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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New York Web Publisher May Shut Down Seattle News and Culture Blog

Posted by on Wed, Nov 30, 2011 at 2:25 PM

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.”


Comments (35) RSS

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Cienna Madrid 1
This is really a shame. I run into Hanna and Sarah covering events all of the time (more than I do reporters from other outlets) and they do a great job at it.
Posted by Cienna Madrid on November 30, 2011 at 2:42 PM · Report this
aardvark 2
I had no ideas these were professionals behind these things. I'm not being sarcastic.
Posted by aardvark on November 30, 2011 at 2:46 PM · Report this
icouldliveinhope 3
Thanks so much for this, Paul (and Cienna)! It means a lot.
Posted by icouldliveinhope on November 30, 2011 at 2:48 PM · Report this
hannabrooks 4
Thanks, Paul and Cienna! Such kind words.
Posted by hannabrooks on November 30, 2011 at 2:49 PM · Report this
jseattle 5
I'm frustrated by Seattlest. The Gothamist pattern repeats again and again when it's built on volunteer effort. Talent has been collected and dispersed before. Boo on that. The good folks at got sick of it and did their own thing. I'd love to support and link to the Seattlest writers but not as part of the chain. Go free. Build it.
Posted by jseattle on November 30, 2011 at 2:49 PM · Report this
I have visited it twice in the last year. Good luck to them.
Posted by gloomy gus on November 30, 2011 at 2:59 PM · Report this
Paul Constant 7
@5: I'm glad they're working on it, but the problem with The Sunbreak is it's not very well-written. I check in from time to time, but it's not a destination for me yet. Neither are many of the neighborhood blogs, where ads and content are so often mixed together.
Posted by Paul Constant http:// on November 30, 2011 at 3:07 PM · Report this
diklatuchman 8
JSeattle -- We feel the same way, but we've just been trying to build our own brand of quality local news, regardless of the (shitty) empire that are the powers that be. Thanks for your support of what we write, regardless.

And seriously, thank you Paul so, so much. We have always appreciated and honored the Stranger's support (and you're link backs!)

It has been a pleasure and honor writing with the Seattlest crew -- they are a talented and dedicated bunch.

Posted by diklatuchman on November 30, 2011 at 3:08 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 9
This is a shame. Seattlest is one of my best Twitter feeds.
Posted by Will in Seattle on November 30, 2011 at 3:11 PM · Report this
10 Comment Pulled (Duplicate) Comment Policy
jseattle 11
@7 ha ha "Neither are many of the neighborhood blogs, where ads and content are so often mixed together." That's neighborhood news, man. Pretty sure Slog writes about an advertiser from time to time.

TSB quality varies but it's almost all hand-cranked, local stuff. Not saying the "volunteer" people should shift there but a site like it could grow into something that could support itself/be independent.

And, full disclosure, The SunBreak is part of our ad network so I'm rooting for them.
Posted by jseattle on November 30, 2011 at 3:23 PM · Report this
Hm. Well, I will say I noted the increase in quality of all the seattlest articles; the capitol hill local blog isn't bad, but I always read the stuff coming through my feed from seattlest.

If there's a chance for a transformation into something else, I'm keeping my ears and eyes open.
Posted by gwangung on November 30, 2011 at 3:24 PM · Report this
Oof. What @jseattle said. And really, Constant? "Not very well written"? Pfft to you, sir.

When I left Seattlest in '09, it was because Jake was "thinking" about shuttering the site because we'd only reached 200K page views per month, and he wanted 500K minimum from the volunteers. It was demoralizing, there was turnover, and finally when enough time passed that it didn't look like the axe was descending, a new crew formed up, and now this again.

The story is that this keeps happening to Seattlest, and more importantly, to the writers who come together to volunteer their time and try to share the city with a larger audience. If the current crop doesn't want the party to end, I absolutely encourage them to start their own. Seattlest isn't losing money? Jesus, it's an all-volunteer blog! HOW EXPENSIVE DO YOU THINK THAT IS?
Posted by MvB on November 30, 2011 at 3:35 PM · Report this
jseattle 14
I should also thank Paul for writing about Seattlest. I'm frequently left wondering why Slog isn't more supportive of Seattle's local and independent news scene -- you'd think the Stranger would go out of its way to link to a local news blog to avoid linking to KOMO/PI/Times/etc. but you'd be wrong. We're up against a low bar but most of the local indies to a pretty good job. Give it a thought the next time you're about to link to the big guys.
Posted by jseattle on November 30, 2011 at 3:37 PM · Report this
I used to read Seattlest all the time - they were providing good local arts coverage at a time when there wasn't much - but a couple of years ago they just slipped off my radar. Good to hear the content has gotten better, but a shame that it won't keep them going.
Posted by genevieve on November 30, 2011 at 3:43 PM · Report this
Paul Constant 16
@11: We have one set of employees selling ads and one set of employees writing editorial, news and culture pieces. We keep those two departments separate, so advertising concerns don't figure into editorial concerns.

I love that your example of an ethical local news site is a site you have a financial stake in, and that you didn't bother to mention that fact the first time around.
Posted by Paul Constant http:// on November 30, 2011 at 3:44 PM · Report this
pg13 17
Maybe the best thing to happen would be for The Stranger to hire the best Seattlest writers???
Posted by pg13 on November 30, 2011 at 3:44 PM · Report this
Seattlest is STILL irrelevant and uninteresting.
Always has been and I assume it always will be.

Posted by art in wedgwood on November 30, 2011 at 3:46 PM · Report this
Josh Bis 19
As someone who once put a fair amount of time and effort into maintaining a local branch of a national chain of city blogs, I now have to agree with jseattle. Given Gothamist LLC's apparent disinterest in growing and winning medium media markets, it's hard to see how begging for a few more months of Seattlest uptime makes more sense than building a quality local brand where you have a greater sense of ownership.

Hope that something works out, one way or another!
Posted by Josh Bis on November 30, 2011 at 3:48 PM · Report this
Even though Seattlest does have some decent writing, it's hard for me to feel too bad about the failure of a model that relies so heavily on not paying talent. If such a model did prove lucrative, I fear it would be widely reproduced.

Posted by Proteus on November 30, 2011 at 4:01 PM · Report this
jseattle 21
@16 I enjoy your writing about books. But all your stuff about me (these comments) sucks.

I didn't offer thesunbreak up as example of ethical local journalism -- that's your fetish. I brought up the site because it was created by a former Seattlest editor who said screw Gothamist and built his own thing.

As for this -- "We keep those two departments separate, so advertising concerns don't figure into editorial concerns" -- well, it's not a very honest statement. Slog posts about Slog events, parties etc. all the time. Many of those events, parties, etc. happen at Stranger/Slog advertisers. The Stranger sells tickets for some of these events and is entwined with much of the culture it covers. That's OK. That's how come you have survived and thrived and are great. But don't get all high and holy about it.
Posted by jseattle on November 30, 2011 at 4:12 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 22
Seattle needs to keep being a multiple blog town.

Since we have no daily papers.
Posted by Will in Seattle on November 30, 2011 at 4:32 PM · Report this
@21, well put.
Posted by gloomy gus on November 30, 2011 at 4:39 PM · Report this
icouldliveinhope 24
@20: It is pretty widely reproduced at present, unfortunately.

& jseattle, I have a lot of thoughts about your comments, but I just want to address the one at 11: hand-cranked and local. We were part of a national blog chain, but until Gothamist started syndicating about a month ago, all assignments, writing, edits and ultimately the published content was all locally-conceived and locally-produced. The only people who would have noticed and benefited from recognition -- especially from another smaller Seattle blog -- are the fellow overworked, underpaid local writers, even under the Gothamist banner.
Posted by icouldliveinhope on November 30, 2011 at 4:44 PM · Report this
icouldliveinhope 25
Oh, and to clarify, "have a lot of thoughts" wasn't meant to be antagonistic. I just re-read my comment and thought it might've come across that way -- hope it didn't.
Posted by icouldliveinhope on November 30, 2011 at 4:48 PM · Report this
diklatuchman 26
Thank you Sarah!

Yes to #24. It is nearly impossible for most of the average readers to know (and most are SHOCKED when I tell them) that our staff writes completely voluntarily. Most of us have full time jobs, adult obligations, and manage to crank out well-written content every or every other day (that is to say, we have many occasional contributors, but many of us are posting something completely unique and new every single day).

Having been on staff for only 3 months, I know I'm often the first writer in Seattle to write about about 90% of the content I put out, and we do indeed get poached often by other "reputable" blog sites without recognition, link backs, and even sometimes misinformation in those copied posts. Sure, we laugh it off, but we keep going and we haven't faltered.

In fact, when we were told that we might be shut down, everyone (EVERYONE) on the staff rallied and did such an amazing job getting our numbers up, spreading the word, grabbing new readers and social media followers. Half of what we do (aside for working our asses off on producing content) is also networking for the site and that is HUGE.

As someone who primarily JUST contributes events coverage, I have met with a plethora of phenomenal Seattleites that are brought on board to our site, as well as community organizations that are thrilled to have the coverage we provide for them. It has been a complete honor and life-enriching experience to be a part of this team. And those who keep reading and continue to support us, bring their friends, family, neighbors, cats and dogs on to the site, THANK YOU.
Posted by diklatuchman on November 30, 2011 at 5:02 PM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 27

Maybe if they hadn't picked the absolutely worstest name for a blog...Seattlest...they'd still be in business.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on November 30, 2011 at 5:09 PM · Report this
jseattle 28
@24 It did for a minute :) And then I read @25. I have become painfully aware of the quality -- I've wanted to link several times and even broke down and admitted your coverage was too good to ignore on a few things. It's frustrating to support Gothamist so I try to avoid it. But it sounds like it might one of those situations where every click actually costs them money so maybe I should rethink things.
Posted by jseattle on November 30, 2011 at 5:15 PM · Report this
diklatuchman 29
I also just noticed that I broke my pet-peeve rule of using "you're" when I meant "your" in #8. I'm completely fired.
Posted by diklatuchman on November 30, 2011 at 5:16 PM · Report this
diklatuchman 30
:D to #28
Posted by diklatuchman on November 30, 2011 at 5:17 PM · Report this
Had no idea Seattlest was under new management. I haven't been to that site in over a year. I hope this info isn't too little, too late.
Posted by I Got Nuthin' on November 30, 2011 at 5:41 PM · Report this
gttim 32
Why don't the writers doing such a great job there now just start their own blog? They are the labor (free) that keeps it going. Move to a little website using free software and build.
Posted by gttim on December 1, 2011 at 6:45 AM · Report this
raku 33
"Advertising concerns don't figure into editorial concerns"

I wish I took a screenshot of the Lunchtime Quickie that was just a Big Mario's marketing video from Dave Meinert, along with a raving paragraph about how everyone should eat there, accompanied by a banner ad for Big Mario's on the side and a banner ad for the Capitol Hill block party across the top. That was about the 10th Slog post about Big Mario's and it had been open for probably a week.

I love Slog, but I have never seen a news blog that plugs its advertisers nearly as much while masquerading as "news".
Posted by raku on December 1, 2011 at 11:41 AM · Report this
Since it's not losing money and it is showing growth potential I think the publisher should support it -- not even consider a "hiatus" of any duration!
Posted by Gbobbi on December 1, 2011 at 7:41 PM · Report this
chimsquared 35
Actually it used to be more fun before new ed tried to make it a more professional operation while not actually, you know, paying anyone. Eventually the senior types in media will realize you have to pay people a real wage to write anything worth reading for you. Also their e-mail blasts were always a day late and their commenting system sucks.
Posted by chimsquared on December 30, 2011 at 11:49 AM · Report this

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