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Black and White and In The Red All Over

In 1972, a security guard walking a routine beat at the Watergate hotel in Washington D.C., noticed that a door had been rudely jimmied, and tape had been applied to the door jamb in an amateurish fashion. The guard called it in, and police began a search of the offices in the building. They found five men ransacking Democratic National Headquarters and getting ready to plant listening devices.

When the men were arraigned, four of them evaded the judge’s question about where they worked, but one man offered that he was employed by the CIA. A very junior reporter for the Washington Post was in the court room covering the story, and the man’s admission piqued the reporter's interest. His name was Bob Woodward. He and Carl Bernstein would eventually follow the burglary story all the way to the Oval Office, ending with the resignation of President Nixon.

For those of us who remember Watergate and who had a writing mindset, journalism became a vocation, not a job. It offered a concrete way to change the world for the better. Younger readers may find this hard to believe today when journalism is perceived as part of the problem with society (lumped in with the larger term “media”), and when the comment section of a New York Times story is considered equal to the Times story itself.

In other words, the world has changed, but sadly, journalism has not kept pace with these changes.

In his blog post Tales of the Tarantula, Frank Terranella, a former journalist, wrote a piece entitled “Here’s To Old School Journalism.” He states, “For me, there is no joy in being right 30 years ago about the decline of the newspaper business. It has not been pretty watching the decline. All I can hope for is that new online organizations will arise from the ashes and bring back the professionalism and respect that once caused print journalism to be reverentially referred to as the Fourth Estate.”

As Terranella indicates, and as history teaches us again and again, those who do not find innovative ways to keep up with changes or, better yet, anticipate the changes and lead the charge, risk falling into oblivion.

One only has to look at the outpouring of grief over the death of David Bowie as a counterpoint. The year before the Watergate break-in, Bowie released an album called Hunky Dory which contained the song “Changes.” Little did we know then that Bowie was giving us his agenda. He laid out a plan for remaining relevant, and it worked. Two generations of younger music fans over the past 40 years were touched by his death. That’s a track record newspapers can’t touch. A Pew Research Center study (2010) reported that only 24% of Gen Xers and Millennials read a newspaper with any regularity.

So, is that it for newspapers? Are there any “new online organizations [to] arise from the ashes and bring back the professionalism and respect?”

Enter Dejan Kovacevic.

Kovacevic is a well-regarded sports columnist from Pittsburgh. He worked for the Pittsburgh Press, covering the Pirates, the Penguins and the Olympics. Then he moved to the Pittsburgh Tribute-Review to become a full-time sports columnist. He has long been critical of the current way newspapers deliver their product and a proponent of a new journalistic model. He once wrote that journalism is the only business that gives away its product for free online.

That's high talk, but then Kovacevic did something extraordinary: He backed up his words with actions. Quitting his job at the Tribune-Review, he struck out on his own. With only his reputation, a vision, and a lot of chutzpah, he began a website called “DK on Pittsburgh sports.” He offered three levels of subscriptions ($4 monthly, $24 per year, $54 for three years) for all readers except active military personnel, who got to sign up for free. Readers received a limited number of free articles to check out the writing. He did it all: covering all three teams, travelling to many away games, and covering the Pirate’s spring training. His wife took care of the website and the business end.

How well did his gamble pay off? Click here to find out.

You read that right: One and half years later he has 20,000 subscribers. He has advertising but isn’t invasive (it doesn’t pop up on your screen as you’re reading, nor does it suddenly start playing a video on the side). He lured away the Penguin’s beat writer from the Tribune-Review, hired two young journalists to cover the Steelers and Pirates, a photographer to shoot the games, and a web manager who ensures seamless app and website operations. Whoever is doing the copyediting on that site is also doing it a lot better than what I see in the daily papers.

“Well, that’s easy,” you might say. “It’s sports, and sports fans will pay to follow their passion.”

That’s true, but people will pay to follow any passion. We want the inside skinny, to be in the know. Think about your dream-team line up of three or four of the best writers on a subject you love and having those writers deliver substantive, inside content every day. Would you pay $24 a year to read that page? I would. I do. And I’m guessing you would, too.

What Kovacevic is doing may not be the only model for innovating journalism, but his venture proves that there IS at least one other model out there. Bringing that model to fruition takes innovative thinking, quite a bit of risk, and a lot of sweat, but it can work. For the future of journalism, I hope it does.


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