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Can Neighborhood Blogs Rescue Community Journalism?

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Can Neighborhood Blogs Rescue Community Journalism?

As news organizations ponder their declining revenues and make their layoff lists, journalists are left to wonder what they ought to do with their careers. Some, such as Seattle's Tracy Record, have abandoned old media and taken journalism back to its local roots.

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Let's say you're a newspaper reporter, and you got into the business because you love to tell stories. You revel in the conflict and drama to be found in everyday situations, from crime scenes to City Hall -- and if you live in Detroit, you get to cover both at the same location, which helps save on gas money. You spend 20-plus years working your way up from covering school board meetings for small-market weeklies to investigative series for mid-size dailies to a having your own column at a major metropolitan newspaper, along the way accumulating awards and a Rolodex full of sources that could choke a fake Bigfoot.

Then one day your corporate parent encourages you to take a buyout offer because the Internets are sucking up all the ad revenue, and there's a big bullseye on your annual salary.

Let's say you're a television anchor/reporter, and you got into the business because you love to tell stories in a minute-and-a-half. You revel in the conflict and drama found in everyday situations, from crime scenes to murder scenes to accident scenes. You spend 20-plus years working your way up from covering county fairs in small markets to consumer reports in medium-sized markets to lead nightside "breaking news" reporter in a Top 10 market, along the way accumulating Emmys and Peabodys and a Rolodex full of names of maitre d's at the best restaurants in town.

Then one day your corporate parent encourages you to box up your office stuff and offers a security escort to the parking lot because the Internets are sucking up all the ad revenue from the newspapers that are owned by the corporate parent that also owns your TV station, and there's a big bullseye on your contract.

Media Shakeout

This is the environment that's caused a lot of angst among media navel-gazers over the last two years, and I am a guilty party to that introspection. I've known too many former journalist colleagues in that time who were either hit by corporate downsizing or saw the writing on the wall (in 60-point Bold Helvetica) and decided to pursue a rewarding career in public relations. (This was my recent path. I was also laid off during the recession of 1990.)

The consensus among the media watchers is that technology is transforming the news business, and the companies that own newspapers and TV stations are finding themselves in much the same situation as defensive players trying to tackle Dallas Cowboys running back Marion "The Babarian" Barber; they're bowled over and haven't figured out yet how to make the necessary adjustments.

But that's a quandary for the suits in the corner offices. The question I pose to the rank-and-file journalists caught up in all this: If ad revenue is moving online, why don't you? Is there an incentive to bring your talents back to where all news starts: in the neighborhood?

From Network Affiliate to a Staff of 3

The West Seattle Blog was in business for two years before its editor made her identity known in December 2007. That was when Tracy Record quit her job as assistant news director for the Fox affiliate to focus fulltime on her neighborhood blog. For eight years before that, she was an executive producer at the ABC affiliate who helped build that station's Web strategy.

So now Record is a former mainstream journalist-turned-blogger. Right?

"Even though we don't consider ourselves a blog, we are a commercial news site operating in a blog format," Record told me. "More than other folks, we do original reporting. We go to meetings, we cover things, we don't just go, 'Oh, hi, this is what the P-I (Post-Intelligencer, one of Seattle's two newspapers) wrote last night and here's what we think about it.'"

And indeed, West Seattle Blog attends transportation planning meetings, design reviews for developments, neighborhood crime watch events. WSB belongs to a trend that has paralleled the troubles in mainstream media -- the rise of neighborhood blogs and local news/community event aggregators like Topix, EveryBlock and Fwix.

I asked Record if she believes neighborhood blogs can fill the gap left by local traditional media hit by staff cutbacks. "I don't know if there ever was a time they ever covered, in depth and volume, what we're doing, and lucky enough to do, as full-time work. Once in a while a newspaper might parachute into a neighborhood meeting if it's a massively controversial subject. What we're doing is even different from what an aggregator like EveryBlock is doing. They're now in Seattle, but they won't tell you why an event is important. The bottom line is, we are doing this in a more granular way than community newspapers."

And all with a staff of three: Record, her husband, who also handles ad sales, and their son. Their hard work has resulted in nearly 17,000 page views a day. August 2008 saw a traffic record with more than 524,000 page views. That is translating into revenue growth every month. "We say that we're sustainable," she said. "We decided on a leap of faith to live on this job last year. We had a 401k, we were living off savings for a while. We're not drawing on that anymore." Record is now able to pay freelancers, and she hopes to hire an additional staffer by the end of the year.

The $64,000 (a Year) Question

"People in old media will get combative and say a site like ours was the cause of their downfall," Record says. "They see the writing on the wall and say 'Oh my gosh, nobody's going to pay me.' But every neighborhood deserves a site like this. There's so much material that needs to be covered."

But it won't pay what journalists who've climbed that career mountain are used to seeing in their paychecks, even though the Internet needs their experience and sources. Record admits comparing her salary as a mainstream journalist versus what she's making now is "apples versus oranges. But if you are willing to work hard and if you think you can do a good job and provide information people are interested in, and if you can draw advertising as well -- you're going to have to say, look, here's what I'm doing and I'm asking for trust.

"You don't have to get really deep into tech, you just have to learn how people are consuming news. Just talk to your neighbors, talk to your mom and dad. I always evangelize: Don't be afraid, be brave."

Courage, indeed, is one of two necessities for traditional journalists hoping to navigate the Web to the next chapter in their careers. The other necessity? A good investment portfolio. You may be living off of it for a while as you keep telling your stories on the Internet.

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