Joe Hyde, founder and publisher of San Angelo Live, is seeing his independent community news site in West Texas hit $60,000 in monthly ad revenue. On its second anniversary this month, San Angelo Live continues to attract more unique visitors than the site of its 131-year-old “legacy” competitor, the San Angelo Standard-Times (see Quantcast chart below). There’s more frosting on Live’s birthday cake: Hyde has attained positive cash flow and he’s building up a cash reserve for expansion.
There’s one big question, though: How do you scale in wide open West Texas?
“I’ve got to figure that out,” Hyde says, “The closest city is Abilene, which is 94 miles away. Next, farther west, is Midland, at 110 miles. If I go that far, I have to take part of my brain with me.”
It’s not as if Hyde isn’t busy. He works 60 hours of week at San Angelo Live. Besides tending to his publishing duties, he occasionally stuffs a notebook in his pocket and goes out to cover a story. Last Sunday — a day off for the reporting staff — Hyde reported on a hot local issue. The local rape crisis center attacked the district attorney’s decision to let a 28-year-old man accused of sexually assaulting his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter plead guilty to lesser charges and go free under a sentence of 10 years’ probation.
Sam Angelo Live attracts an audience of more than 250,000 unique visitors monthly who typically have more than 750,000 sessions in a 30-day period. The chief subjects driving the numbers are crime and crashes.
The top story in traffic to the site during August, written by Hyde, was “Dead Man Discovered in Late Model Jeep Behind Church’s Chicken.” — it logged 60,000 sessions. Crashes are featured in a multimedia page that’s a journalistic demolition derby. San Angelo Life photographers rush to the scene of collisions to keep the page well-illustrated. A trial lawyer who wants to build a case for his client who was involved in one crash is negotiating to buy a gallery of photos from the accident. The price is the same for everybody who comes to the “crashes” page: $400.
Crime gets its own page too. The story with perhaps the most intriguing headline appeared on Aug. 31 — “Man Arrested for Assaulting Grandmother With Telephone.”
When the hacking scandal at the Ashley Madison site for adulterers broke last month, San Angelo Live did a bit of investigative reporting to tell its readers that 5,976 registered Ashley Madison members were from San Angelo. To what had to be the relief of those members, Live did not publish their names, revealing only the tidbit that 87.5% of them were male. Maybe that’s why the story drew only half the number of visitor sessions — 30,000 — as the dead man discovered in the late model Jeep behind Church’s Chicken.
While San Angelo Live sometimes looks and reads like a British tabloid, it does diligently cover other news that is far removed from crumpled cars and a grandmother “with a large bump on her forehead.”
In her Aug. 29 article on the beginning of the school year at Angelo State University, senior reporter Bandy Ramirez focused on what the school’s doing to keep its students from quitting early on. Ramirez quoted the online sourcebook College Factual that only 59% of Angelo State’s freshmen entered their sophomore year, well below the national retention rate of 69.4%. ASU’s retention problem is important news to Live because nearly a third of the college’s students are Hispanic, and the minority is a big part of the site’s audience.
Almost 40% of San Angelo’s population is Hispanic, and Hyde says the minority constitutes some of his most loyal readers. According to Quantcast, the site’s Hispanic readership is 71% above the average for sites nationally. Hyde is thinking of adding a translation tool to his site.
Hyde knows that the tabloid-like stories are the hook that brings readers to the site. “We attract readers with crime and carnage and engage them with the civic stories,” he told me in my initial column on San Angelo Live in May 2014.
To keep readers loyal, Hyde sends out a daily morning email to subscribers previewing what’s coming up that day on San Angelo Live. The email is positioned as a replacement for the traditional morning newspaper. “San Angelo’s newspaper-to-your-email” is how the website promotes it on social media. It arrives every morning except Sundays. Hyde said the top story — internally the San Angelo Live team calls it the “epic” — is usually a civic or enterprise news story not having anything to do with crime or crashes that is embargoed until the mass email is sent. If a daily email’s subject line is hot, it is opened by as many as 30,000 people, as measured by Mailchimp. The paid circulation of the local paper, the Standard-Times, is 18,299 daily.
As traffic to San Angelo Live began to surge, Hyde’s sales team complained that there weren’t enough ad impressions available for new clients. A website redesign added more space for ad inventory. The site also increased inventory by streaming ads inside the body of each story. Altogether, inventory was doubled to 22.5 million banner ad impressions across 1.5 million monthly pageviews. Programmatic advertising from partner ad platforms like Google’s DoubleClick fills in when necessary.
More ad space, while it increased the revenue potential, created a visibility problem, especially for local merchants: To counter that, San Angelo Live shifted its banner ad packages into “Strike Packages” that compress 100,000, 500,000 or 1 million impressions over a few days instead of an entire month. “We lowered our CPM to something reasonable, as low as $2.50 CPM, so an advertiser can run short-duration campaigns with extremely high visibility using 13 different banner ad sizes,” Hyde said. Hyde said that the tactic works well for advertising upcoming events, like sales, events, and car dealership promotions. “The cost is less than buying a day or two of print ads in the local paper, and I can prove how many people saw the ad and clicked on it,” Hyde said.
Hyde, who in his pre-publishing days logged over 6,000 hours as an Air Force pilot, used to be an ad salesperson at the Dallas Morning News. But he got tired of the “cubicle culture” of big-city newspapers. Running his own show gives Hyde the opportunity to explore new ways to develop a large local audience, engage its members and to develop digital advertising products to sell around them, he said.
For now, Hyde is content operating with a small footprint, low expenses, and building a cash war chest for expansion. He says: “This thing has to scale and we”ll do it. I’m just not sure exactly what it will look like.”
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present and future of Charleston, S.C.