The criticism was much the same for those sites that sold news whose value was not necessarily fungible—politically or financially, either in money earned (the business-to-business press) or in money well spent (Consumer Reports ). These sites sold news that mattered only because everyone in particular slivers of the online world was talking about it. These were the sites that had occupied small pockets of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail, his theory about the rise of niche businesses online. Places like Orangebloods.com.
Orangebloods is a site that, depending on the time of year, has between eight thousand and ten thousand subscribers paying $9.99 a month, or $100 annually, for steady updates about all known thought regarding the University of Texas football team. The site covers practices and assesses the team’s strengths and potential worries, but the least important thing it does is cover games. Everyone covers games, the reasoning went, and everyone watches games. So instead, Orangebloods found a niche within a niche: it reports and sells what no one else can provide, which is year-round coverage of Longhorns recruiting. Its reporters fan out across the state, and sometimes across the nation, meeting, observing, and collecting footage of leading high-school football players. They then pour all this into the Orangebloods site along with information about those potential Longhorns’ size, speed, bench-pressing capacity, and GPAs, all the while offering interviews, commentary, starred rankings, and candid assessments of the Longhorns’ chances of securing a commitment: Solid verbal!
Orangebloods is one of the 130 paid college-football sites that are part of Rivals.com, which Yahoo bought in 2007 for $100 million. Rivals is run by Bobby Burton, who in the early 1990s, as an undergraduate at Texas, worked in the football team’s film library, converting film to video and then editing the footage so that coaches could study, say, tendencies on third and long. Burton took that passion—he uses the word often—to the National Recruiting Advisor, a newsletter that reported on recruiting and augmented its service with updates on, yes, a 900 number.
The business went through several iterations—free, then paid, then failing—before re-emerging in 2001. By then Burton had abandoned the idea of using citizen journalists to do his reporting for him, having determined that he needed professionals. In time, the combined editorial staff at Rivals grew to over three hundred and, as the site’s reputation grew among the college-football cognoscenti, its subscriptions rose to its present 200,000; Orangebloods is among the most popular.
And that popularity, that desire to subscribe, says its editor, Geoff Ketchum, is as much about the news it reports as it is about the talking and ruminating with an audience that cares beyond all apparent reason about Longhorn football. They make full use of the site’s message board, offering lengthy and deeply-felt opinions, and talk with one another with such familiarity that when one subscriber’s child was diagnosed with cancer, his online friends raised money for treatment.
“We’re like heroin for UT football fans,” Ketchum says. “We’ve got all the nuts that exist.” He says this with the affection of someone who recognizes his own. “We don’t cover all the sports,” he adds. “We cover what the people want to pay for.”
But would the people pay for news aimed not at the few but at the many? As zealots on either side of the pay divide duked it out, Nancy Wang ran the numbers. The news was not good. For either side.
Wang, who with her husband, Jeff Mignon, runs a Manhattan media consulting firm, crunched nine different scenarios for newspapers of two different approximate sizes—100,000 paid circulation and 50,000. (Here her base scenario was for most typical American paper, which has 50,000 circulation, publishes seven days a week, charges $17 a month for print subscribers, has a Web site with 250,000 unique visitors, and online revenues of $700,000.) The analysis, Wang says, were based on real numbers, but were intended as projections of potential, not actual, revenue.