What “engagement” means to Tracy Record and West Seattle Blog

Lately, I’ve been immersed In a sea of motivated, passionate, scrappy people making a go of it in community news, trying a bunch of techniques and wondering what will work. It was therefore a yank into another world — an equally hard-working but more grounded world — to spend an hour on the phone with Tracy Record, editor and co-publisher of West Seattle Blog. Don’t get me wrong — Tracy’s passion for her work drives her to work long and hard. But my sense from talking to her is that she’s been at this long enough that she knows what works and does it.

Tracy didn’t set out to create a community news site. She kept an anonymous neighborhood blog as a hobby, then found herself providing crucial information in the middle of a weather emergency. That event spurred more page views, news tips, word-of-mouth referrals and search traffic. “I wrote about things I saw and was wondering about, in a casual, informal way. They were things people ended up googling about,” Tracy says. And they were things no one else was writing about. So in 2007, she quit her job and dedicated her full-time self to WSB, along with her husband and partner, Patrick Sand, who handles sales, does a lot of community relations work and helps with news coverage.

WSB covers a peninsula of 70,000 people, and the last couple of months have brought 800,000 page views per month. She said the site’s success is a result of covering the hell out of the community.

When I caught up with Tracy last week, she was standing on the beach looking for orcas, after getting a tip — via text message — that the whales had been spotted. She said many of her posts (which might be one-sentence messages or full-blown original reporting) are the result of a call, text message, photo, tweet or Facebook message from someone in the community. The site’s About page lists a phone number that they say they answer 24 hours a day. She set the text message alert on the WSB Blackberry to the most annoying sound she could find, and everyone in the house notices it. (The thing I forgot to ask Tracy: if she ever takes a vacation, and if so, who takes the phone!)

She’s found that passing on the one-sentence tips accomplishes a couple of goals: It lets the community know that you know about something, and shares all you do know. And it invites the community to help report, by contributing information. Sometimes just making the topic public makes people realize what they’re looking at, or encourages them to share the little bit that they know. Users on her site (actually, she calls them “collaborators”) don’t have permission to initiate a post, but if they’re given something to respond to, they might jump in. Check out this post about sonic booms, of all things, as an example of how a short item crashed the servers because so many people were curious about the same thing at the same time and came to the same place for info.)

That’s real-time reporting, something Tracy is comfortable with from her days as a TV producer, and something that a lot of journalists either don’t attempt or have trouble not being awkward and clunky at. She doesn’t typically wait to verify information. If she hears something, she lets her community know that she heard it, and lets them talk about it and help flesh it out.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how online news startups compare to what traditional community newspapers have always tried to do (more on that soon), and I asked Tracy for her thoughts. She said her general topics are pretty much the same as what her community paper, in its heyday, would have covered. But a big difference is the real-time coverage. A lot of her traffic comes from people who are curious about what they’re seeing or hearing. They’re seeking facts. And by the next morning, they’re not still interested in whether there really were orcas off the coast nearby. They want to know what’s going on now, in a hollering-across-town-square sort of way. They want to holler back about what they know or have observed. The blog hardly ever ASKS people to holler back, as in “tell us what you know, dear readers.” But the culture of the site is known to invite participation, and so people participate.

Tracy shared a few more details of how she spends her time, and what strategies she thinks make a difference.

Staying involved in her site. She’s in the comments multiple times an hour, in the forums a little less, keeping track of the conversations. She spends probably her largest chunk of time on email.

“Tabling” at community events. She doesn’t go with a big dog and pony show, but when there’s a street fair, she (or her husband) will be there, striking up conversations with whoever wants to stop by her table. WSB doesn’t really organize their own events. She doesn’t think the need for that exists in her community, and she’s all about doing what works and keeping her focus on fulfilling needs. “We don’t try to create a need, then fill it. Or do something and hope people like it.” She covers what people respond to. And she doesn’t convene a focus group to find that out, or rely on analytics. She pays attention to what drives conversation, and to what shows up in her inbox. For example, after years in TV she was burned out on crime and didn’t expect to do much with crime on WSB. As it turns out, though, her community showed a real interest i property crime. People wanted details about burglaries (how’d the perps get in? what’d they take?), and they wanted to share stories about what had happened at their own houses. So she provides a way for them to do that.

Viewing Web analytics a bit casually. Tracy said she watches to make sure the trend is going up. She’ll notice if there’s one story or forum post that’s really lighting up. But the data she gathers inform her overall approach, not her minute-by-minute strategies.

Being a natural, grateful, humble member of her community. “If you at any point believe that this is about you personally — that you the journalist are doing something amazing and you created this — that’s so wrong. You’re providing a service to the community, and they’ve rallied around it. It’s about them, not about you.” Tracy isn’t the self-promoting type. She doesn’t go around the community touting her brand. She doesn’t brag about the site, or leave posts on other sites trying to draw traffic. WSB’s growth is pretty much from people telling their friends, and from a growing community conversation. I asked her if she thinks she’s providing a service to her community, and she sort of reluctantly said, “sure.” “The coffee shop that’s a conversation hub wouldn’t be much if it were an empty building. Somebody has to pay the power company and turn on the lights … and make the coffee.”

So if community engagement is a goal, what does “engagement” mean at West Seattle Blog? Tracy says engaging with your community just means that you and the service you provide are considered to be an important part of it, and that you are a hub for conversation and connection. That conversation and connection can happen on the WSB site, on Twitter or on Facebook (where WSB has so many friends that Facebook won’t let me become one — or is it just me?). Tracy doesn’t care where her community members find or interact with her content, just that WSB is a trusted source and point of connection.

And can you measure engagement? How do you know if you’ve been successful in engaging the community? What does a good day look like? Here’s Tracy’s recipe for a good day:

— At least one story has comments in the double digits.
— She found out and shared information that’s new and interesting — some sort of a scoop or piece of news.
— The site’s lost pet page has reunited a family with its pet.
— There isn’t a crisis on the site that she and her husband have to make an agonizing decision about. Once every week or two, Tracy said something new pops up in a discussion forum that’s not a clear violation of the site’s rules, and they have to decide whether to let it continue. That’s not her favorite thing to do.
— And most importantly, her inbox is busy. If she doesn’t have dozens of emails a day, it might mean there’s not much going on, but it might also mean that people aren’t telling her what’s going on. She likes an active inbox.

This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.

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