How to Get National Sports Site Readers Back Home

By: Steve Outing

Newspaper sports sections increasingly are being hurt by national Internet sports services. Where in the past, fans relied on their local papers for local and national sports news, today’s wired sports junkie can also go to a bevy of national sports sites like ESPN SportsZone, CBS Sportsline, CNN/SI, USA Today Online Sports, and even the sports “sections” of portal or search services like Yahoo! — most of them offering free content.

Many people in the newspaper industry are worried about this trend, where readers are splitting their time between local coverage provided by newspapers and national coverage by the sports Web services. So executives at Georgia-based Morris Communications, which owns 31 dailies in mostly small and medium size cities in the U.S., have devised a plan to take some of their local-market readers away from the national sports news Web sites.

Morris’ chief online executive, online services director Michael Romaner, says that at best these days, for many readers who use the Internet, newspapers are the primary source of data only for local sports. So his group recently unveiled Morris’ strategy to grab back some of those people in the company’s local markets who regularly frequent the national sports Web sites.

Part 1: Satellite feed

The strategy consists of two parts. First, Morris has purchased a satellite national sports feed, and is importing the data stream into a database and outputting it to Morris’ newspaper Web sites, appropriately branded with the local newspaper name. Hence, the small news sites get a national component — robust national coverage that rivals the content of the national sports Web sites. Local coverage from the individual Morris papers also is spliced into the database and formatted in the same way, so that coverage and stats for local prep sports looks the same in presentation as the national sports coverage. The sites also include online chat rooms and discussion forums devoted to various sports and teams.

Readers of local Morris Web sites when they come to find local sports coverage will notice the enhanced national sports coverage — and not be so tempted to leave for greener national Web site pastures, or so the theory goes.

Part 2: Big12.net

The second element of the strategy is represented by the just-launched Big12.net Web site, which covers football and men’s basketball news for the college Big 12 schools. Morris happens to own newspapers and broadcast properties in many of the Big 12 cities, so the idea is to combine coverage of the schools’ major athletic events from local reporters into a topical site which is used by Morris’ newspaper Web sites.

Content for the Big12 sites comes from the local reporters on the scene, Associated Press regional wire feeds, and the satellite sports news service. Morris’ manager of online content and development, Rob Curley, says the site will have a big advantage in offering the writing of local newspaper reporters who regularly cover the Big 12 teams. While national sports sites tend to carry the same articles from the same sources about college games, Big12.net will be the only place to get this local writing outside of going to the newspapers’ Web sites or purchasing the local print editions.

Morris’ papers don’t include all the Big 12 cities, so the company is inviting other newspaper companies to participate in order to round out coverage of the entire athletic conference. So far, Morris has signed up the Cedar Rapids Gazette (Iowa) and the Columbia Daily Tribune (Missouri). Curley says the Big12.net network also needs to add a Texas paper or two to fully cover that state’s Big 12 members.

Morris does not have a paper in Boulder, Colorado, home of the University of Colorado Buffaloes, so for the time being that team is being covered by wire service copy. Rather than invite a larger paper like one of the Denver dailies or the E.W. Scripps Co.-owned Boulder Daily Camera to take part, the plan is to combine the resources of several Morris-owned smaller daily, weekly and semi-weekly papers in the Colorado Rockies and hire a writer to cover CU athletics for the papers and the Web site.

Non-Morris participants in the Big12.net site get to use the service on their own Web sites without charge; the price of admission is to contribute local reporting of the college games. (Participation does not include access to the full satellite sports feed content, which is just for the Morris papers.) Revenue can come from the local papers selling ads into the site, and they get to keep 100% of that income. Romaner says that a strategy for introducing national ads into Big12.net has yet to be formulated; the site will have national advertising, but no decision has been made about whether those revenues might be shared with the local affiliates.

Each newspaper that uses the Big12.net service will get a locally branded version of the site. Morris developed its own Web branding engine in the process of developing the site. (To see how a co-branded site looks, see the Topeka Capital-Journal’s Big12.net pages.)

Expansion plans

In the early stages of the site, in-depth coverage will be of football and men’s basketball, but the hope is to expand that to other sports. Curley says some of the participating papers are contributing coverage of many local college sports, while other smaller papers simply don’t have the resources to cover much beyond football and basketball. Big12.net may have some coverage of minor sports, but it’s likely to be spotty as a result, but expand over time.

Curley says that the Southeastern Conference (SEC) also is something the company is eyeing for a similar service, since Morris owns many newspapers in SEC cities.

Another area of expansion is a radio Web version of Big12.net. Morris owns WIBW, an AM station in Topeka, Kansas, that broadcasts Kansas games for regional distribution to other stations. WIBW has its own co-branded version of Big12.net, which is offering live Webcasts of game audio play-by-play as well as post-game RealAudio highlights. Curley says the company is looking at the possibility of doing similar projects with other non-Morris-owned radio stations in Big 12 cities.

Why not more cooperation?

Romaner is optimistic that the concept of pooling his chain’s and other newspapers’ coverage of the Big 12 conference combined with a more robust national sports offering can pull away some Web users who frequent the national sports services. He acknowledges that they will draw substantial audiences, in part because they can offer celebrity writers that small sites can’t get. But there’s room for the newspaper industry to work in the margins to pull a possibly large percentage of the national Web sites’ readers away by offering a one-stop local-regional-national sports service, he says.

Leveraging the combined resources of local papers is the way to succeed, but Romaner says he’s “so disheartened by the way newspapers have thus far worked together or not worked together” on online content ventures. More newspaper industry cooperation is critical in order not to see national players grab the lion’s share of online audiences in areas such as sports content.

Romaner says the Big12.net effort was not especially expensive to pull off. “You don’t have to be a Knight Ridder to do stuff like this.”

Contacts: Rob Curley, rcurley@morriscomm.com
Michael Romaner, mrr@morriscomm.com

Embarrassed for his paper

I received an interesting note from a reader following my recent column mentions of two Wyoming newspapers who offered scant coverage of the Matthew Shepard murder — a major back-yard story for those papers — on their Web sites. I’ve hidden the writer’s identity for obvious reasons.

“Those Wyoming papers? At least they HAVE web sites. My paper may be the only daily of (its size) without a Web site at all. I’m not sure what our management is thinking. There have been lame excuses about disputes with our guild about whether part- or full-time employees would be used to construct and monitor the site. But I know it’s discouraging and demoralizing for all the reporters and photographers here who strive for excellence to not have their work exposed AT ALL. We don’t know what to say when readers constantly ask us where our site is. I am especially affected because my (local college football) beat has huge national appeal and weaker papers are referred to by readers and writers alike.”

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Steve

Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note.

This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

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