A Q&A with LION member Joe Hyde, publisher of San Angelo LIVE in Texas.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
We launched SanAngeloLIVE.com on Sept. 4, 2013. The site covers the San Angelo (Texas) DMA, consisting of about 105,000 people, or 55,000 television sets.
We were a three-person Drupal web development shop. We were primarily contracting with larger agencies in Los Angeles and Dallas to do other agencies’ work. It was profitable, but it was starting to become monotonous. I learned from other agencies that to be extremely successful in the web development business, and to take on our own projects, we would have to hire project managers and become extremely focused on our hourly billing, managing client expectations, etc. Since we were looking at an investment of manpower anyway, we looked for other opportunities where the team could focus its talent. I liked the idea of making one product and selling it many, many times. And I was fascinated with local media and wondered if the corporate media outlets were really covering the news like the news could be covered. I saw openings in the local paper’s lack of focus on a cohesive digital strategy and lack of understanding how their readers perceived them. When Scripps ordered the San Angelo Standard-Times to implement a paywall, the opening became a barn door, and we drove right in and went to war.
Friends and business associates who I admire urged me not to do it. “You’ll go broke!” they said, because local doesn’t scale well. My thoughts were that by fighting in the trenches of a local media market, I’d learn more about how audiences engage with content, and more importantly, what local advertisers want in digital advertising strategies and products needed to grow their businesses.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
I am a 20-year U.S. Air Force pilot. I flew B-52Gs, B-52Hs, and the T-38A and T-38C. I spent 14 years on active duty. For the final six years, I was a reserve T-38 IP three times a week, and the rest of the time I was the owner of an ISP that I founded called DelRio.com for the town on the Texas border with Mexico. I sold the ISP in 2004 then worked a variety of executive jobs at Verizon, The Dallas Morning News and the Salem Web Network. In between all of that, I failed at another startup media project. It was a Total Market Coverage (TMC) direct mailed magazine in the southwest Texas and west central Texas region. When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, we couldn’t hang on to enough retail advertisers. My background is broad in technology, sales and writing.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
Attract the audience with crime and crash reporting, then once they are introduced to us, try to get each new audience member hooked on our civic reporting. We rely heavily on proving our audience size. We measure our success in attracting an audience to make them stick with us through analytics — primarily Quantcast and Google Analytics. Without the Census-level statistics proving your audience size, it is too easy for the competition, the legacy newspaper, to dismiss our approach and audience size. We use the audience size as our primary benefit when selling advertising to local clients. We have successfully defragmented the fragmented media.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
We are in a Journal Media Group (formerly Scripps) newspaper market. However, I feel that most of our advertisers are coming from lost sales at the three radio station groups. I view radio was the weaker media format because everyone is talking and texting while driving, not listening to the radio. Our crash reporting proves it.
5. What makes your site unique?
San Angelo LIVE! is a big city website in a tier 3 market. We use many bells and whistles of advanced SEO, social media and email tactics to grow and retain our audience. What’s unique is that we are using these tactics in a small market where the competition doesn’t devote the talent to counter us.
Several things are unique:
The speed of our reporting. We try to get the story first. Initially it was so we’d get the story indexed in Google News before the competition. Now it’s to make sure we are the “go-to” destination for breaking news.
The subject matter of our content is more focused on what the people want to read about because we’re driven by analytics. We nod to the AP stylebook, but don’t dilute our writing with aggressive copy editing. We are more rowdy with headlines for social media primarily, and we don’t pull punches. We tell the story the way it is.
6. What is something you wish you had known when you were starting out or would do differently now that could perhaps serve as advice for others?
We spent three months trying to find our voice and get attention, and an audience. We were failing, attracting only 1,000 to 4,000 unique visitors per day. I’d look at the newspaper’s traffic and wonder, “How can I beat them?” Friends told me that we didn’t have 15 years of archives and we’d never beat them because the newspaper’s site received so much long tail search traffic. Two things were significant in turning the project around.
First, I attended the 2013 LION conference in Chicago and met Howard Owens. He’s in Batavia, New York, a town of like 15,000 people and he was consistently getting 10,000 to 15,000 unique visitors per day.
I was in a city of 100,000 and thought we should be able to match that; if we could, we’d beat the local paper. Howard taught me about his crash reporting off of the police scanner. I went home and bought a scanner, but couldn’t figure out what was and wasn’t news. Then, one of my reporters stumbled upon the Spiderman of San Angelo (read the story here). The audience traffic to that one story went through the roof. The people wanted to know what the police were up to! To quote Howard, “When people see five police cars at the end of their street, they want to know what is going on, so report it!” And we did.
The second thing I learned happened when I visited with the team at SpyFu.com at the PubCon convention in Las Vegas. One of the SpyFu.com partners walked me through conducting a SEO/SEM competition analysis between SanAngeloLIVE.com and GoSanAngelo.com, the local paper. We found that most of their traffic was originating from long tail search traffic nationwide for recruitment advertising phrases. Such as, they ranked on the front page SERPs for “mental health jobs.” That told me that the paper didn’t have much of a local audience. In fact, Quantcast reveals that their local traffic is on 10 to 15 percent of all of their traffic. We started tracking local traffic, determined to reach every laptop, tablet or phone on the Internet within our DMA. Today, we’re at 65,000 to 75,000 unique cookies originating from within our DMA of 100,000 people. The local paper is at around 30,000.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
We have a staff of six and we’ve been in the black for more than a year. Our revenues keep climbing and we don’t have a large infrastructure to support, like a radio station or printing press. It’s a good business model.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
Hiring good employees. Especially good sales people. Sales is the key to the overall success, and it’s the most difficult task at making San Angelo LIVE! successful. You can have a Pulitzer Prize winner on the writing staff, and it won’t matter if you don’t have revenue to support it.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
We really want to expand into other markets. We are already making great inroads in attracting audience from Abilene. Midland and Brownwood. I’d like to execute a strategy to move in those markets revenue-wise. I need to figure out how this scales.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
Primarily for mutual support. It helps me to learn from other local publishers and their struggles. I also rely heavily on other LIONs for answering ethical questions about news reporting, because I spent the first half of my career flying bombers, not reporting on city council meetings.
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