 100 people in KOMO's news department, not necessarily people who live in the neighborhood they're writing about.

KOMO is using the blogs as a way to supplement and drive people to its broadcast news. "This is one way for us to aggregate what we get in the newsroom and don't use. That was the main driver," said Troy McGuire, vice president of news and general manager for Fisher Interactive. "Instead of throwing it away, if we get a news release from a small organization, we give it to the neighborhood producers so they can post it."

In addition, the blogs let people know what stories might be on the news later. "If there's a news truck in my neighborhood, I'll never know it unless I see it online," McGuire said. "If I go to my neighborhood blog and I see a post that they're working on a story, I'm more likely to watch the finished product because I know it's about my neighborhood."

For KOMO, the blogs also offer a new revenue generating vehicle. "We never had a low-cost option for small businesses that couldn't afford radio or TV," he said. Advertising on the KOMO blogs is cheap -- on the low end, a business can run an ad for $50. Plus, the blogs essentially offer a geotargeting opportunity because small businesses, like a dry cleaner's for example, can target readers in the neighborhood, he said.

Blogs in other Seattle neighborhoods started up by other organizations tend to be written by anyone, not necessarily journalists. The Central District News was started by a bunch of people as a way to follow issues in that neighborhood and is primarily written by one editor. The Capitol Hill blog is written by anyone in the neighborhood who wants to post.

The Seattle PI, which still exists online, also launched a neighborhood blog, covering Queen Anne, that is also written by anyone. The PI does not back up the stories; in fact, it displays a note at the top of the page saying that the authors are solely responsible for the content they write.

All of the sites at least appear to attempt to pay more attention to readers then traditional media outlets. "The vast majority of our stories originate from user comments, e-mails or forum posts," Bergman said.

Next Door Media reporters will read the comments after stories and if one of them points to a significant development, the reporter will do some fact checking and fold that point into the story or write a new one, acknowledging the reader's submission, he said. "The key is, we don't want to be at the center of this. We're just the fact checkers making sure we're posting information people can trust," he said.

It's hard to know if one model will win out or if individual neighborhoods can support multiple blogs. Fisher's McGuire said he thinks the competition is good and that there is room for more than one blog per neighborhood. "If we come in second in every neighborhood behind those that were ahead of us, we're fine with that," he said. "Whether it's that Seattle is a tech town or just progressive, we have very talented people that were future thinkers that created this space."

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