Mike Ragsdale Says Putting Community First Makes His ‘Indie’ 30A Site a Big Winner

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Local independent news publisher Mike Ragsdale has strong, iconoclastic opinions about the direction of his industry. The founder of 30A, which he started in 2007 “with virtually nothing” to cover the dozen small resort towns and developments of Santa Rosa Beach on the Florida Panhandle’s Gulf Coast, says local news continues to struggle because it too often ignores what it claims to do: put community first.

In this Q&A, Ragsdale itemizes what he thinks his industry is doing wrong and how 30A, by making community paramount, has become the top revenue-producing site among independents:

You have issues with local journalism today. What do you see as the main problem?

Journalism – and local journalism in particular – is missing an immense opportunity to once again become a source of civic pride, rather than be a source of angst, divisiveness and negativity. The industry has become obsessed with trying to figure out who to blame for journalism’s decline.

If they spent one-tenth of their time just doing their job instead of pontificating about why things aren’t going their way, they could easily turn this thing around. The news industry has become so self-absorbed that it just can’t see its path to success.

Serve your community, without agenda, without political bias. Share the news, not your personal opinions. Promote the good that exists in your community rather than always highlighting the bad. Elevate your community, don’t tear it down. Make your brand a source of civic pride again.

Is there too much focus on audience metrics and not enough on community?

Absolutely. Sometimes I forget that and get caught up in thinking too much about what is good for SEO and what will generate more clicks. But that’s always the wrong approach. If you simply put your community first, reader engagement will follow. If you try to outsmart Google’s algorithms or rely on clever click-bait headlines, then you’re doomed to fail.

What does community mean for the 26-mile strip of Gulf Coast beach served by 30A?

There’s no real town here in Santa Rosa Beach. We’re not incorporated. There’s no Main Street. There’s no physical cluster of buildings you can call “downtown.”

In some ways, our 30A brand brings all of our disparate little neighborhoods together into a single, virtual community. Of course, our virtual 30A community congregates in the real-world as well, in the form of 30A events, festivals and meetings. But the 30A network has become a virtual town square of sorts, a place for our tribe members to share a common love of this very special place we call home.

What’s 30A’s reach?

There are dozens of different ways people can interact with the 30A brand, so it’s hard to give a single number that makes any sense. We have over 1.2 million Facebook fans, 110,000 Instagram followers, 205,000 newsletter subscribers, 30,000 monthly 30A Radio sessions, 20,000 Twitter followers, 270,000 annual mobile app sessions and numerous other ways that people interact with us.

We’ve had 880,000 video views in the last week, and we reach millions of viewers and readers every month. We’ve already fulfilled over 65,000 online orders this year alone. Facebook is obviously very important to our brand, as it helps us drive traffic to editorial features as well as to our e-commerce platforms. However, we continue to develop new channels and audiences, as we never want to become over-reliant on any single source of traffic or revenue. Accordingly, we’re focusing a lot more on other platforms such as Google, YouTube and Amazon, among others.

How big is your 30A team and who are they?

This time of year, our off-season, we employ about 25 locals. We add more people in the high season, which for us is spring and summer. About half of our team is full-time, and the rest are part-time.

We also employ a network of freelance writers and contributors. I serve as CEO, and my partner, JoAnn Ribaudo, is our COO. On the digital media side of the business, Sarah Hanley is our Editor, Cory Davis is our Director of Advertising Sales and our 30A Radio Station Manager, and Amandeep Mangat is our Communications Manager.

We also employ a world-class team who supports the e-commerce side of our business.

While you put the positive first in news coverage, 30A doesn’t ignore bad news, does it?

It does not. A great recent example is Hurricane Michael, which virtually destroyed our neighboring communities of Panama City, Mexico Beach and many others. Our 30A company has had teams of volunteers out helping those in need almost every single day since the storm.

Through 30A’s charity partnership, The Sonder Project, we’ve helped raise over $375,000 to directly support victims. A lot of our neighbors lost everything. A lot of the people who work in our local restaurants and businesses lost everything.

This was obviously a huge negative event – the loss of thousands of homes and jobs. But we’re very much addressing it and covering the story. But we choose to focus on all the good that’s taking place. We focus on the positive.

We cover stories about the people who are out there on rooftops helping to repair people’s homes. We cover how people can help through donations and by volunteering on our site. We cover where people can go out on a Saturday to help clear debris from people’s devastated lives. We’re not wasting time and energy trying to assign blame or point fingers or highlight short-fallings.

We’re focused on what we can all do to help. That’s the difference I see between our approach to local news and how other hyperlocal media companies nationwide approach it.

What, specifically, bothers you about the rest of local news media?

When I look at newspapers and websites and see photos of locals who have been arrested for petty crimes, it saddens me. They usually use a lead photo of an attractive female who got a DUI or of some guy making a silly face. It’s not news, of course.

They do it because it generates clicks and a flurry of hateful comments. They do it because somebody in accounting is looking at the analytics and saying, “Oh boy, these photos are getting a lot of clicks! Our advertisers want clicks, so let’s post more stuff like this!”

Their business model becomes fueled by clicks and comments, instead of a genuine desire to serve their community. The pendulum has swung so much to the negative side that perhaps 30A swings a bit too far to the positive side. The reality is that it should probably fall somewhere in the middle. But until it does, we’re going to keep focusing on being a beacon of hope, good and positivity in our community.

You’ve got multiple streams of revenue, including 30A products you sell. One of your latest is craft beer. What’s that all about?

30A is a brand. We share news about our community, and we also create eco-friendly products that enable people to show their civic pride.

Thousands of outlets across six states sell our 30A craft beers, brewed locally by Grayton Beer Company. We have a 30A Beach Blonde Ale and a 30A Rosé Gose-style beer, and we hope to introduce a new 30A style in early 2019.

We also created a line of 30A recycled apparel made from plastic water bottles. We sell those recycled shirts online at 30Agear.com and in over 200 locations across the country, in stores as far away as Washington State, California, Michigan and New Jersey.

We also recently partnered with our local Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices team to launch 30A Real Estate, a fully functioning real estate listings site. Some of our fans live here at the beach, and most of the others hope to one day, so it was a very logical local partnership.

We also just introduced 30A Electric Bikes in partnership with YOLO, another local company. The bikes come in five colors and have a range of 50 miles or more and can be recharged on any regular household plug. We think electric bikes present a great eco-friendly solution for our some of the transportation and parking issues we have here along Scenic Highway 30-A, the single two-lane,19-mile road that connects the little towns in our community.

Local news media companies need to think of themselves as brands, and not just publications. International media companies like CNN, NPR, BBC, MSNBC and FOX News all have retail and e-commerce plays. Why shouldn’t local brands?

If there’s a big hard-news event that’s got negative implications, will it appear in 30A?

If a local politician is indicted on charges of fraud, that’s just not part of our editorial mission. If there’s a robbery at a local gas station, there are other news outlets that cover that kind of news, and they do a much better job than we ever could. But if there’s a red tide health warning that our fans need to know about, we’ll put out an alert. If surf conditions are dangerous, we help local officials get the word out to locals and visitors.

If bad news is actionable, we’ll report it. But if it’s bad news just for the sake of bad news, we leave that stuff to others. We don’t cover traffic accidents, political debates and scandals. What’s the point, when that’s what everyone else does?

I’d rather tell people how they can sign-up for the 30A Half Marathon or how they can volunteer to help wrap Christmas presents for victims of Hurricane Michael. I’d rather share stories about the local guy who hand-crafts custom guitars for celebrities worldwide or of the Monarch butterfly, which migrates by the millions through our beach community every year.

How are you doing in revenue overall?

We hope to finish 2018 with about $5.7 million in revenue and modest profitability. Our unique approach to hyperlocal media is clearly working. I read so many headlines by local news providers looking for grants and hand-outs, trying to somehow subsidize their operations. But they need to start thinking about being a business. They need to think of themselves as a brand, not a charity or public utility.

They need to focus on their readers, not their advertisers. They need to become a source of pride in their community. Promoting photos of sex offenders and health department citations will produce clicks, but it won’t build community. It certainly won’t do anything good for your brand.

Do you have any special business plans for 2019?

Like everyone else, we’re always thinking about ways to grow and improve. We can always grow organically at 10% or 20% or whatever, but I’d really like to take 30A to the next level. How can we catapult ourselves into a brand that transcends our geographic location – from hyperlocal to global? How can we become a source of information and optimism for beach fans worldwide?

Those are the kinds of thoughts that get me excited as an entrepreneur and media professional. Ultimately, though, if I can live here at the beach and promote stories that make people feel good and products that help protect our coastal habitats for future generations, it’s hard to ask for a much more rewarding career than that.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.