Kovacevic said the site has continued to grow since then, but they’ve kept an eye on what’s working and what isn’t.
“We’re now at 20 people, 11 of them full-time, full-salaried,” he said. “We cover all three major sports leagues, all of our city’s colleges plus Penn State and the minor-league soccer Riverhounds. We cover the Super Bowl, all major events involving the NHL and NFL, and I was the only Pittsburgh reporter to cover the Rio Olympics, where we had three local women win gold medals.”
“We enter with the philosophy that all three major-league teams should be covered as best we can. But the readers ultimately dictate. And to emphasize that, they can see page views for each article right there on the home page and other screens. They don’t have to wonder what’s popular and what’s not. The Penguins, as noted, dominate the city. The Steelers are the more popular team if you count outside Western Pennsylvania, but it’s no longer close inside the region. And that’s where we’re still best known. So the Penguins now generate almost half our total page views and we, of course, have tried to add as much as we can in that regard. No matter how much hockey we offer, it all gets snapped up. It’s amazing. So when the Penguins won their second consecutive Stanley Cup this summer, we had four full-time people at every single game through all four rounds. (Well, I missed two games when I got sick.) Two full months, we stuck with that formula. And the reader reaction was overwhelming.”
A big part of what’s interesting about DK Pittsburgh Sports is their commitment to travelling to cover every road game for the big local teams, something many newspapers don’t do any more. Kovacevic said that’s key to convincing readers to subscribe and keep their subscriptions.
“We do full travel, not just a lot. We’re at every game the Penguins, Steelers and Pirates play. All camps, spring training, rookie camps, events, award shows, exhibitions, everything. Zero exceptions. As an independent media site, it was going to be our greatest immediate separator from the standard independent offering, whether a blog or whatever. We needed to show we were serious, and the only way to do that was to go everywhere. For that reason, I made travel a priority over hiring. The travel budget was set first, and the staff was grown gradually.”
He said travel has often been seen as an extra for sports coverage, rather than a key part of covering teams well, and he’s set out to change that view.
“I remember one time at the Post-Gazette a city reporter popping up in the sports department and spouting something ridiculous about how “At least YOU GUYS get to travel!” As if we were flying to these cities on vacation rather than working around the clock,” he said. “That attitude has permeated newspapers forever, and that’s why travel’s always been the first thing to get cut in tougher times. It’s seen as a luxury. Which I always found to be nuts. At the risk of sounding cold here, if I’m a newspaper editor with a choice between eliminating my least valuable employee and cutting travel, I’m doing the former 100 times out of 100. Because readers notice when you don’t travel, and they probably won’t miss that least valuable employee at all.”
“Beyond that, I believe stronger than I can convey that you’ve got to be there to have the story. We just sent long-form writer Adam Flango to northern bleeping Alberta because we felt there would be a compelling story on Carter Rowney’s day with the Stanley Cup. He was the least likely of all the Penguins’ champions. Adam hit it out of the park, and the readers responded. It was totally worth it. Not for prestige purposes, but for our business. Readers grow just a little more trust that we’ll do whatever’s needed to get a story.”
Kovacevic said they’re still evaluating their mix of news, analysis, columns and live coverage.
“We haven’t really figured that out yet, at least not fully,” he said. “I do the columns. We’ve got that much down. Our other reporters share expertise and opinions, but the hardcore advocating — this guy should be fired, or that guy should get an extension — is left to the columns I write. Matt Gajtka has become our floating wild card, in that he offers analysis, some of it advanced metrics, some strategic, some just whatever he feels like. We’ve got straight reporters who own their beats like Yohe, Snyder and Mark Kaboly, but we always leave a space for them to break from the box with our ‘Three Thoughts’ included with all game coverage. We’ve got a photographer who can really write, too, in Matt Sunday, and what a super-pleasant surprise that’s been for us and for the readers. The other area worth mentioning here is our live coverage, now a HUGE part of our app traffic. We all comment on the live game files that we feature prominently, and readers comment — beneath the coverage — right along with us. Especially for our out-of-market readers — almost 48 percent — it feels like they’re watching the game with friends.”
He said he largely still approaches journalism the same way he did at papers, but with a collaborative editorial effort, and with more back-and-forth with readers and more believe in readers’ pre-existing knowledge.
“In so, so many ways, it doesn’t feel different in the journalism sense except for the control. We’re strict on AP style — I mean obsessively strict — because I believe in a professional presentation, and I believe that’s the gold standard. We’re open with each other about anonymous sourcing. We check with each other on anything even remotely sensitive. And even though I function as editor, our system is such that we rely on each other a lot more than on any individual. We communicate constantly through a group staff text — not always seriously, to put it mildly — and we never really leave anyone to themselves, even Audrey way out there in State College.”
“We communicate with our readers. If you’re looking for a difference in the outlet overall, that’s the biggest difference, although I’ve done that throughout my career. We’re always in the comments. We do seven sets of Live Qs sessions a week, one per the staffers assigned. And when we write, we don’t write down to them. You’ll never see ‘Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’ in our copy. He’s Ben Roethlisberger. Everybody knows who he is. And Mike Tomlin. And Sidney Crosby. And Evgeni Malkin. And Andrew McCutchen. We treat the readers as if they’re diehard followers of the sport — more likely than not, given that they signed up for our site — and don’t insult them with excessive background in general.”
Kovacevic said it was interesting to advise Bedard on the launch of his own independent local site, and he thinks Bedard has what it takes to make this work.
“Bedard’s site will be the only other one of its kind in the U.S. or Canada, and I can’t wait to see how he does,” Kovacevic said. “Greg came to me in May to say he wanted to do this. In all honesty, I didn’t take him seriously. I’d met with people from so many other cities or taken inquiries through other forms, only to see they really didn’t have their hearts in it. Maybe they also didn’t have the means, but my sense was mostly that they were having a bad day with the boss and wanted to be that guy who stormed out of the building. Greg wasn’t like that. He’s a big-time guy who had a big-time gig at Sports Illustrated, and he made it really clear from our first conversation he wanted his company, he wanted to build it his way, and he was hellbent on succeeding.”
“He will, too. Boston’s a lot bigger than Pittsburgh, so his 10,000 should come a lot more easily than ours. His overhead will be a lot higher at the beginning because he’s starting with four other reporters, and ours was just me. But the size of the market, combined with having equally successful teams and equally rabid fans, makes for a perfect fit for a sequel to what we’ve done. Now I’m hearing from others. When Greg does well, that’ll only grow, because now it won’t just be that wacko in Pittsburgh who pulled it off.”
Kovacevic said it’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken until now for this kind of subscription-based local journalism to take off, given the long and well-established struggles of local papers and the opportunities in connecting with readers digitally and individually.
“I’m surprised it’s taken this long. The print industry isn’t dying. It’s already dead, just waiting on last rites. I can’t begin to describe for you the fear I sense that’s out there, and I honestly don’t get it when compared to the reality facing everyone daily. Shout this from the rooftops: Journalism isn’t dying. Print is. And the reason newspapers are dying is that they remain stubbornly, stupidly married to print for the business model.”
Kovacevic said a big part of the problem, as he sees it, is that local papers have stayed focused on print even with their digital options.
“Newspapers talk about ‘going digital,’ but who’s actually done it? Meaning who’s taken that step where they’re dependent primarily on the revenue that comes from the online form of the product? Newspapers that have put their product online at a subscription rate have done so at crazy, unreasonable prices. And they’ve done that because they’re still trying to employ 300, 400 people when they’d only need a fraction of that for online. So no one subscribes online, and they say people won’t pay for online, and they pull the plug and roll out the delivery trucks.
Kovacevic’s site has sometimes been compared to what The Athletic is trying, but he said he doesn’t like those comparisons, especially as he’s committed to being in just one city and they’re focused on much larger growth. He also said The Athletic approached him about advising and being a part owner, but he turned them down.
“We have next to nothing in common with The Athletic, and candidly here, it’s not fair to us or Greg Bedard to connect what we’re doing to what they’re doing,” Kovacevic said. “Our site and the new one in Boston — and I’ll stress that we aren’t tied or affiliated in any way other than Greg buying our platform through a one-time purchase — are built on our subscribers and sponsors and no one else. We have rock-solid foundations in that regard and are set up for the long haul. The Athletic approached me last year, before it launched, and asked me to advise and to take part-ownership. I appreciated that but declined. To their credit, they rounded up seed money and went about creating a venture that, from the very beginning, was intended to spread to multiple cities as basically a single entity. I wish them well, but that’s not that different to me than ESPN starting ESPN Boston or ESPN Dallas. That’s the comparable model here, except that ESPN built from its own riches while the Athletic began with seed money.”
“Our focus in Pittsburgh, and Greg’s focus in Boston, are on the cities we serve. I have zero intention of ever spreading. I’m born and raised in Pittsburgh, and my only goal is to create the best possible site for the fans of the teams and colleges in our area. And our relationship is open and honest with everyone we serve. All our subscription numbers, page views, sponsorships, business plans, everything are right there in the open for our readers to see. Because they’re part of it, and we want them to know that. My understanding is that Greg’s site will do the same.”
“Comparing us to a singular entity that’s built on franchising through outside money … that’s not us. At all. Again, I hope they succeed. They’ve hired some top talent, especially James Mirtle and now Tim Kawakami. It sounds like they’re doing well in Toronto, in particular, and that’s awesome, given how hard Canadian journalism has been hit. Moreover, they aren’t competition, so I’ve got no ax. But I just really don’t like when we’re put in the same category. The ventures aren’t at all similar.”
As for his site’s future, Kovacevic said one of the things he’s proudest of is the reaction to longform content they’ve created.
“More than anything, we’ve been happiest with our readers’ reaction to some of the longform we’ve produced lately. I mentioned how traditional outlets have been slashing travel. Well, long-form is next on the chopping list. I wasn’t sure how our readers would like it, especially with 70 percent on the app — that’s a whole lot of thumb-pushing, right? — but it’s been huge.”
He said other plans include more audio content, and continued evolution of what they already do.
“Otherwise, we’re adding a live-stream radio element before the NFL season and expanded podcasting. And in general, we’ll continue to work to get better at everything we cover. I’d hope that anyone who’s interested in Pittsburgh sports, even if it’s just one team or one college, would give it a look. There’s a one-month trial at $3.99 — that price hasn’t changed since launch — in which they can see the same 10-12 new articles every day as someone who’s signed up for life. I never say we’re the best at anything. I just want people to know that we try our best.”