SEATTLE, WASHINGTON — Densely populated and filled with restaurants, nightspots, and shops, Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood is one of the city’s hubs of cool. Even those who don’t live in the area keep tabs on the neighborhood’s comings and goings to see what hot spot will arrive next.
Not a bad home for a news website. Enter CapitolHillSeattle.com, a hyperlocal community news outlet founded in 2006 that tracks development, crime, and culture. Started by Justin Carder in his spare time while working in web analytics for Microsoft, Capitol Hill Seattle slowly grew into a business as Carder reached out to residents and gathered information and sources within the neighborhood. Shortly after founding the site, Carder left Microsoft to work on his community news venture full-time.
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While Carder admits that digital neighborhood news is a tough business, he points to key features that allow the medium to thrive. “You have to have environments that have strong businesses, highways, and strong educational institutions,” he says.
Strong businesses are not only potential advertisers but also make for interesting news items. Educational institutions are also newsworthy, and their presence means a neighborhood is more likely demographically to get its news online. Highways and other transportation factors mean the neighborhood is accessible and frequented by people who don’t live in the area. Capitol Hill has approximately 75,000 residents, says Carder, but the site usually sees upwards of 100,000 unique visitors monthly–proof that the site is gaining attention both within the neighborhood and beyond. (More detailed traffic information can be found on the site’s Quantcast page.)
It’s easy to see why locals would turn to Capitol Hill Seattle for coverage. Where a daily or weekly paper might only devote a few column inches for a story in a given neighborhood, Capitol Hill Seattle includes maps, blueprints, artist’s renderings, photographs, and full documents in its coverage. Carder says as much time is spent deciding how to approach a story as is spent reporting it. As the site’s only full-time employee, he acts as reporter, editor, and art director for most of the stories on the site. (The rest are written by volunteer community contributors.)
He says the work requires more desk time than he’d like, and he balances working alone by spending time in two separate office shares. He commutes via bicycle.
“It can be hard to motivate to ride to the office,” he says, “but when I get there I’m always glad I went.”
So far, the site could not exist without Carder’s own sweat, but he believes there is money to be made in the neighborhood news business and is trying to find ways to better collaborate with other Seattle-area news sites.
“We like to say that we don’t compete now,” Carder says of the news startup community, “but that’s not exactly true. Local chains do want to advertise on local sites and we compete for that attention.”
In 2010, Carder set up the Seattle Independent Advertising Network, which brings together a dozen neighborhood sites and five citywide news and information sites that work together to attract advertisers with their combined traffic and reach. Carder says the model is unique in that members of the network are allowed to participate in the collective effort while continuing to sell advertising on their own.
Most participating sites in the network keep a slot dedicated to running network ads but keep control of the remainder of their slots. The goal is to create a steady flow of premium ads for sites so that they can worry less about the comparatively small rates offered by remnant ads and Google AdSense. Carder says that most of the advertisers on the network approach him directly. He devotes little time to cold calls.
“The best advertisers want to reach these kinds of sites and find us there,” he says.
One of the biggest difficulties facing independent news sites is the effort a single person often has to put in day after day to build and maintain the enterprise.
“I’m up at 5 am every day,” Carder says. “If I stop working hard tomorrow it will decay quickly. None of us have figured out a way to keep it going permanently. There are too many barriers as far as building anything more permanent.”
He sees his work with the ad network as one way to strengthen independent news sites both financially and through collaboration that helps ease the collective workload, bringing permanence more within reach.
“I have no idea how long it will last and I hope everybody enjoys it while it’s here,” Carder says in a video posted on the site’s about page. “I hope it lasts forever. I’d love to find a way to make that happen.”