Last week, rumors circulated that the national city-blogging company Gothamist LLC was going to shutter their Seattle branch. The shame of this is that about six months ago, local news and culture website Seattlest started getting really good. For years, Seattlest had been irrelevant and uninteresting, but when new Editor-in-Chief Hanna Brooks Olsen arrived, she brought on a talented new writing staff—including Sarah Lloyd, Dikla Tuchman, and Everett Rummage—who quickly established beats and started writing originally reported news stories. (Speaking as the books editor, I especially appreciated that Seattlest regularly published interviews with authors and previews of upcoming readings events; it’s embarrassing that a town this packed with literary riches only has two outlets—The Stranger and the Seattle Times—providing consistent book coverage.)
Yesterday, I spoke with Gothamist LLC’s publisher Jake Dobkin, who confirmed that Seattlest’s future is in doubt. Dobkin says “no decision about the site's future has been made,” but that Gothamist is considering putting the site on a hiatus that he predicted would last “a year or two.” He says “it’s not so much a money thing, because [Seattlest] doesn’t lose money for us,” but that five of Gothamist’s sites make up 97 percent of the company’s traffic. They’ve been consolidating their focus into those sites—New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles—and putting the other sites into hibernation. (In an October 7th post, Bostonist co-editor Matthew Gannon announced his site’s hiatus, writing, “Hopefully, the hiatus is temporary and we can build a better Bostonist in the future.”)
“We don’t want to make it a drag to write for us,” Dobkin says, adding that in the future, Gothamist wants to “support the site” with “one, two or three [paid] full time editors for a year or two without having to worry so much about ads or revenue.” Dobkin doesn’t see Gothamist giving up on Seattlest entirely: “I see a lot of promise in Seattle, with the decline of the alt-weekly and the trouble with your local newspaper.”
But if Seattlest isn't losing money, and a solid young staff of reporters in a single half-year have repaired the damaged brand and turned it around into one of the only local news blogs worth checking on a regular basis, why doesn't Gothamist keep the site around, to see what Olsen's staff can do with another six months? I couldn't get a satisfactory answer out of Dobkin. Olsen believes the problem may be built into the inflexible structure of Gothamist's city blogging platform.
When she took over as editor, Olsen says “The expectation was for Seattlest to become profitable. The expectations were very high, like unrealistically high.” She says the smaller cities in the Gothamist empire aren’t as well-supported as the major markets. “All of their ad fills come out of New York, which is an interesting model that doesn’t work for smaller cities. Seattle is a much smaller scale than what they’re used to.”
“What’s interesting about Seattlest,” Olsen says, “is it’s entirely volunteer. All of our writers are just working because they like it.” And nobody can muster the time to do PR, to manage press releases, and all the other administrative functions that a media outlet needs. “We didn’t have the tools or weren’t given the resources.”
Olsen doesn’t know when the end will come. “We got an e-mail in October saying that the actual end of the website is not going to be made public until it looks more definite. I begged for a little more time,” she says, but “it just became very clear that there was no amount of work that our volunteer staff could do to meet the goals that were set up for us.” Olsen is proud of what her staff has done in terms of building the site’s reputation back up in such a small amount of time, and she has been frustrated by the usual blogging problems—trolls, for instance, and the fact that other news outlets “will use our news without linking to us because we’re so small they can get away with it.”
Is there anything that Stranger readers can do to help? “It’s mostly a question of readership,” Olsen says. People can “follow us on Twitter, and more of [Slog’s] intelligent commenters [on Seattlest] would be rad.” But she believes the hiatus will happen, one way or another: “It’s coming. It could be in the new year, it could be far out yet. It’s been imminent for a while. When we know, everyone else will know.” When I told Godkin that I believed Olsen and her staff had done a remarkable amount of work in such a small amount of time, he agreed with me, but he hastened to add: “If you think they’ve been good now, imagine what they’d be like if they were full-time.”