A Q&A with Dejan Kovacevic of DKPittsburghSports.com on building a media outlet from scratch, why it works and the crazy Pittsburgh sports market

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with Dejan Kovacevic, the creator of DKPittsburghSports.com. Dejan is more than a brilliant journalist. He is a true entrepreneur, leaving a job as a popular newspaper columnist to start his own media venture. It has been an enormous success, changing the landscape of Pittsburgh sports media. Here, we talk to Dejan about how he made his business work, whether it could work in other markets and how to connect with readers.

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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1. How did you break into journalism and land at the job you hold now?

I’ve been in journalism my whole life, basically. Got a freelancing job with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette during my freshman year at Duquesne University, never wavered. Five years later, I was part-time. Seven years later, full-time. In 2011, I got tired of waiting to become a columnist — the PG has had the same two in place since the early 1990s and actually still does — so I went across town to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. I was there for three years before embarking on this bout of insanity.

2. What made you realize that the time was right for DKPittsburghSports.com? What kind of hole in coverage or in the business landscape for journalism did you think you could exploit and take advantage of?

Over my 20-plus years, I worked very hard to cultivate a direct relationship with readers. That began with a weekly interactive online feature at the PG called Penguins Q&A, which today would look terribly crude but in the late 1990s wasn’t something seen much around the country. People reached out. Readers became real. I liked that. No, I loved it. I loved the idea that readers were real people with real faces and real personalities. I also loved that I could write directly for them and with them, rather than at them.

Even by newspaper standards, the Trib was spectacularly behind every online curve. And when companies start failing, people with the greatest shortcomings get the most nervous. So a bizarre decision was made — while I was on vacation, no less — to alter all the commenting to a Facebook format. Which would effectively destroy the community I’d built up over a decade.

I wondered where this was was going. All of it.

I was working in a town with Thelma and Louise as the only viable employers, and neither of them had shown the most remote inclination toward moving away from the 1965 print model or, for that matter, personnel. Their only visible direction was right off that cliff, both simultaneously.

I started thinking about just starting something from scratch. It wasn’t really tangible. It had crossed my mind a few months earlier. But it never really left.

So, still on this brief vacation, I spoke to a handful of trusted colleagues, and one local team’s vice president, a very smart man who once was a columnist at the PG, told me: “The greatest risk you’ll ever take in your career is staying right where you are.”

One day later, my wife and I came up with a price scale — $4 monthly, $24 annually, $54 for three years — and determined that we’d need 10,000 subscribers to pull this off for our family income. We agreed that was optimistic but doable. Two days later, I was out at the Trib. Three days later, I had a crude WordPress site up called DK on Pittsburgh Sports.

On the fourth day, we had $28,000 in our PayPal account. Our plan to go for a business loan was quashed immediately. We’d bootstrap it.

In eight months, we were at 10,000 subscribers.

3. What kind of editorial ethos did you want your site to have when it began? And has that changed at all in the intervening years? How do you think that meshes (or doesn’t) with what is the conventional wisdom that media sites need to be click-y and quick-reads and chase lowest common denominator readers?

We’ve played it pretty straight, and I’m proud of that. All AP style, no swear words, no rampant rumors or gossip. And one of the best things about our site being subscription-based is that, still today, we never NEED to go clickbait-y because we’re preaching to the converted. Our No. 1 goal as a business is retention. If we keep who we have at a clip of 80-90 percent, the number and pace of new subscribers along the way is a business bonus.

That’s actually surprised our new staffers as much as anything when they’ve come aboard. Our top priority is having our existing readers enjoy our coverage. If they do that, they’ll spread the word, buy gift subscriptions, pass along links and everything else that comes with being successful online.

None of that’s changed. If anything, adding Ron Ledgard, a respected sports editor with the Akron Beacon-Journal, has made us even more attentive to basic high journalism standards. That’s our goal. We aren’t out to be BuzzFeed. Our readers tell us all the time they want integrity, and yes, that comes from our youngest readers, too.

4. When did you realize you could expand? On your site I count 10 reporters total and eight other staff members listed. That’s significant. How did you go about setting pay, benefits, hiring and all the managerial decisions you have to make when running a business?

Well, I don’t want to give away all the business secrets here, transparent as we already are. But our staff is paid for — in full — by subscription money. Very few in newspapers seem to believe that, at least locally, and I’m completely cool with that. Let them think we’re failing or whatever. Maybe that’s totally understandable in an environment where failure has been the rule for, what, two decades now? The hard fact, verified by multiple corporate sponsors and now a globally known accounting firm, is that our staff’s salaries are covered by subscriptions. Whatever’s left from that pool, plus our sponsorships, cover the rest of our costs, including a $100,000 travel budget that’s probably one of the bigger ones in the country for any media outlet.

Dang, I just gave you way too much, didn’t I?

At any rate, our staff is mostly set. It’s not that we couldn’t grow editorially. It just really doesn’t make much sense. We already produce a ton of quality content, and there really is such a thing as too much. If and when we add in the future, it’ll be on the business end, for sure.

5. What is it about Pittsburgh that made it ripe for this venture? If it has worked well for you, then it’s natural to wonder if other successful journalists in other big sports cities could make it work for them. But then I think about the immense competition in New York and have doubts. Do you think this could work elsewhere?

I’ve actually heard that exact thing from media based in New York, and I’m not sure I understand it. It’s all about the magic number. Ours was 10,000. And it was from a base of Pittsburgh fans that, even if you include Pittsburghers all over the world, would be what, 5 million? (We’ve got 2.3 million in our metro area, and half our subscribers come from outside that metro area, so let’s just double it.)

OK, now explain to me why someone couldn’t cull 10,000 out of a market of 12 million in New York, plus another 12 million worldwide, if that same math applies?

Besides, what does competition have to do with it?

Which outlet in New York ISN’T charging right now for online views? Any?

Why not just become another but try to do it better?

Look, I’m not downplaying that Pittsburgh, my birthplace and hometown all my life, is a freakish corner of the world. We’re totally weird with sports, and we’re blessed with two franchises, the Steelers and Penguins, that have had a ton of success. The Penguins, in particular, draw an amazing clientele for us in that they’re exactly the demo you’d target with a venture like this.

But the idea that it wouldn’t work anywhere else … you know, I can’t say. All I know is that, even with all the miserable stuff that’s happening in newspapers here and across the continent, we’re still waiting for someone to look at what we’ve done and take it seriously. So far, no takers.

6. Did you worry at all about a loss in personal prestige? You were a columnist for a major newspaper in Pittsburgh and running up awards. Now you are unattached to any that because you have your own platform and your work is behind a paywall. Have you noticed any marginalization that comes from that?

Wow, dear God, no. I’m me. I’ve always dealt with my readers, on every platform, directly. When we came up with our 10,000 calculation, it was based on what I knew were the number of readers taking in my stuff online-alone at both papers, and that was in the 20,000 range. That math gets sketchy, especially with no precedent, but I’d felt I’d built up enough of a base.

And anyone who knows me knows I’ve never cared about awards. Some just say that, I know. I’ve demonstrated it. They had to drag submissions from me kicking and screaming. They meant nothing.

That said, let me take issue with a couple bits of your wording:

First, you talk about a possible loss of personal prestige. I’ve no doubt that risk existed, but I’ve also no doubt that the majority of the public — correctly — sees newspapers as a failing endeavor. There’s honor in newspapers and journalism, for sure. I’m damned proud of my 20-plus years in papers. But the concept of prestige … man, if you want me to be honest here, one of my more positive thoughts in breaking out was this: What would it be like if this crazy thing worked?

To me, the success or failure of this would be the arbiter of prestige.

Second, this is your second reference to ‘paywall’ as if this is some revolutionary thing. Or even a negative.

It’s neither.

As mentioned above, just about every significant media outlet in the country is charging in some form or other. We might be pioneers in some regards, but that sure wasn’t one of them.

Second, we view it as a HUGE positive that people WANT to pay to support what we’re doing. Through our transparency, we let them know when we add expenses, whether through more staff, more travel or better platforms. They feel like they’re part of it. We hear that ALL THE TIME.

My goodness, imagine if newspapers 20 years ago hadn’t been so terrified to let people know that there’s REAL VALUE in journalism. And I’m not talking about sports at the moment. Reporters die on battlefields. Real change is affected. There’s VALUE in it. But the industry was perfectly content back then to tell everyone that it was worthless, that we didn’t dare ask a penny from you for this work.

You can call it a paywall. I call it value for value.

7. Every media outlet on Earth right now is struggling with trying to convince people to pay for their journalism. You have done it. How? What lessons can other outlets take away from your experience about the getting readers to shell out cold, hard cash for words on a computer screen?

Our TV commercial that we aired last year during Penguins games came with a wonderful slogan that wasn’t at all my doing: Coverage That Connects

That slogan is carved in custom metal letters over our offices overlooking Downtown, and it’s the most perfect term I’ve heard for what we hope to do. We’re not writing AT the readers. We’re writing for them and, in some cases, with them. I tell all our staff to take the readers into the room with them. Get personal. Get real.

One of the dumbest, most antiquated things you’ll still hear at newspapers is that readers don’t care about the writer.

Actually, I take that back. Let them keep thinking that. It’s brilliant. The readers would never want to converse or empathize with the person they’re reading on a daily basis.

8. What do you think the future of sports reporting and the model used to deliver it will be in 5 years? 10 years?

Sports reporting won’t change much, I don’t think. We certainly aren’t changing it, at least not when it comes to the basics, though we do try some different stuff. And the model … that’s the simplest of all: It’ll be whatever the reader chooses. And so long as you’re never stupid enough to fight that, you’ll always find a way into their world.

9. What are three stories that you read recently that you loved?

You’ll hate this answer, but I’m so ridiculously busy with this site that I haven’t read anything outside our site in nearly three years. I’ve got, like, no life at all anymore.

10. You say you’re a comic book fan. How vast is your collection? Where did this passion come from and how does it — if it does — influence your world view and view of sports?

Ha! Funny that you ask! I just spent tonight, a rare one away from the Penguins-Panthers game across town, to bag up all my books. I’ve barely read any of them, but my favorite by a massive margin is Green Lantern, meaning Hal Jordan. I own almost every appearance dating back to the character’s first in 1958.

And no, not even I could find some earthly connection between that and sports!

 

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