Amid a journalism crisis leaving much of America with little to no local news, Seattle is relatively lucky.
In addition to a daily newspaper, multiple broadcasters and assorted smaller and digital publications, Seattle has a cluster of independent reporters covering neighborhoods and city government.
The most extraordinary of these was, until a few weeks ago, Microsoft veteran turned city reporter Kevin Schofield.
A spectacular six-year run ended Dec. 31 when Schofield stopped producing daily reports, weekly reviews and deeply researched investigative stories on his Seattle City Council Insight blog, and decided to find another career.
How Schofield morphed from hobbyist to influential journalist may offer lessons for other hyperlocal news startups filling voids created as traditional media struggle and fade.
I hope his success inspires other business veterans to consider journalism. I've encountered numerous Microsoft and tech workers who went on to public service roles, especially teaching, which is wonderful. Local news could use them too.
At the same time, Schofield's story also shows the limitations of communities depending on individuals instead of professional news organizations to provide essential and perpetual coverage.
After six years working up to 80 hours a week in a stressful job, Schofield said he's burned out and ready for something completely different.
Schofield's also an anomaly in that he could report full-time without getting paid, after working decades at Microsoft. His site eventually drew donations of around $1,000 a month, enough to cover costs like 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 professional ones struggle to afford cities like Seattle.
Even so, more than 70 new local news ventures started over the last two years, mostly digital outlets in metro areas, according to the Poynter Institute.
That's great but doesn't come close to replacing local coverage by newspapers, more than 2,000 of which closed since 2004.
While digital media venture newsrooms grew from 7,400 to 18,000 jobs between 2008 and 2020, newspaper newsrooms that still provide most local coverage declined from 71,000 to 31,000 jobs, according to Pew Research. Saving what's left of local-news systems is an urgent public need for every democracy.
Schofield saw the decline at City Hall.
“That’s one of the lessons that I learned in doing this over the last six years," he said. "There is so much surface area, there are so few of us, and it shrank substantially over the six years that I’ve been doing this.”
He didn't set out to be a reporter or backfill local coverage.
After 26 years at Microsoft, culminating as an executive in a 1,000 person research group, Schofield, 55, decided in 2015 to become a better writer. (I wasn’t involved but 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 happening, and Schofield found himself staying through entire meetings.
"I really needed to find a daily writing prompt and realized there was one staring me in the face," he recalled over coffee near his Green Lake house.
Schofield started a web site and began writing about happenings in the city's legislative branch.
Having managed a big enterprise, he's skilled at analyzing budgets and contracts. His dissection last summer of a dubious $3 million research grant was masterful, involving months of gathering records and receipts to figure out, "Did they spend the money on what they said they were going to spend the money on, and the answer was no."
City Council member Alex Pedersen told me Schofield became a must-read.
"I sometimes relied on his stuff for a different option or to find out what was really going on," he said. "I would tell my team, 'I want you to read The Seattle Times and SCC Insight.'"
Schofield also has a keen spin detector, after receiving media training and working with Microsoft's public-relations machine.
The blog soared.
"It took over my life," he said. "People started noticing, including some of the P.R. folks in 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 a City Hall reporter."
Schofield never received journalism training. But he learned from other reporters and tried to avoid siding with any of Seattle's political tribes.
"I like policy a la carte," he said. "I assume 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, slap a progressive label on it and tell me it's a good idea."
Schofield also tried to give back. During the summer of 2020, he helped another independent reporter, Omari Salisbury, report on police and city activity during protests and the Capitol Hill takeover.
"I'm very, very privileged that I get 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.