Texas ‘Indie’ Pure Play Is Hog-Tying ‘Legacy’ Competitor

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San Angelo AliveTired of his four-hour commute between Dallas and San Angelo, Dallas Morning News ad salesman Joe Hyde applied to the San Angelo Standard-Times in 2009. He never heard back. Today, Hyde is the founder-publisher of San Angelo Live, an independent “pure play” that — in its eight months of existence — is already surpassing his Scripps competitor in key traffic metrics, and, since last month, operating in the black.

Hyde decided to go up against the 130-year-old Standard-Times when, in April 2013, it announced it was creating a paywall  for its digital Go San Angelo. With barely understated glee, Live promotes itself with the come-on: “Subscribe Now. It’s Free.”

San Angelenos are signing up — and coming back for more. After closing the gap from its start-up in September 2013, San Angelo Live has been nosing ahead of Go San Angelo in unique visitors this month. Thanks to its splashy coverage of two “crime and carnage” articles this week, Live drew a bell-ringing 39,568 unique visitors on Monday, almost triple the 13,364 UVs of Go San Angelo (see Quantcast chart). Hyde said the Live’s numbers are even better than they look because a majority of his visitors come from smartphones (66% vs. 44% for Go San Angelo) and his biggest age group is the highly desirable market segment 35 to 44 vs. Go San Angelo’s 45 to 54.

UVs for San Angelo Live vs. Go San Angelo)Live’s homepage features big type, bigger images and tabloid-ish headlines for crime stories (“Witness Testimony Paints Bloody Picture in Aggravated Assault Case”). “We have an editorial team that’s not timid,” Hyde says. But first looks can be deceiving. “Coverage of the county commissioners, city council and school board are 80% of our editorial effort,” he says. “We attract readers with crime and carnage and engage them with the civic stories.”

San Angelo is a metro area of 111,823 population in the West Central part of the state, and has the 197th largest DMA nationally. Residents like their pickup trucks and cowboy boots (Hyde says he wears his Ariats “nearly every day”), but they have wide-ranging interests and lifestyles that defy 10-gallon-hat typecasting. There is, to be sure, the 85-year-old Stock Show and Rodeo, which is one of the longest-running rodeos. There’s also the indoor football Bandits, the baseball minor league Colts and the several Rams teams fielded by San Angelo State U. But there’s much more. On the cultural front, San Angelo has an art museum and commercial galleries, civic theater, symphony and ballet as well as plays produced by San Angelo State. Then there’s the farmers’ market.

Everything is fodder for coverage by Live, although no review of the evening ballet is going to push the earlier crash of a pickup truck and 18-wheeler further down the homepage.

In an attentive nod to socially aware new media, Hyde and his editorial staff continually shape content that’s designed to compute with Facebook’s ever-changing algorithm for deciding what goes into subscribers’ news feeds. “Facebook is the king for driving stories,” Hyde says. This attention to what the biggest social media platform promotes appears to be paying off. San Angelo Live has 15,240 Facebook “likes” and 5,790 “talking about’s”  to Go San Angelo’s 8,775 and 532, respectively.

Joe Hyde
Joe Hyde

To Hyde, Live’s most important editorial component is not the homepage, but its morning email that goes to the site’s subscribers. “It’s our crown jewel,” he says.  The meaty casually written and richly illustrated letter wraps up what happened yesterday and previews that day’s events, and includes “rants’ from readers. It’s loaded with ads that contribute to Live’s strong revenue.

Since its founding eight months ago, Live has pushed its ad revenues to $30,000 monthly. Hyde explains why he thinks his two-person ad team is so successful (compared to performance generally among independent news sites): “Ad salespeople want to believe in something. We create a product and help them understand why it works in the community.” The goal is to nail businesses down to long-term ad contracts so the sales team doesn’t have to keep hitting up clients every month.

Though Live is not even a year old, Hyde, a former Air Force B-52 pilot who led the last bomber sortie in Operation Desert Storm in the first Iraq war in 1991, is already thinking about what he’ll do next. He muses about going into neighboring metro markets, like Corpus Christi, Abilene, Midland and Wichita Falls and “putting newspapers out of business.” But he also says, “My biggest fear is somebody will run me over.”

If anything like that happens on U.S. 277 in San Angelo, it’ll probably lead the homepage of San Angelo Live.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched earlier this year.