Reaches Milestone: 3,800 Paid Subs

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By: Jay DeFoore, the pay site of the Knoxville News Sentinel, reached a milestone on Monday by passing 3,800 paid subscribers. The site, dedicated to hometown University of Tennessee football and basketball programs, launched just a year ago this August.

Converting even a rabid sports fan base into paying customers for online content is never an easy task, but as the Knoxville team illustrates, it can be done with smart Web practices, hard work, and determination.

To date, revenue for the site has been more than predicted: $152,000. E.W. Scripps, which owns the News Sentinel and GoVolsXtra, does not release P/L numbers for the property level, but executives say the site is profitable.

According to Phil Kaplan, Deputy Sports Editor of The Knoxville News Sentinel, GoVolsXtra includes “stories published in the paper, written content specifically for the site, three bloggers, audio and video clips from players, weekly podcast, forums and video from our new television partner.”

GoVolsXtra is not without its competitors: national sites and offer information for obsessive sports fans of nearly every major college program. But with GoVolsXtra’s local focus and expertise, the site may be better suited for long-term success.

Jack Lail, Knoxville News Sentinel’s Managing Editor/Multimedia, responded to the following questions about the subscription site, and offered some advice for The New York Times, which is about to embark on its own subscription journey:

How do you convince people who are used to getting online content for free to start a subscription?

Certain products on the Internet have proven that people will pay for online content. One of them is pornography, which we’re not going to get into. I don’t know if sports is as good as sex, but it’s something people feel fanatical about.

We just said ‘try us for a month and if you don’t like it we’ll give you your money back.’ We got a lot of abuse on other sites’ forums about what we’re doing but people who try it seem to like it.

We post headlines on our public site so readers can see what we’re writing about and how much we have. It doesn’t take readers long to see we have more resources than anybody else covering University of Tennessee sports. We’re sending five or six writers to cover football games and two photographers. They’re aware we have a scale of information nobody else can really do.

Is making a profit, with revenues more than $150K?

Yes, it is profitable and has enhanced both the online and print products. We hired one additional co-worker, a sports writer, whose job is to primarily file for the Web site, but whose work is also part of our print sports coverage.

How have you marketed the site?

We have run in-paper ads, radio spots, e-mail marketing, passed out info at football games and done in-print editorial refers and use the GoVolsXtra logo with some stories.

This season we are very excited to have a new partnership with a local TV station involving our University of Tennessee sports coverage. The station, WVLT, the local CBS affiliate, does promos for GoVolsXtra and is making available some video on their site on a co-branded page as well as contributing a weekly column from the sports director.

Also new this fall: We have an agreement with our sister paper in Memphis, The Commercial Appeal, that allows their print subscribers to buy GoVolsXtra at the same discounted price we offer to our own subscribers. The Commercial Appeal is running some promotional ads for us and there is increased coordination between the two editorial sports staffs.

What do you do when the teams (heaven forbid) go south?

I’m sure a bad season would have a negative impact. A bad football season negatively affects the entire Knoxville economy. But I believe there are a handful of college teams that have extremely strong historical fan bases that make a subscription site possible. Tennessee is one of those. Tennessee for several years has ranked as one of the top schools for the Collegiate Licensing Company, the oldest and largest collegiate licensing agency. Tennessee ranked 7th last year in sales of licensed merchandise, according to CLC.

How do the reporters (now bloggers) and editors and Web team work together to write, edit, record, produce, and post all the extra content? Did you hire someone separate to help with that or handle with existing resources?

The production process is not that much different from the way we do everything else with the exception that the GoVolsXtra sports writer often files directly to the Web site himself.

It does require communication. Our online producers are in the newsroom and are next to the sports department. That helps.

We added one person, mentioned above. We also use a couple freelancers and
have a couple non-staff bloggers.

What advice would you give The New York Times, which is launching its first foray into the online subscription market, TimesSelect, Sept. 19?

I would just say it demands a higher level of customer service than you might imagine. Dealing with complaints, dealing with payment issues, and access issues — this can be very time-consuming.

The hidden expense with subscription sites is there’s just a higher demand for customer service. It essentially overwhelmed our online people, namely me, so our circulation director had our call center people help us handle some of our subscribers’ questions.

OK, let me just set you straight on one thing: as a graduate of the University of Texas, there is only one UT that deserves to wear orange, and we’re sitting at No. 2 in the polls right now 😉

I wish those two schools played each other. It would be great.

If you’ve got a success story you want to tell, e-mail E&P Online Editor Jay DeFoore.

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