Southerners’ feelings for sweet tea and biscuits is legendary. As one local media company discovered, it’s also apparently quite lucrative.

A year ago, Alabama Media Group was looking for ways to build new businesses off its three local papers. It started putting out humor videos about Southern culture. Some of the videos, like one that explored the nuances of the favorite Southern phrase “bless your heart,” racked up millions of views overnight. A new brand was born. It’s a Southern Thing boasts views and engagement that rivals that of national media brands. For now, most of its footprint is on Facebook, where it has a page with more than 1 million followers and a Facebook Watch show that’s averaged 19 million views per episode. The goal is to grow direct connections with viewers, (bless their heart, as some might say), so there’s also a website and online store.

“We wanted a series of brands that had a tighter voice, and started picking up on the fact that there was a real interest in light Southern humor,” said Tom Bates, president of Alabama Media Group.

Bates arrived at the company three years ago with the mandate to come up with new revenue beyond advertising and subscriptions as print advertising continues to decline. Three years before that, Alabama Media Group’s three Alabama papers had stopped publishing daily as part of drastic cutbacks by parent Advance Publications, which also owns Condé Nast. He saw an opportunity to use social media to build new brands on social media based off the newspapers. That led to social video-led SEC Shorts, a humorous take on college football; Reckon, an in-depth news brand; and lighthearted videos on Southern culture. They’re all housed under Red Clay Media, a year-old, 12-person startup division of Alabama Media Group.

“We don’t control the platforms today,” Bates said. “The flip side is the opportunity to reach more people than ever before.”

Bates said the division is profitable, largely driven by It’s a Southern Thing, with half the brand’s revenue coming from branded content and sponsorships (by companies like Wickles Pickles, Priester’s Pecans, Mosquito Joe), the other half from merchandise and licensing. It’s a bright spot in a challenged local media landscape.

Bates is pinning his hopes on It’s a Southern Thing because it’s resonated beyond the South; New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are among its top 10 markets. The videographers often get their material from the comments section, then give it a polished, “Saturday Night Live”-style approach, said Justin Yurkanin, director of video for Red Clay Media. The result is video series like sketch comedy “So True, Y’all” and “Backporch Bickering” where people debate the virtues of things like biscuits versus cornbread. The humor is light, self-deprecating and free of politics, which probably doesn’t hurt.

“It’s all about being incredibly relatable,” Yurkanin said. “We’re writing about things like college football and sweet tea and weddings in the South and writing the same way ‘SNL’ would about Donald Trump.”

Other social media brands that have been spawned by local media companies haven’t done as well. Rare, a Facebook-driven conservative news site started in 2013 by Cox Media, shut down earlier this year, a victim of the platform’s algorithm changes.

Bates and his staff at Red Clay Media hope to avoid a similar fate with It’s a Southern Thing. They’re working to drive Facebook visitors to a website and other platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Twitter and investigating longer series including documentaries. It’s a Southern Thing sells $20 T-shirts with sayings like “Fixin’ to” and “Bless your heart” and is also looking to grow its merchandising business by producing new items that are responsive to reader comments, similar to Barstool Sports’ model.

“This grew well beyond what we thought; we’ve got revenue trickling in from places we’ve never had with any of our other brands,” Bates said. “How big can this be? That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

Image: Robert S. Donovan

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