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 Jeff Gluck of the new JeffGluck.com, a one-stop shop for all things NASCAR. Jeff recently left his job covering NASCAR for USA Today and decided to venture out on his own. He’s now covering NASCAR through his own site, which is funded by reader contributions. It’s a fascinating model, one that’s likely going to continue to pick up traction as time passes. That’s why we wanted Jeff as a Q&A guest. Here, we discuss the formation of site, how it’s going so far and how to make a venture like this work.
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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.
1. We start all our Q&As in the same way–at the beginning. So: How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now?
During my freshman year of college at University of Delaware, I was thumbing through the course catalog for spring semester and stumbled across a class that seemed too good to be true: sports writing. In the course description, it said students would be required to attend a Philadelphia Phillies or 76ers game during the course of the semester to “cover” the event. Required? As an avid sports fan, that sounded amazing to me. Unfortunately, it was an upper-level class, so I had to beg the professor to let me in. That man, Bill Fleischman, is responsible for my career. He allowed me to take the class on the condition I start writing for the school newspaper at the same time. I’d never considered myself much of a writer, but something clicked when it came to writing about sports.
As far as being a NASCAR writer, that’s a path I would have never imagined growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I certainly had no interest in NASCAR all the way through college and poked fun at those who liked a sport consisting of all left turns. But at my first newspaper job in Rocky Mount, N.C., the sports editor urged me to cover a race two hours away in Rockingham. Once I experienced a race in person, I realized why NASCAR was so interesting to people: The scale of the tracks, the speed, the sound and the access were all very attractive to a sports fan. Shortly thereafter, I decided to become a NASCAR writer no matter what it took and spent the next few years working my way up the ladder through various jobs.
2. How did you know it was the right time to venture out on your own? You’re not the first sports reporter to try a solo endeavor like this, but there still isn’t much precedent for it. How much apprehension did you have, and what did you see as the pros and cons?
In the months before I decided to leave USA Today, my bosses had made it clear they needed a NASCAR writer in Charlotte. That’s understandable, since most NASCAR teams and drivers are based there. But my wife, Sarah, was trying to become a child life specialist at a children’s hospital — and those positions are not easy to get. We knew we would have to expand the search well beyond Charlotte if she was going to land a job somewhere. So essentially, the choice wasn’t that difficult: career or family. And especially since Sarah was trying to help sick children and my profession was writing about cars going in circles, it seemed like a no-brainer.
But even though the decision was obvious, it was still terrifying. I felt like I was jumping out of a plane without a parachute. Journalism jobs aren’t easy to come by in general, let alone in NASCAR where the media corps have been shrinking over the last decade. I knew there were a lot of readers who would be willing to help me — thanks to Twitter — but I was very worried the scale wouldn’t be enough to support a full-time career once I started my own site. In the back of my head, I came to terms with driving Uber or working at Starbucks while writing on the side in order to get the new venture off the ground for a year or two. But I underestimated the response from people willing to support my coverage.
3. One thing that’s particularly interesting about your site is… it’s free. You aren’t charging for content, but are soliciting, essentially, donations through Patreon to keep the coverage coming. Why did you decide to go with that model? To what extent do you think this is the future of journalism — a small group of readers funding the enterprise almost as a public service?
There’s a sports writer in Pittsburgh, Dejan Kovacevic, who has an extremely successful website that uses a subscription model. At first, I thought of doing something similar and putting all my content behind a paywall. (EDITOR’S NOTE: We had Dejan as a previous Q&A guest.)
Ultimately, it didn’t feel right for a couple reasons. One is NASCAR has a very blue-collar fan base, many of whom said they couldn’t afford cable when many races started airing there. So if they couldn’t spend any extra money to watch their favorite sport on TV, they probably also didn’t have extra money to spend on supporting a writer whose content was previously free. That seemed like a slap in the face to my readers: Thanks for clicking on my links over the years, but now you have to pay to read them.
In addition, the prospect of putting a ceiling on what I wrote didn’t seem to bode well for future interviews. For example: Why would a driver consent to a one-on-one interview if it could only be read by a few hundred people?
4. Obviously, everyone is looking for the pay model of journalism that works. We all need to make money. To what extent do you think what you’re doing can work not only on an individual level, but as something that could scale up into a news organization?
I don’t think it’s necessarily about the individual over an organization — although the personal connection helps. But really, this model would work anywhere there’s a niche. It’s about community. Whether that’s a local sports team or news about a specific topic (like the environment or personal finance), readers will rally around outlets they know are trustworthy and will consistently provide content they find valuable.
5. What makes NASCAR the right sport to attempt something like this? How much of your success do you attribute to the fact that it’s NASCAR, as opposed to, say, college football. To what extent do you think a solo venture like this could work with other sports?
Building off the last question, NASCAR as a sport is sort of a tight-knit community. If you see someone driving down the road with a New York Jets sticker on their car and you’re a Buffalo Bills fan, you don’t think, “Oh, there’s another NFL fan like me!” But if you see someone with a driver’s sticker on his or her car — even if it’s not the driver you root for — you identify with that person as a fellow NASCAR fan. In that sense, it’s the same effect as a local sports team. This likely wouldn’t work as well for a general NFL writer or a national NBA writer, because the audience might be too broad.
6. One thing that sticks out about your coverage is how you involve the readers in your content decisions. It’s not like it used to be, where publications decide what to write, and put it out there for readers to judge. You, for example, polled your readers about whether you should attend the Indy 500 or the Coke 600, and used the response accordingly. How important is it in modern journalism to maintain that conversation with the audience — to be a person, not just a byline?
My readers now are also my bosses. I’m writing directly for them, so I want to make sure whatever I produce — whether it’s stories, interviews or podcasts — is not wasting their time. Because if they don’t like what I’m doing or are no longer interested, my Patreon pledges could easily go away.
But in general, I’ve always felt an organization’s readers should be treated the same as customers. That’s why the race to the bottom with chasing clicks bothers me so much. Executives at large media companies are so obsessed with page views that they’re willing to sacrifice trust and credibility with their readers for a short-term gain. By tricking or teasing readers into clicking on something, it discourages them from coming back regularly. Why would a news outlet intentionally waste its readers’ time by playing games with links? Don’t use clickbait, just give them the information. Readers will be loyal in return.
7. How much harder is your day-to-day job now that you’re not with USA Today? How has access changed? How about just your quality of life outside of work, in terms of stress and hours and the like?
I’m definitely working longer hours than I ever have in my life, but much of that is because my job is now different. At USA Today or SBNation.com, the job was 90 percent producing content and 10 percent interacting on social media or building relationships with readers. Essentially, any reader interaction top of the content was a bonus. But now that’s not the case. Maintaining a conversation with the audience and making connections with it is equally as important as actually writing a column or recording a podcast. It’s crucial for me to express my genuine appreciation for the readers, because they are literally providing me with an income. So whether it’s writing back to emails, participating in a Facebook group, responding to direct messages — or even texting with some readers — the communication takes a lot of time. I’m still trying to figure out the balance. At the same time, I’m enjoying the job more than ever because of the personal relationships with readers; I’ve made genuine friendships through this.
8. How much of a boon was the Kyle Busch video for you and your site? Since you’re not going off a traffic/hits model, what effect did that have? Was the benefit just to get your site’s name out and, we assume, more contributions? How does stuff like that impact your business model?
If there was ever a time to go viral, that was it. NASCAR fights are fairly rare, and I certainly didn’t expect to record one when I pulled out my phone to follow Kyle Busch down pit road. But the effect was massive for me in two ways: First, it showed value to my existing audience because I would not have been at that race had it not sent me their with it pledges. So I think that reinforced the decision to support me.
Second, it was obviously a huge boost in terms of publicity. I decided to give away the video to any outlet that requested it, as long as it provided credit. Although it’s difficult to measure what impact it had, I’ve had several people in the months since tell me they had never heard of me before the fight video.
9. It seems like you have a particularly good relationship with the drivers you cover. You got a nice little double-take when you debuted your new outlet. And we’re hoping we’ll get one of those hats when they come off the production line. Are NASCAR drivers more personable that most athletes? Is that a reflection of the access you get?
Ha, no hats yet! But NASCAR drivers are mostly a pleasure to work with, and the primary reason is the sponsorship aspect of racing. Without a sponsor, drivers have no job (unless they’re independently wealthy) — so it’s vital for them to appear marketable and accessible. Sure, they all get cranky at times — it’s a high-pressure situation racing door-to-door at 200 mph while sealed inside sweltering cockpits — but for the most part, they need the media because it gives them a platform to talk about their sponsor. In addition, there just aren’t that many beat reporters who cover NASCAR anymore — so most of the drivers know all the media members by name.
10. We both live in the New York metropolitan area where NASCAR isn’t exactly part of the sports footprint. How much of your coverage is regionally based to areas where people love racing, and how much attention do you see for the sport in New York or L.A. or cities we wouldn’t normally identify as NASCAR-friendly? And how would you sell the sport to get new fans paying attention?
The statistics probably don’t back this up, but I feel like I have as many readers from non-traditional NASCAR markets — California, New England, the upper Midwest — as the South. I just moved to Portland, Ore., — where my wife ended up getting a job — and put out a call to Twitter followers in the area to meet up for a NASCAR viewing party at a sports bar. We had about 15 people show up to watch the race, which I thought was a pretty decent number and not exactly something you’d see on “Portlandia.”
But there’s no doubt NASCAR isn’t as popular in the cities as in rural America. There’s no easy answer to solving that. NASCAR has been trying to overcome the redneck stereotype for years, but it persists and is a turnoff for potential new fans. In reality, though, the drivers themselves are almost all from outside the South these days. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is a SoCal dude who grew up outside San Diego. The three most recent champs other than Johnson are from California (Kevin Harvick), Las Vegas (Kyle Busch) and the Detroit suburbs (Brad Keselowski). The best two drivers of this season are from the Sacramento area (Kyle Larson) and New Jersey (Martin Truex Jr.).
NASCAR can’t just convince people to start tuning in, though — it has to be something people decide on their own. The best idea might be a long-term play: Get drivers into elementary schools for appearances, give away youth tickets by the bunches and start building a new generation of race fans.
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