Bridgette Hempstead dreamed of stories about the South End that showed the area’s nuance and beauty. The 40-year resident had raised three daughters there who loved and contributed to their community, so Hempstead knew an often-negative media portrayal of the area wasn’t the entire story.
When Marcus Harrison Green — the son of Hempstead’s close friend Cynthia Green — returned from college and later a finance career in California, he suggested that they create an online publication to fill the gap in coverage. In the spring of 2014, thanks to tenacity and sleepless nights, South Seattle Emerald was born.
During its first few years, the free community site was a labor of love. Green took no salary and paid writers and photographers out of his own pocket. They relied on the writing expertise of Green, who last year became a monthly Seattle Times columnist, to pave the way forward.
“We just dove in headfirst. We didn’t do a feasibility study, we just did it,” Hempstead, a founding board member and vice president, said with a hearty laugh.
Seven years later, during the pandemic, the Emerald tallied its most profitable year. Most nonprofit publications flounder after about five years, said Sharon Maeda, a longtime media professional and the organization’s planning director. As the site celebrated its anniversary on April 29, the founders, staff, and contributors reflected on the Black-led publication’s identity as a beacon of truth-telling for the community; a place where readers see themselves in stories and where the voices of young writers shine.
“You pick up the Emerald, you’re going to get truth, and heart-wrenching stories that will make and bring you cheer on a rainy day in Seattle,” Hempstead said.
In 2020, online views increased by 500% to 200,000 views per month, Maeda said. Meanwhile, the Emerald’s social media following more than doubled to 29,000 across all platforms, and the Emerald’s Weekly Roundup email subscribers increased by 63% during that time. The site partnered with the local International Examiner and Real Change to share stories about people of color across their platforms.
While the past year has been a successful one, it was an arduous journey to get there.
“There has been so much sweat equity put into this project,” said Devin Chicras, president of the nonprofit’s board of directors. She joined the Emerald after meeting Green at a charity event a few months after its founding. The Skyway resident was busy working full time as a brand builder, running the Skyway Outdoor Cinema and volunteering with the nonprofit West Hill Community Association, but she was struck by Green’s passion for the South End and his desire to accurately represent it.
“Not only was there not something like this,” Chicras said, “but there were a lot of damaging stories and damaging content out there that was doing more harm than good.”
Chicras has worn several hats at the Emerald, from creating branding and logos, to bookkeeping and human resources. The greatest challenge over the past seven years has been working at maximum capacity with limited resources. While their revenue exploded in 2020 due to individual donations and grant funding, the team has stayed the same size. The board members have big dreams for the site, Chicras said, but have been busy keeping up with the demand. Grant funding has mostly been for specific projects or topics, and does not cover operational costs to pay for editors or copy editors.
Sharon Ho Chang serves as managing editor for the Emerald, which purchases content from about 40 freelance photographers, writers and artists each month. The rest of the work is mostly done by volunteers and board members. But it still has a long road ahead to stability: They do not have even one full-time staff member with benefits.
While Maeda was retired from media after a 40-year career, she agreed to join the paper for a three-month period to manage the day-to-day content while Green reorganized. Over a year later, she’s still there, writing grants and helping build the organization’s infrastructure. Although her friends have accused her of being unable to retire, that is not the case for Maeda, who has lived in the South End for the better part of 46 years.
“I felt like the Emerald was really on the cutting edge of what the South End communities needed to know and to share in their own voices, and I decided I was going to stick around one way or another to help it grow and survive,” Maeda said.
Stories on the site have a widespread impact: If a writer mentions that a food bank is running low on food, it immediately receives many donations. If it highlights a community organization’s need for volunteers, applications will soon flood in.
Contributors to The Emerald, many of whom have lived in the South End for most of their lives, say that the freedom to authentically share their opinions and incorporate underreported voices from the area is what sets it apart.
Mike Davis, a columnist, said readers email him to express their gratitude for his approach to gun violence. Instead of characterizing people as one-dimensional monsters, they remark, Davis writes about how communities can begin to heal.
“When I cover a shooting in the CD (Central District), I’m not talking about ‘them’ … I’m talking about how this affects ‘us’,” Davis said. “And that distinction between ‘us’ and ‘the other’ is major.”
While Davis has written for the Seattle Weekly, City Arts, and The Stranger, “it’s never felt more like home than it has at the Emerald,” he said.
Green, 39, understands his viewpoint. He connects young writers to the managing editor for their first stories. Strong partnerships with Converge Media and Rainier Avenue Radio — Black-owned media outlets — enable them to share stories of the South End from the lens of people of color. Davis represents South Seattle Emerald on Converge Media’s show “Clap Back Culture” every Thursday at 7 p.m.
Alvin Horn, an author and Emerald contributor, writes about the emotional impact of gentrification and violence in the area. For example, he writes about the history of violence in Skyway beginning with Native Americans being brutally removed from the area and traces it to current gun violence. The Emerald has given him the space to share perspectives that he believes would not be published by other outlets. By including history — with nuance and perspective — the online publication shows that the South End is not a monolith, Horn said.
On the significance of the seventh anniversary, Horn said it shows the community’s “need to connect with their neighborhood,” and to be exposed to the artwork and perspectives of their neighbors.
In the future, Chicras, the board president, hopes the Emerald will continue to thrive, and for there to be enough resources that the staff and contributors can pursue ideas and stories about which they are passionate. She dreams of financial stability that allows contributors to receive better compensation, and for the site to finally be able to hire full-time staff. To that end, the Emerald created a $50,000 fundraiser in honor of the seventh anniversary that will run through Wednesday. It had already exceeded its goal as of Tuesday afternoon.
The staff is passionate about The Emerald’s mission to humanize the South End, she said. It “respects the humanity of the subjects that we cover,” Chicras added. Most important, “it provides a platform for folks who traditionally have not had a platform to be heard and be seen.”