How Seattle’s South King Media Grew From Hobby Into Profitable Mini-Net

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-4It’s been three years since we last wrote about South King Media, which publishes news in six communities of “Southend” in metro Seattle’s King County — from the primarily working-class and diverse city and strong market of Burien (population: 49,858) to mostly-white, upper-income, suburban-bedroom-small-market Normandy Park (population: 6,557).

Southend was long dominated by “legacy” Robinson Newspapers, which last year was forced to consolidate its Southend print weeklies into one subscription product because of what it called “market forces,” but kept its individual community websites. Meanwhile independent and free “pure-play” South King Media is profitable, and last year it collected its second consecutive “Best Hyperlocal Site” from the Northwest Region Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Street Fight put these questions to founder and Publisher-Editor Scott Schaefer:

You started South King Media in Burien as a hobby. What was your job full time then, and why did you want to blog in Burien?
I started a blog because I thought the local weekly newspaper, the Highline Times [part of the Robinson Newspapers chain] was doing a lousy job with their online edition. I had just been laid off from a corporate marketing position and was exploring developing several websites in hopes of creating something sustainable.

When did your hobby become a full-time enterprise?
About six months after I started it, a friend did a redesign and the site really took off. I knew I was onto something when I started getting emails asking about advertising, even though I had yet to post any ads!

Does your mini-network make it easier to succeed with hyperlocal — by sharing news among the communities and/or selling a bigger or smaller audience to advertisers?
Yes, there’s no question that these six communities work with and help each other, even though each community likes to be independent; this is perhaps one reason why the “regional” local print paper has problems, aside from the fact that by the time they print the news it’s a week or so old.

What’s the secret to hyperlocal success – community involvement, comprehensive community coverage, or something else — or everything?
Living and working locally, and being heavily involved in the community, are two of the main reasons we have succeeded. We’re involved with local chamber orgs, we work with local nonprofits like the Rotary, we sponsor farmers markets and are well known in the business communities. We’re also proud to be nimble and fast with posting local news, and it helps that we’re friendly with local police and fire PIOs.

How big an editorial staff do you have and do staffers work on news in more than one of the six communities you cover?
I push the “Publish” button most often, but we get stories from (in this order of contributions): Jack Mayne, Mark Neuman and Ralph Nichols. Since they’re all considered freelancers/contractors, the amount of content they contribute depends on their schedules.

What’s your newest editorial feature?
We recently brought our own “Weather Geek” on board the blog staff. Chris Scragg is a local guy who’s into meteorology, chasing storms and technology. He set up a live streaming webcam, along with a weather station, which can be accessed 24/7. He also has his own website. We think it’s pretty cool.

Your wife, Theresa, is sales director. What difference does she make in revenue?
She brought in discipline and a more professional approach, based on her experience working with Victorinox Swiss Army and Nordstrom. She has made a huge difference since joining me full-time 2+ years ago. She has increased sales around 25% and now we make enough to live on this biz alone!

Scott Schaefer
Scott Schaefer

Any other revenue streams, like subscriptions or events?
We’re about 95% local ads we sell/create, with some additional text link and Google ads.

What do you focus on managerially as head of South King Media?
I focus on updating the sites as frequently as possible and making them as relevant as possible. I also do a lot of work in social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).

What are your unique visitors and pageviews in South King County (population: 142,000)?
We have 69,000-80,000/monthly uniques and 132,000 monthly pageviews.

Does your SoKing Internet Radio station make any difference in how well the six websites do?
It shows people that we’re not only serious about local news/events, but also about local music. We see it becoming a bigger part of our network as more vehicles become wi-fi enabled, and we foresee a time in the near future when we do radio news broadcasts/programming that source from our blogs.

Based on what you’ve done in South King, what do you see as the future of community news?
Local blogs/websites must be truly local to succeed – just ask the folks who tried Patch, or other outsiders who’ve tried to crack the local nut!

What advice do you have for anybody who wants to start a community news site (in 25 words or less)?
Stay local, get involved, become known by businesspeople, then do pure local journalism with no bias. Befriend everyone but remain neutral, and always cover both sides.

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.

Related Street Fight content: B-Town Blog’s Schaefer: Hyperlocal Means Being ‘On the Ground’