Tracy Record is almost half an hour late to our meeting, but I was expecting that. She apologizes and explains that three stories were all happening at the same time, and that time just slipped away. With her schedule, I’m happy she found time to meet with me at all. Tracy is a busy lady, covering every local event, meeting, accident and yard sale for her own West Seattle Blog, a hyperlocal news outlet that’s taken Seattle by storm.
West Seattle Blog (WSB) is not your average weblog. In 2009 it ranked number 5 on Google’s list of hottest search terms in the Seattle area, beating all the major networks and traditional media outlets. But Tracy Record is no stranger to success. She has a distinguished career behind her in television, newspapers and radio and three Emmy Awards to prove it. Still, Tracy threw all that away for a blog about the goings on of just a single neighborhood.
Today, WSB has a small staff of contributing freelancers, but Tracy and her businesspartner/husband – Patrick Sand – remain in full control over what can only be described as a driving community force. Did I mention that they were awarded a Citizen Appreciation Award by the Seattle Police Department in 2008?
AP: What is it about hyperlocal news that makes it worth dedicating your time to?
TR: I have spent two-thirds of my life delivering information to people, in a variety of ways. This is the most meaningful way yet. To be able to directly report on, answer questions for, share information about/from my community, and make a living doing it, is a joy. So much different from all my years in citywide/regional news, when we managers/producers would sit in a room and often wind up having to send someone off to whatever the most shocking crime du jour in the region happened to be, parachute in, parachute out, on to the next Big Story.
We cover crime, of course, but from the standpoint of sharing information that helps people protect themselves and figure out how to fight back, particularly against property crime like burglaries, auto thefts and vandalism. Yet though “hard news” is a huge area of coverage for us, I also adore being able to publish orca sightings, pretty sunsets, parade previews, Christmas Ship video!
AP: What were your considerations before taking the jump from mainstream media to starting on your own?
TR: It was clear by the time we got to fall 2007 that there was a huge need in the community for real-time information and neighborhood-issue coverage, and we had found ourselves trying to help fill it, since the December 2006 windstorm/power outages, when we started getting e-mail from people saying “we can’t find out ANYTHING about when the power’s going to be back, can you guys find something out?”.
The only real consideration was whether we could support ourselves doing this – would enough local businesses and organizations choose to sponsor WSB to add up to what we needed for business expenses and a modest lifestyle. I had absolutely no concern otherwise about leaving my longtime corporate-news-media career – the TV business didn’t interest me much any more for a variety of reasons, and it felt wrong to collect a paycheck for something I didn’t feel passionate about.
AP: In 2007, WSB held a pledge to get a feel for the level of support amongst your readers. That went so well, you turned it into an actual business. Could you share a little about that transition, the plans and concerns you had, compared to how it actually went?
TR: The “pledge day” wasn’t actually a barometer of support for whether we could make a go of it as a business. We already knew from the readership, through site stats and through e-mail and other feedback/communication, that there were enough people finding value in being part of WSB every day. In fact, the percentage of people who chose to donate was relatively low, maybe 3%, and that is one of the reasons I don’t believe an operation like ours could operate on a subscription-only basis, which some have suggested we try.
Of course I’m not downplaying the amazing generosity of the 3% who did choose to give us money; it added up to almost $2,000, which we used to set up the business (licenses, a business-only cell phone, etc.) and buy our first video camera. At the time we had the “pledge day” in August 2007, we still weren’t even sure we might try to take the leap and start selling ads – keep in mind, we not only didn’t sell ads at that point, we didn’t even engage in the common practice of running Google AdSense text ads on the site. We were wholly noncommercial. But there were a couple local businesspeople who actually kept urging us to offer ads, so we did some research and made some plans and Patrick started going out on sales calls in October.
We had no idea if we would be able to sell 2 ads or 20. But after about six weeks, the interest was strong enough that it seemed worth taking the risk to try working on it fulltime. The only financial backup we had was my 401k, and a huge factor in the decision to quit was when I learned that you could withdraw from it as long as you paid a penalty … until then I had thought that money was completely inaccessible. But I withdrew as little as possible — we lived even more frugally than before — and haven’t touched it in a year and a half – our business is 100 percent financially self-sustaining, which is still not that common for independent local news sites.
AP: You are constantly attending meetings, markets and other events; you keep long hours and have a family at the same time. How do you keep the energy up?
TR: I have been a night owl all my life and have managed to do OK on five or so hours sleep. These days, three-hour nights are more common than five-hour nights, though, and I tend to nod off in the living-room chair while trying to finish that one last story that it always comes down to around 2, 3 am.
What keeps me going the times the energy just lags, is the fact that people tell us what we are doing – with their help! – matters. But the real hero is my husband Patrick, who not only works full-time as our business development director, but also goes out to breaking-news scenes to call in info and send photos, and to meetings on nights when there are two that need to be covered, and also engages in good old-fashioned community relations, meeting and talking with people.
AP: What have been the biggest obstacles for you, in starting and running this project, and what have you done to overcome them?
TR: I have never been so singleminded about anything. I have been focused, I have been devoted, I’ve done things like work many days in a row on a big project like producing election coverage or a special broadcast, but never before has one job, one task been so all-consuming for so many days, weeks, months. I know that we will eventually get to a point where we will have a paid staff – right now we pay freelancers, which is a start – and then the 20-hour days will just be a memory … we’ll be able to cut back to 16-hour days, ha.
I have also become an even-more serious person than I already was, have just never been the kind of person who could just go out and cut loose anyway, but now even if I was, there is no time. And last but not least, I have lost a lot of fear.
Becoming a mother tends to boost you to a certain stage of fearlessness, because you know you have walked through fire to bring that child into the world and you would walk through fire to protect him if need be … and becoming self-employed takes you to another level, knowing there is no safety net, there is no semi-guaranteed paycheck every two weeks, there’s no big boss looking over your shoulder to tell you you screwed up bigtime or maybe even catch you before you make a big mistake. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying, and each day of it that you survive, you feel a little tougher, a little prouder.