A journalist for a local newspaper told me recently that everyone in the newsroom should thank the sports department “for keeping us in business.” At many of them, sports drives web traffic and as news organizations have had to cut deeply to endure the transition from the dollars that classified and print advertising brought in to the pennies that online advertising generates, they need all the pennies they can get.
The business of funding local news organizations impacts consumers more than they realize. Because so much is given to readers at no cost, which they have now largely come to expect, revenue has to come from pop-up ads, auto-play videos and other ad devices that consumers say they don’t like. Because of the imperative to drive web traffic and boost page-view numbers, the slightest sports item that resembles news turns into a clickable story or, worse yet, a carpal tunnel-inducing photo gallery.
A new start-up option for fans, with a new business model, is making its way across North America. The Athletic, a Silicon Valley-born, venture capital funded online platform, is now in expansion mode, adding Detroit and the Bay Area in recent weeks. Craig Custance, the Detroit Editor-In-Chief and a Metro Detroit native, told me last week that he chose The Athletic job after working as ESPN’s national hockey writer for the past six years. The Athletic has “a new business model that I had become convinced was going to work and…a solution to what’s been an issue in journalism and that’s making money digitally.”
The Athletic is subscription-only. Right now, you can subscribe under a special for a year for $40. In return, you get access to their app and to read their stories online, without any advertising on the page. “The product looks different…Really clean. That’s the background of the guys who started the company. They’re tech guys,” Custance said. “The reader now basically has some control over the content because they’re the ones paying the freight…if it’s not different enough, if they’re not learning something, if it’s not unique to what’s being done in the market for free, then people won’t subscribe. There’s a higher standard to what we have to do.”
Custance is now recruiting beat writers to cover Detroit’s teams, including Katie Strang, another ESPN veteran. He says interest among sports journalists is very strong as local reporting jobs are tougher than ever. They now have to tweet, shoot and post photos and video, cover practices, games and press conferences and, by the way, write stories, filing around the clock. There just isn’t as much time for long-form analysis, in-depth reporting or the telling of stories-behind-the-stories anymore, on top of the uncertainty of local “papers” in the online world. It’s the same “more with less” reality we see across media. Custance is telling applicants, “They have to have some sort of unique voice or skill set that makes them stand out, that makes people want to read their work.” The Athletic plans a bricks-and-mortar office in Downtown Detroit.
In recent weeks, Fox Sports, a behemoth in the sports media world, rid its website of sports writing focused only on video, repurposed from TV. But Custance says The Athletic is not deterred because it’s not for everyone. “The beauty of this is we’re not trying to get every single sports fan…Not everybody is going to subscribe to this model…We’re finding there’s a large group of people who say ‘we still want to read quality, well-written work and we’re willing to pay for it because if we don’t, it might not exist at some point.'”
As a sports fan who wants to know more than what I get from just watching the games, I signed up for a subscription. I’m interested to see if enough fellow enthusiasts will make the same decision to keep The Athletic growing.