Meet the Man Building a Local Media Empire in South King County

In South King County, one man unexpectedly has found that focusing on local news is good news

By Bill Virgin

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October 22, 2018

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Seattle Magazine.

This article appears in print in the October 2018 issue and in the August 2018 issue of Seattle Business magazineClick here to subscribe.

Scott Schaefer wasn’t planning to become a sort of mini news mogul back in 2007, when he found himself looking for things to do with his family in the community one weekend.

“I could not find any listings,” he recalls. It turned out to be a career-changing moment for the Burien resident who, inspired by hyperlocal blogs such as those for West Seattle, Capitol Hill and Ballard, decided Burien could use a blog of its own. He picked a name, B-Town, for Burien, paid the $7.95 registration fee, set up the site and began posting. “I thought this would be a nice little hobby,” Schaefer says.

Instead, he’s become the owner of South King Media, a regional network of sites covering the contiguous communities of Burien, Des Moines, Normandy Park, SeaTac, Tukwila and White Center. The latest addition to South King Media’s portfolio is the iLoveKent blog, launched in 2007 by Dana Neuts. It became part of South King Media on January 1, 2018.

Hyperlocal was supposed to be the next big thing in the news business. With traditional media like print daily newspapers shrinking, sometimes into nonexistence, the news vacuum would be filled by blogs and websites, reported by anyone from professional journalists to community volunteers, focused on local people, local government, local businesses and organizations, and local issues.

Some of these blogs and websites made a sustained go of it. Others, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, faded into inactivity, especially the volunteer-driven sites that discovered that keeping up with the news took a lot of time and energy. Not that big, organized businesses proved more successful. AOL made a huge push into the hyperlocal market with its Patch network of local sites, only to retrench dramatically.

But Schaefer is bucking the trend.

Schaefer wasn’t a newcomer to the worlds of media and news when he launched B-Town. As a writer, director and producer of video, he’d worked on the local comedy program Almost Live! and on Bill Nye the Science Guy, and had done a stint in Hollywood. He’d also been editor of newspapers in junior high and high school and had studied journalism at Highline College. To begin a local news website, even one launched as a hobby, was “like getting on a bike again,” he suggests.

But less than a year into the project, it morphed from hobbyist’s pastime into commercial venture when Schaefer got a call from a local real estate agent asking, “Do you sell ads?” That led to the hiring of a sales manager, which meant revenue, an actual office and a full-time job for Schaefer.

While ads pay the bills, it’s content that drives people to the websites. “It all boils down to original local content,” he notes. Crime news tends to top the list of most-read items, but the blog also devotes considerable space to coverage of municipal government and the local school district. “It’s human nature to want to know what’s going on in your neighborhood,” he says.

Schaefer says the subject matter, the speed of posting new items, the frequency of posting and attention to journalistic practices all keep people coming back. So does extensive use of social media. The website’s top source of referrals is its Facebook account. In 2017, before the addition of iLoveKent, the six local blogs had attracted 625,877 users and racked up just under 4.6 million page views.

What Schaefer is doing is very much at the forefront of the trend in local news, says Matt DeRienzo, executive director of Lion Publishers, a trade organization for local, independent online news sites. The association has more than 200 members in 45 states.

“We’re seeing a major decentralization of local news in this country,” DeRienzo says. “Local independent online news sites have risen over the past 10 years as the print newspaper industry has declined. That trend has accelerated rapidly in the past few years as the industry has consolidated into the hands of three or four big companies, several of which are controlled by hedge funds that aren’t in the journalism business and are making steep cuts to local journalism.”

Neighborhoods in the region, including several that Schaefer serves, still have weekly print publications covering them. DeRienzo sees online news sites like those of South King Media as one more feature of the new media landscape. “The new reality is that what used to be done by a single dominant newspaper will be handled by an ecosystem of local online news sites, general interest and niche, nonprofit and for-profit, and other sources,” he says.

Not that it’s an easy business. “It’s difficult to make a go of it on digital advertising alone, for example, in many communities,” DeRienzo explains. “You see some local independent online news publishers opening a small network of community sites in their area, both because the need exists and the model works, and for the efficiency and sales capacity it allows them in building a business.”

Schaefer doesn’t have any immediate plans to add to the list of markets, even those contiguous to the ones he now serves. “Only if it was an organic fit,” he says. “I’m not actively pursuing expansion.”

But that could all change, depending on how things go with the Kent site. “If we get traction down there,” he acknowledges, “who knows?”

Schaefer will keep experimenting with new ways to deliver news to readers and viewers. He has already tried an internet radio station and podcasts (both drew a limited audience in relation to the amount of time involved). He’s now looking at ways to repackage content for consumption through virtual-assistant services and devices like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. “I’m a big tech nerd,” he says. “I’m always looking to try new things.”

Whatever the delivery channel, the core product will always be local news and information. “We’re filling a need,” Schaefer says. “In a number of markets, we’re the only ones doing it.”

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