An inside look at Yellowhammer four years after its founding
Yellowhammer was founded four years ago this week by Cliff Sims, then a University of Alabama student who had returned to school after several years of touring around the country as the lead singer of a band whose songs were featured on MTV and in major motion pictures.
Sims says he decided to launch the site as his personal blog after getting politically involved for the first time during the 2010 election cycle.
“After leaving the music industry to work on a State House campaign during the 2010 election cycle,” he explained, “I felt like there was a void in the marketplace that could be filled by a conservative voice telling people what was really going on in Montgomery. My plan was to leverage the relationships I had built during the Republican takeover of the legislature to keep people informed.”
The site’s early days focused almost exclusively on state politics, particularly the behind-the-scenes machinations of the State House. “Rumors and Rumblings,” a weekly State House gossip column, quickly made the blog one of the go-to sources of information for elected officials, staffers and lobbyists on Goat Hill.
“Rumors and Rumblings was proof that Yellowhammer had the connections and sources inside state government to deliver what was really going on,” recalls State Rep. Jack Williams (R-Vestavia), who has served in the legislature since 2004. “We all read it every week.”
Sims said he could tell early on that he had attracted a small but loyal readership in Montgomery, but did not realize it had grown much further than that until he found out one of his professors was using it to prepare for classroom discussions.
“One of my political science professors was discussing an issue being debated in the legislature and using it to help students better understand the legislative process,” Sims recalls. “At one point he stopped and encouraged the class to read Yellowhammer to get more details.
“I’m not sure he ever found out he was citing one of his students,” he laughed.
In February of 2012, Yellowhammer published its first Power and Influence 40, which it described as “a list of the 40 most powerful and influential players in state politics.” The list gave readers a “peek behind the curtain,” an opportunity to see who, in addition to the elected officials, was really running the state.
The site’s popularity boomed with the release of the list, and further growth came when Sims’ coverage expanded to include Alabama’s congressional delegation.
Transition and Growth
Yellowhammer had grown to the point that Sims began viewing it as a viable longterm business with significant expansion potential. In 2013, the site was renamed “Yellowhammer News” and Sims began hiring staff to bolster both the content and business sides of the company. In January of 2014, the site garnered 1 million monthly unique visitors for the first time.
Yellowhammer News’ coverage continued to broaden to include, in Sims’ words, “all things Alabama,” from faith and culture stories, to business, and even some sports. But politics remains the site’s bread and butter.
“Many of our most viral posts have come from our faith and culture section,” said Sims. “These stories often have an uplifting message or present what we call the ‘real’ Alabama — the Alabama the mainstream media often ignore. But our political coverage is what made us the state’s most trusted news source, and that will always be a big part of what sets us apart.”
Today, Yellowhammer employs nine full-time and contract staffers, along with a contributor network that includes economists, professors, policy experts and analysts.
In March of 2015, Yellowhammer expanded its footprint into terrestrial radio by launching a syndicated radio show that airs across central and north Alabama. Sims co-hosts the show with longtime conservative senator Scott Beason, who left office in 2014 and is now senior policy advisor for the Alabama Free Market Alliance, in addition to his work for Yellowhammer.
“Radio is a powerful medium because of the relationship that develops between the hosts and the listeners,” said Beason. “People are overwhelmed with so much information these days; they’re looking for people they trust to help them make sense of it all. Yellowhammer News does that online, and now we’re able to do that on Yellowhammer Radio.”
In June of 2015, Yellowhammer News eclipsed three million unique visitors in a single month for the first time.
In September, the company expanded its radio presence by launching the Yellowhammer News Radio Network, which provides top and bottom of the hour news updates on stations all over the state.
Yellowhammer hired Alabama Broadcaster of the Year Andrea Tice and longtime Alabama news stalwart Jay Holland to lead the effort.
“Radio news is my first love,” said Holland. “The Yellowhammer News Radio Network is, like its web-based counterpart, fresh, bold, unafraid and proud of Alabama. I am very excited about the network’s future and contributing to what I believe is a very credible, reliable news source for Alabamians, about Alabamians, by Alabamians.”
Leland Whaley, station manager for WYDE, which carries both radio products, said the station’s partnership with Yellowhammer is a perfect example of how terrestrial radio stations can provide additional value for their listeners.
“Live and local is the future of talk radio and Yellowhammer gives us both national and state news from reporters based in Alabama,” he said. “The breaking news gathering capability of Yellowhammer combined with our 100,000 watt FM signal is very powerful for our listeners. This is new, digital media meets the traditional power of radio.”
Advertisers have responded as well. Yellowhammer Radio with Cliff Sims and Scott Beason and the Yellowhammer News Radio Network have already attracted advertisers from a wide variety of industries, from financial institutions and universities to hunting lodges and gun stores.
The show offers 30-second and 60-second ads, as well as host endorsement opportunities. The statewide news network includes 2 minutes of news at the top and bottom of each hour, followed by one minute of advertising.
“These two radio products have given us the ability to serve local advertisers, national brands and everything in between,” said Ryan Boggus, Yellowhammer’s chief operating officer. “With the Yellowhammer News Radio Network, companies looking to reach a statewide audience can do that — from Mobile to Huntsville — at a fraction of the cost, on a hard news product that consumers trust.
“With Yellowhammer Radio with Cliff Sims and Scott Beason,” Boggus continued, “local companies in central and north Alabama can also reach a passionate audience who wants to support the companies that make their favorite radio show possible. It’s proven to be a great platform.”
In addition to the online news site and the radio platforms, Yellowhammer has also begun hosting events.
2015’s inaugural “Power of Service” reception honored state leaders who have leveraged their influence to have a positive impact on Alabama. Several hundred elected officials, business leaders, media personalities and activists came together for the event at the Renaissance Ross Bridge Resort in suburban Birmingham.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh was honored for his contribution to the school choice movement and Protective Life CEO Johnny Johns was honored for leading his company’s significant charitable efforts.
In February of next year, Yellowhammer will return to Ross Bridge to host the Alabama Economic Growth Summit. The two-day event will celebrate Alabama’s recent economic development successes and spur the state toward being the country’s most attractive state for business.
“We want to use the Yellowhammer platforms to push the state forward,” said Boggus. “We see these events as an opportunity to bring together our audience, which includes many of the state’s most influential leaders, to help make the state we love become an even better place to live and raise our families.”
With millions of readers and listeners, Yellowhammer has managed to develop a growing business in an industry in which more established companies have faltered in recent years.
“It comes down to trust,” said Boggus. “We have been fortunate to grow a large and loyal audience because maintaining their trust is our top priority. Other sites have chased clicks; we have taken a more longterm approach.”
Boggus believes that strategy will pay off when Yellowhammer rolls out the products it is currently developing.
“Our growth has caught a lot of people by surprise. Even Cliff will say he never expected Yellowhammer to become what it is today when he was typing out articles between classes,” he joked. “The Internet has revolutionized the way people consume information, but the need for reliable news will always exist. We plan to be on the cutting edge of how news is consumed in Alabama for years to come.”
(Video below: “This is Yellowhammer”)
For more information contact Ryan Boggus at rboggus(at)yellowhammernews(dot)com.