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Oct. 24, 2016, noon

From East Coast to West Coast: The company behind Miami’s The New Tropic is expanding to Seattle

WhereBy.Us is one of the most interesting digital startups working in the local news space. After starting in Florida, it’s launching The Evergrey in Seattle, and it has its eye on additional markets.

Miami is a city in flux. Over the past five years, nearly 500,000 people have moved to South Florida, and more than 65 percent of those new residents came from outside the United States.

Local news site The New Tropic launched in 2015 with the goal of helping Miamians, both new and old, make sense of their evolving city. Its main editorial product is a daily email newsletter with about 25,000 subscribers. The New Tropic publishes content ranging from evergreen neighborhood guides to stories on local politics and art installations.

On Monday, The New Tropic’s parent company, WhereBy.Us, launched a new site, The Evergrey, in another rapidly growing city: Seattle.

“Seattle, like Miami, is in a moment of transition,” WhereBy.Us CEO and co-founder Christopher Sopher said. “There’s a huge amount of investment, a huge growth in population, a huge amount of change for people who live there, but there’s a core and a soul to the city that people want to preserve even as it evolves. We tap into the energy and passion that comes from that.”

WhereBy.Us is one of a number of media companies trying to create new models for metro news. Jim Brady’s Spirited Media launched Billy Penn in Philadelphia in 2014, and expanded to Pittsburgh this year. In North Carolina, the Charlotte Agenda is on track to make $850,000 this year and recently expanded to Raleigh.

In Miami, WhereBy.Us has built its business around reaching younger residents with both editorial and commercial products.

About 80 percent of WhereBy.Us’s revenue comes from creative agency work that uses the company’s data, research, and expertise to understand the local market. Another 10 percent of revenue is generated through events, and the last 10 percent comes from membership and other sources. A few subscription-based products are in the works. The company makes no money from display advertising.

WhereBy.Us is in the process of expanding its data and research offerings through a subscription-based product, and recently completed a $750,000 investment round to help fund expansion. One of the company’s main backers is the Knight Foundation. (Disclosure: Knight also supports Nieman Lab. Sopher used to work at Knight as well, and he wrote a couple of pieces for us six years ago.) The company is on track to make $1 million this year, and Sopher said its model was profitable in its first year, but the company has since been spending more to grow the business.

A new site: The Evergrey

WhereBy.Us plans to replicate its model in Seattle with its new project, The Evergrey, which launched publicly today with a daily email.

the-evergrey

The Evergrey is developed and run by former Nieman Fellow Monica Guzman and Anika Anand, two Seattle journalists with backgrounds in audience engagement.

“We’re thinking of our audience as people who care about the city. That includes people who have been here a long time and feel a certain level of investment already, but it also includes people who just got here and are curious and eager to build their own unique relationship with Seattle,” Guzman said. “We want to be part of the conversation that leads people to a deeper appreciation and investment in their city.”

Anand and Guzman began discussing the creation of a Seattle-based local news startup last year. Anand and New Tropic executive editor Ariel Zirulnick were friends from college, and when Anand called her looking for advice, Zirulnick said the company was looking to expand and connected them with Sopher (another college friend).

“We spoke with Chris and it just clicked,” Anand said. “We appreciated that they put readers at the center of everything they do.”

The New Tropic’s community-based approach is built on user research and data collection. The Evergrey team, working with WhereBy.Us leadership, underwent a similar process this summer as they began to develop the project.

Rebekah Monson, a WhereBy.Us cofounder and the company’s VP of product, said that focus on community is “baked into the DNA of the company.”

“We want to make a strong community more than we want to make the best newsletter,” Monson said. “If something happened and no one read email newsletters tomorrow, we would still have a great community that we serve across many platforms.”

“Connective tissue”

The New Tropic and WhereBy.Us have their roots in 2013 when Sopher, Monson, and their third cofounder, VP of creative Bruce Pinchbeck, began running workshops that helped attendees use design thinking to approach civic issues.

The events were well received, and the three started studying the market to understand what Miamians were looking for.

“Information and community were the things we heard from everybody,” Sopher said. “[The people we talked to said] they didn’t know what was going on; they didn’t know how to plug in to other people and feel as if there was connective tissue around their experience. We did a lot of research about what it was like to live in Miami for different kinds of locals, what kinds of things were missing, and how we could help fill those gaps.”

The team decide to focus on email as its primary editorial product and launched The New Tropic in January 2015. “Folks have very little time, but the first thing they do in the morning is roll over and check their phone,” Monson said. “How can we get that first 10 minutes in the morning and help them win at their day?”

Research is at the heart of the company’s business. As a local outlet, it pitches its knowledge and Miami expertise to its creative agency clients and advertisers. “We do a lot of hands-on work interviewing people, understanding their experiences, and following them around their days in the city,” Sopher said. He wouldn’t go into detail about specific projects, but the team combines the qualitative data it collects with quantitative data about Miami residents to build different user models that companies can target.

One of the user groups that WhereBy.Us has come up with is “Voyagers” — outgoing people who like to explore the city and try new things. “We think about the kinds of content and events they’re going to like,” Sopher said.

The company recently researched how people decide to attend local events. They found that there’s typically a “ringleader” who organizes groups to attend events and buys tickets for the larger group. WhereBy.Us then did a number of marketing campaigns, both for clients and for its own events, that targeted those group leaders. “A bulk of our revenue is going to come from these small numbers of people who invite all their friends,” Sopher said.

The company has 12 staffers in Miami. It’s looking to grow its team to offer similar services in Seattle, but for now, much of the business development and product and technology support are coming from Miami.

“A great way to test out our voice”

In mid-September, Anand and Guzman launched a beta version of The Evergrey and sent it to a few hundred readers. They’ve spent the few weeks in beta experimenting with different types of content, tone, and length, soliciting feedback from subscribers.

“It’s allowed us to connect with people in a more personal way, rather than putting out articles or pushing out content on Facebook,” Anand said. “Someone emailed us and said, ‘Hey, I really like this, it reads like an email from a friend, rather than like a news newsletter.’ That has been a great way to test out our voice.”

They’re also experimenting with a podcast and thinking about events and other ways to connect with Seattleites in person. On Saturday, they held a potluck brunch at the home of a Seattle artist to thank their beta readers, and handed out a Seattle-themed coloring book created by local artists.

What’s next

In its next phase, WhereBy.Us will think about personalization, Monson said. “How do we do data collection better? How do we collect data across platforms? How do we harness it in ways that are immediately actionable for lots of people across the company, not just technology people or editorial people?”

The company is also deciding whether it makes sense to expand its product offerings through a native app or something else as it expands into more markets.

“I’m totally inspired by what The Skimm and BuzzFeed have done, with their newsletter products feeding into app strategy,” Monson said. “That said, they’re coming at it from a different place as far as audience mass and scale. Figuring how that works for us is going to be a fun and interesting challenge.”

Sopher and Monson are also looking at expanding to other cities, and are examining different markets in an attempt to determine how big a city needs to be for the WhereBy.Us model to succeed.

“I think it’s important that we are able to provide new models of local journalism in places that don’t have that kind of mass. Columbus, Ohio; Des Moines; Tampa, Florida — cities that are smaller but are going through a similar moment of growth,” Sopher said. “It’s harder to see how a traditional local media play works in markets like that, because the audience sizes are just smaller from the beginning.”

WhereBy.Us isn’t looking to replace metro newspapers or be the magic solution to all that ails local media. Instead, it sees itself as a piece of a vibrant news ecosystem.

“People have asked us a lot: Do you want to be the next local newspaper? I don’t think right now that that’s our ambition,” Monson said, noting that Miami and Seattle have “amazing” local news ecosystems. “We’re trying to be a part of that and add to it. Figuring out ways to surface that stuff up and bolster the whole thing — it’s going to take all of us working together on this issue to make it work.”

Photo of the Seattle skyline by Howard Ignatius used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 24, 2016, noon
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