In October, when I caught back up with Ross Roblin, the Cedar Hill fan I met in August who had avoided the News’s high school coverage since the paper started charging for web content, he was using the News’s app at home to get around the pay wall. The app, in addition to real-time scoring, gives users access to prep coverage and weekly rankings otherwise available only to subscribers. So by paying the one-time $1.99 fee, Roblin got the targeted coverage he wants without having to shell out $16 a month. “It’s a good way of getting some of that unlocked for me,” Roblin said.
Roblin’s experience—a practical, bottom-line appeal—differs from the more social, friends-and-neighbors experience that Raquel Hernandez sought on Facebook. Ideally, a news outlet looking to tap a niche market would build an app that would capture both, because Roblin and Hernandez are members of the same “passionate vertical,” a phrase Alfano uses to refer to niche markets with highly motivated followings. In 2010, for instance, visitors to SportsDayHS clicked on an average of fourteen pages per month, nearly twice the number of pages clicked on by the typical visitor to the paper’s regular online sports section.
Sure, the Texas high school football fan is a unique animal, but it’s hardly the only passionate vertical with enough mass and devotion to attract advertisers. The Charlotte Observer covers NASCAR with a separately branded, mobile-friendly portal called ThatsRacin.com. The Las Vegas Sun attracts serious web traffic with aggressive multiplatform coverage of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which Sun editor Rob Curley unapologetically calls “Las Vegas’ major-league sports franchise.” And that’s just in the sports world.
The News’s real-time high school project seems to be delivering more readers, so by that measure it makes sense. But, as I wondered at the outset, where does this real-time deluge leave the art of sports writing? Do great stories still matter?
It’s a question that has crossed the mind of Matt Wixon, the News’s lead high school sports columnist—even if he doesn’t have a clear answer. Fortunately for Wixon, when he writes his column from one of the area’s marquee games of the week, he’s paired with a statistician who handles the real-time scoring. “My first priority is always a really good column and analysis to give the readers, even people who were at the games, something they didn’t know, or a reason to read it,” he said.
Still, Wixon sends out a blizzard of updates while he live-chats the games he covers, so he understands the concern “that being so immersed in it, over and over, and not having the time, is going to take away from your story.” Forty-year-old Wixon is no ink-stained troglodyte. He and I were among a handful of News reporters trained in the mid-aughts to shoot web video, and he credits the chats and social media with deepening his relationship with readers. “But still, the most satisfying part of my career is putting together a good story. Not the tweet that gets two-thousand hits.”
Okay, but what about the fans? Maybe for them this emphasis on real-time updates is a logical tradeoff that empowers them to get the information they want, when they want it, even if the next-day stories suffer a bit.
I called Raquel Hernandez, the Trinity fan who follows John Cobb’s Facebook posts, and she set me straight. “I still read the follow-up stories,” she told me, saying she visits the Star-Telegram’s website for game recaps. “I like to get the journalist’s take.”
So maybe my either-or attitude about the new immediacy missed the point. Fans want it all—the latest news and numbers now, and a great yarn tomorrow, all delivered with an intimacy reminiscent of a bunch of friends sitting around watching the home team.