Paying for news, or sports or financial information is not new. Cable TV, newspapers, magazines, it is the model that has always existed in a more traditional sense. However with the birth of online media and content came the notion that of it was free it had to be me. Drop in billboards and banners, roll in commercials, hope for clicks, pull in more eyeballs with listicles and click bait, and that’s the way “new media” would work. Sometimes it did, most times it didn’t. However with all this free information and content out there, the fear remained that people would not pay for quality.
Slowly that has evolved, sometimes with a little bait and switch; a few free pieces of content but if you wanted the good stuff, ante up, and hold your breath. Sometimes everything goes behind the paywall. Less eyeballs perhaps, but concentrated revenue stream with a loyal following and committed following was in the offing. Some early models, notably one or two on the sports side by ESPN, did not work all that well. Free, it seemed in sports, was still me. However in the grander picture select elite news organizations; Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Financial Times, Boston Globe, all were willing to put the wall up around content; quality, respected must read and view content with lots of added value. The subscriber model was growing.
Still for sports news it was a tough sell. Smaller sites in places like Chicago struggled without a solid business model, and even some targeted sports specific sites, as well as some looking at topics like fantasy behind a paywall, couldn’t find critical mass and either opened the doors or went the way of the buffalo.
That is until recently, where it seems like a niche is growing very selectively. Find quality content with respected sources, build an audience and use the paywall as your model. Now commercials, now ads (for now, maybe paid content or extra value content down the line), but start with an affordable price and give fans content they want and maybe, just maybe, the market can grow. Maybe not in the millions that a “free” site would have, but in a way, and speaking to a core audience that would enjoy and share the content and drive more loyal fans to a place where quality trumps quantity.
That was the model that Dejan Kovacevic tested in the quality sports news starved city of Pittsburgh three years ago. His site, DKPittsbughsports, would forgo the models that were being tried, and failing; banner ads, commercial roles, endless lists and lots of click bait. Instead, it would be about content fans in a blue collar town would crave about their teams, brought forward by a veteran journalist they knew and a growing group of solid reporters that would supplant, and in many ways surpass, the coverage that was being offered up by other new sites. The fees weren’t large and they were along the lines of what fans would roll out for a copy of any number of local papers like The Post Gazette, but the experience would be more robust. The difference of course is that it was all online, in a market where fans were used to consuming the traditional way, sitting at a table flipping pages in a newspaper. Slowly and steadily the signups grew, and other began to take notice, and in a time when traditional coverage is faltering, and even other robust “free” long form platforms…the latest being Vice Sports…have faltered, DKPittsbughsports has grown in stature, in size and yes in staff.
For sports, Kovacevic was the first to crack the code, but certainly hasn’t been the last. Last year in Chicago The Athletic followed the model, with San Francisco based founders Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann luring media types like Jon Greenberg into the fold (the q and a with him here) and the podcast here, and with some solid financial backing, other cities followed like Toronto, Detroit and Cleveland (with San Francisco coming and according to a Bloomberg story, Philadelphia and others as well). They were built on the same model, strong local coverage with key names and underserved areas (especially hockey) and with a reasonable price, a consumer base would follow. It is not just print, there is audio but little if any video yet or planned, but the market has steadily grown.
The effort has been buoyed by the larger scale layoffs both at local media outlets and national ones, which has freed talent that had been tied to a more traditional role. The pay model got another boost in Friday when ex Sports Illustrated writer Greg Bedard announced he was going forward with a model in Boston, Boston Sports Journal, which would be launching soon as well. That was followed by a Monday announcement of a cash infusion into The Athletic and news from their Chief Content Officer (another familiar SI name, Paul Fichtenbaum) of Canadian expansion as well as verticals targeted to college basketball (run by Seth Davis) and college football (run by Stewart Mandel) that were somewhat departures from the city models, but were again looking to serve what is perceived as a gap in coverage.
Now none of this is being done in a vacuum. Nor will this work in any market where some media members are unemployed. The business proforma has to be studied and then implemented. There is also, outside of Pittsburgh, no clear proof of long term financial success or ROI by investors. It looks good, the overhead is not huge, and the consumer has been responding in all the markets (although it is a bit of a head scratcher that video is not in play yet in some form, maybe down the line). Kovacevic proved concept in one city (and may go to others) and The Athletic and others are expanding. Will there be failures? It’s a startup idea in a volatile space, so the guess is yes. There are now economies of scale and more funding in place for The Athletic, so the growth potential is there.
Will this be some sort of death knell of bigger sites or local media outlets still in place with big followings? No. For the time being, many news outlets are still driving revenue in print and traditional advertising. It’s less but it is still there. It will be an interesting wakeup call though to see what and how much people will pay for. (Personally I have been pining for a better way for me to pay one fee and select outlets I want in one bundle, but that has yet to work).
We also need to factor offerings yet to come in a complete form like Oath and Stadium and the new platform in the works being led by BAMTECH this fall. Also let’s not forget that Bleacher Report just hired their first CMO, as did Player’s Tribune, so their models and revenue sources will also be in flux.
So will pay be the way and how will that work on a grand scale? Will an older audience not accustomed to pay models or even mobile first content, and adapt? Will a younger audience used to everything without cost in and around sports now ante up to learn more about their favorite teams? Is there a hybrid that can be better?
It’s certainly old school to pay for something like sports coverage, but then again so is extensive quality sports media coverage in local markets and for niche areas, so perhaps we are seeing a thrust of a new normal. If it works, and the market will bear it, many media types, who need to evolve (and that means a better understanding of the power of social platforms and how they help drive traffic and interest) may be getting a shot in the arm, one which started in many ways in The Steel City and has expanded like a rainbow to other markets big and small.
A renaissance for the fan, and a refreshing breath of fresh air and possibility for a fluid media industry. It’s still changing, but maybe it’s getting a bit brighter, market by market.