Amid a journalism crisis leaving much of America with little or no local news, Seattle is relatively lucky.
In addition to a daily newspaper, several broadcasters, and various smaller and digital publications, Seattle has a group of freelance journalists covering neighborhoods and city government.
The most extraordinary of them was, until a few weeks ago, Kevin Schofield, Microsoft veteran turned city reporter.
A spectacular six-year run ended on December 31 when Schofield ceased producing daily reports, weekly reviews and in-depth investigative articles about his Seattle City Council Blog Insight, and decided to find another career.
How Schofield went from hobbyist to influential journalist may offer lessons for other hyperlocal news startups filling the voids created as mainstream media struggles and fades.
I hope his success inspires other business veterans to consider journalism. I have met many Microsoft and technology employees who have held public service positions, especially in education, which is wonderful. Local news could also use them.
At the same time, Schofield’s story also shows the limitations of communities that depend on individuals rather than professional news outlets to provide essential, perpetual coverage.
After six years of working up to 80 hours a week in a stressful job, Schofield said he was exhausted and ready for something completely different.
Schofield is also an anomaly in that he could report full-time without being paid, after working decades at Microsoft. His site eventually attracted donations of around $1,000 a month, enough to cover costs such as web hosting and public records requests.
Schofield thinks he could have made a decent living with subscriptions or a paywall, but I’m skeptical, especially about a nonpartisan. Few journalists have his business acumen, and most professionals find it hard to afford cities like Seattle.
Still, more than 70 new local news businesses have sprung up in the past two years, mostly digital media in metropolitan areas, according to the Poynter Institute.
That’s great, but it’s a far cry from replacing local newspaper coverage, more than 2,000 of which have closed since 2004.
While the newsrooms of digital media companies fell from 7,400 to 18,000 jobs between 2008 and 2020, the newsrooms of the newspapers that still provide the most local coverage fell from 71,000 to 31,000 jobs, according to PewResearch. Saving what is left of local information systems is an urgent public need for every democracy.
Schofield saw decline at City Hall.
“That’s one of the lessons I’ve learned doing this for the past six years,” he said. “There’s so much surface, there are so few of us, and it’s gone down dramatically in the six years I’ve been doing this.”
He had no intention of being a reporter or filling local coverage.
After 26 years at Microsoft, culminating as an executive at 1,000 people research group, Schofield, 55, decided in 2015 to become a better writer. (I wasn’t involved, but I knew him from covering Microsoft years ago.)
The Woodland Park Zoo board member was attending city council meetings during a dispute over the elephant program. There was a lot going on and Schofield found himself staying for entire meetings.
“I really needed to find a daily writing prompt and realized there was one staring me in the face,” he recalls over coffee near his Green Lake home.
Schofield launched a website and began writing about events in the city’s legislative branch.
Having managed a large company, he knows how to analyze budgets and contracts. His dissection last summer of a dodgy $3 million research grant was masterful, involving months of collecting records and receipts to figure out, “Did you spend the money on what they said they were going to spend money on?” money, and the answer was no.”
City Council member Alex Pedersen told me that Schofield has become essential reading.
“I sometimes leaned on his stuff for a different option or to find out what was really going on,” he said. “I would say to my team, ‘I want you to read The Seattle Times and SCC Insight.'”
Schofield also has a sharp spin finder, having received media training and worked with Microsoft’s PR machine.
The blog has taken off.
“It took over my life,” he said. “People started noticing this, including some of the public relations people at City Hall who started giving me more information and inviting me to press conferences. A year and a half later , I was for all intents and purposes reporter at the town hall.
Schofield never received any training in journalism. But he learned from other reporters and tried to avoid siding with any of Seattle’s political tribes.
“I like à la carte politics,” he said. “I guess anyone can have a good idea and anyone can have a bad idea. I’m going to interrogate those ideas. You can’t just take an idea, put a progressive label on it, and tell me it’s is a good idea.
Schofield also tried to give back. In the summer of 2020, he helped another freelance journalist, Omari Salisbury, report on police and city activity during the protests and the Capitol Hill takeover.
“I’m very, very privileged to be able to do this,” Schofield said. “For me, one of the values I could add was democratizing access to news and information – I want more people to understand what’s going on at City Hall.”
Amen to that.