Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Blogs In The Windy City I: To Stay Local, Or Not To Stay Local?

The Blogs With Balls III conference took place last weekend at Wrigley Field. I was there, and I quite enjoyed it; there was a lot of good discussion around several key topics in sports media. Over the next few days, I'm going to be presenting recaps and analysis of all the different panels. Here's the first one:

Panel: Going Local: Charting The Evolution of Local Sports Media In The Digital Age

Panelists: Jim Bankoff of SB Nation, Enrico Campitelli of The 700 Level, TK Gore of Comcast Sportsnet Chicago, Jon Greenberg of ESPN Chicago and Dave Nemetz of Bleacher Report.

Moderator: ESPN's Amy K. Nelson.


Theme Song (unofficial): Tom Petty - Learning To Fly

I chose this because it reflected both the small-scale beginnings of many of the panelists and their current lofty status (Bankoff and Nemetz both run massive sports networks, while Campitelli's site was recently acquired by Comcast and Gore and Greenberg are both prominent in the Chicago media), but it also addresses the main theme of the panel; contrary to many businesses, much of the current growth in sports media is at the local level with specific team-based or city-based sites rather than big national ones. Thus, it's important to be able to come down and stay connected to your roots even after building a following that may transcend your particular area.

I thought Bankoff made a particularly good point about the importance of locally-focused content. He mentioned that we tend to think of people as fans of particular leagues or sports, but in many cases, they identify themselves more as fans of a specific local team.

“If you said ‘Who’s a sports fan?’ people would look at you pretty weird,” he said. “If you said “Who’s a Cubs’ fan?” people would raise their hands.”

Bankoff said he thinks that local identification has been a mainstay over the years rather than a recent development. I’d agree; to me, city newspapers, radio and television stations have been able to take advantage of that, but it’s taken longer for sports blogs to catch up. There have been good local sites since the inception of the blogosphere, but those sites haven’t always had the resources of the big national blogs.

“The passion has always been at the local level, but maybe the technology wasn’t able to catch up,” Bankoff said. “Now you have the technology to really allow people to go in and serve their audience.”

He sees SB Nation as doing that by building fan communities, not just blogs, and he wants their individual sites to be hubs for discussion about individual teams. Thus, their hiring process takes community-building skills into account as well as pure writing ability.

“Our job is to get the best blogger to lead a community of people who care about that sports topic,” he said. “It’s important for us to use the blogger as the catalyst for the community.”

Bankoff said they have a twofold approach; they want to display fan perspectives, but they also want their bloggers to turn in professional-quality work.
“SB Nation focuses on the voice of the fan and we focus on quality,” he said.

Don’t conflate professional with traditional, though. Bankoff was involved in the launch of AOL FanHouse way back when, and his vision for the site was much more blogger-focused than the recent trend they’ve displayed towards hiring and heavily promoting well-known print journalists. Bankoff said blogging is its own field with different demands, including connecting with the reader in a way uncommon to many mainstream media outlets.

“Those journalists may not be as adept in engaging people on the web as the bloggers are,” he said. “It’s a different skillset than a beat reporter, it’s a different skillset than a TV reporter.”

Bankoff said one of their key approaches to bring new bloggers on board is through their existing bloggers and their connections.

“We have talented people who recognize other talent,” he said.

He said SB Nation doesn’t try to fit all of their writers into a specific mould.

“We offer complete editorial independence,” he said. “We wouldn’t bring those people on board if we didn’t trust them.”

In fact, he’s quite happy to have a range of perspectives displayed in his network, with everything from heavy statistical analysis to more traditional game reports.

“Each one of them finds their audience,” he said. “No one’s better than the others. I just love the diversity of it.”

He said bloggers in his network are always in discussion about how to improve their product.

“We have a lot of internal communication," he said. "We don’t necessarily train our writers: our writers train us.”

One recent venture of theirs is today's launch of city-specific sites, similar to what ESPN has been doing in key markets.

“I think it’s a really interesting exercise to see if a city has the same appeal as a team," Bankoff said. “We’re going to do that too, but from a different perspective, a fan’s perspective."

He said ESPN's move has opened the door for other media outlets to develop a larger local focus.

"Now that you’ve done it, it opens the door for other players like SB Nation to go in with a different editorial perspective," he said.

Bankoff said SB Nation’s focus on displaying well-written fan perspectives on local teams rather than using the traditional media approach, plus the sheer size of their network, has given them unique advertising opportunities.

“We come in from the grassroots perspective and offer the voice of the fan,” he said. “I think bigger companies are finding that perspective increasingly more valuable.”

He said they're focused on growing the network from a business perspective as well as a content one.

“Our goal is to be a place where bloggers can prosper," he said. “We take it seriously. We take sales seriously. We’re trying to make this into something where we can all earn a living at it.”

Gore said the approach of building locally-focused blog networks, like SB Nation, ESPN’s TrueHoop and Sweet Spot networks, Fanball, The Score's Sports Federation, Fansided, Yardbarker, Bloguin, Bleacher Report and others have done, is a promising one. One of his previous jobs was working on an Olympic Sports Network (which sounds quite similar to the one the Canadian Olympic Committee’s still trying to get off the ground).

Gore said his experience there taught him that many individual Olympic sports might not have huge year-round followings, but showing enough different sports can draw in enough fans of each to make that kind of a venture profitable. He said local blog networks can use the same approach; individual local sites may not get the pageview numbers of national sports blogs like the Yahoo! ones or Deadspin, but they can make a compelling package together.

“These niche audiences you’re seeing, like SB Nation, really aggregate,” Gore said. “You sort of aggregate these things as a whole and there’s definitely a business model there.”

Gore said the fan perspective is also appealing for advertisers, especially because it’s growing in popularity.

“The strongest voice out there is the fan’s voice,” he said.

Bleacher Report features their own massive network of bloggers. They often receive a lot of criticism in the blogosphere (some of it from me) thanks to some of their bloggers’ errors, poor writing and rumour-mongering, but they do produce some good content.

Nemetz said he doesn’t see Bleacher Report as a direct competitor to the likes of SB Nation, but rather as a training ground for writers.

“We’re our own part of the ecosystem,” he said. “We kind of help people develop. A lot of our writers go on to writing at newspapers. … It’s almost like a player development system for writers.”

From that perspective, Bleacher Report can be seen in a much more positive light. As I’ve written before, I’m all for the democratization of the blogosphere and the encouraging of up-and-coming writers, and Bleacher Report can certainly provide a platform, exposure and some experience for new bloggers. I’m not sure if it’s the path I’d choose if I was starting out, but if they’re helping people find professional writing jobs, that’s great. As Nemetz said, the vastness of the Internet means there’s plenty of room for different approaches.

“It’s a big space,” he said. “There are a lot of people doing interesting things in the space.”

Campitelli is one of those people doing interesting things. His site, The 700 Level, is a rare tale of a locally-focused site that became a major success without a network affiliation. It was recently acquired by Comcast. He said the blogging world’s undergone considerable change since he joined it.

“In 04, when I started my blog, sports blogs didn’t really exist,” he said. “Over the last five years, it’s changed dramatically to the point where a random fan who can write really well can make a living of it.”

He figures part of that is thanks to sports fans going to local blogs for information more frequently instead of relying on traditional media sources.

“Over the last five years, people have been going online to get their local content more and more,” he said.

Campitelli said local bloggers have a big advantage over national writers when issues involving their team spring up, because they’re familiar with the background from consistently following the team.

“No national people know as much about local teams as the people in that city,” he said.

Now that Campitelli works for a mainstream media outlet, you’d imagine that there might be more restrictions on what he can write. He said he hasn’t changed his approach, though.

“I don’t think it’s changed me at all," he said. “I don’t think I say anything that’s too controversial.”

Nelson said there's plenty of opportunity for locally-focused sites to do well, but it can be tough for them to draw people used to relying on traditional media.

"It’s really hard to get people out of their habits," she said. “In Boston, everyone goes to the Globe or the Herald.”

Greenberg said ESPN Chicago has done well so far, but that pattern change has provided them with challenges. He said their approach has drawn in a lot of younger fans, but it's been more difficult to attract older fans.

“Younger people are starting to go there a lot," he said. “I think older people are entrenched in the Tribune and the Sun-Times.”

In the end, I think that habit change is going to be the toughest task for locally-focused blogs, especially independent ones. Network blogs are able to leverage that connection for business and advertising purposes, but they also have the advantage of drawing people in through that network. For example, if I'm looking for a blog on the Cubs, it's much easier for me to track one down through SB Nation or Fanball than to find an independent one. It's important for bloggers to find the network that's right for them, but the basic idea of being part of a network is a good one in my mind, which is why I don't really agree with Cork Gaines' declaration that joining ESPN's Sweet Spot Network wouldn't help Rays Index much. Now, not every network is a great fit for every site, and the Sweet Spot Network may not be right for Rays Index. They may in fact be best served by remaining independent, but that means they'll have to handle their own advertising deals and build their audience by hand. That might work for them, but for the majority of single-team blogs, I think the right network can be a beneficial thing.

Network sites face challenges too, though, and it's not just about getting people to come to your blog instead of reading the newspaper or listening to the radio. Conventional media outlets are also expanding their offerings, and it's quite possible to get news, opinion, podcasts, and video on demand from the websites of local newspapers, radio stations and TV channels. Even in the blogosphere itself, there are so many good blogs associated with most teams that it can be difficult to stand out.

I think the last key element of this topic is that it's important to keep things in perspective. Yes, locally-focused sites have a lot of potential, but they're also limited by their very nature; a Blackhawks' blog or an ESPN Chicago's day-to-day audience largely consists of people interested in those teams. Those particular fanbases are large enough to prevent that from being a major issue, but that could be more important for those who cover franchises with smaller fanbases (Jacksonville Jaguars, anyone?). People outside the fanbase can be drawn to a team-specific blog from time to time if there's a special feature (SB Nation does an excellent job of this with the daily Best Of The Network post), if there's a big issue involving the covered team or if the covered team is playing one of the teams they follow, but they're unlikely to come back regularly unless the blog features a particularly interesting style.

Two examples of single-team sites that do this are the SB Nation blogs Black Heart, Gold Pants (run by Adam Jacobi and Hawkeye State, both of whom I met at BWB 3) and Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician (run by Sean Keeley, who I haven't met yet). I don't have any particular rooting interest in either Iowa or Syracuse sports, but I read those sites regularly because both feature tremendous writing and both often look at broader issues affecting college sports, such as conference expansion. That's a tough balance to pull off, though; only a few people can really use unique styles without making it feel gimmicky, and if you're going to cover league-wide issues to try and draw in a broader range of readers, you have to make sure that you're still appealing to your core constituency of diehard fans.

I've seen the debate from both sides, running both this multi-sport site and the single-team focused Canuck Puck. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, which is why I wouldn't recommend that every aspiring blogger should go for an uber-local approach. For those interested in covering the ins and outs of a particular team or a particular city, it may well be worth it. For those who would rather write about bigger leagues or issues, though, there's still a lot of benefits to that approach as well. It can be tougher to initially attract an audience with a league-wide or even sports-wide approach, but it doesn't restrict you as much, and your potential audience is much wider. Local content is important, but to me at least, it isn't the be-all and end-all.

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