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Sports does better in engagement. Users average about 2.3 visits a month, and about 3.4 pages per visit over the course of the year. During the fall of 2010, when the Texas Rangers were in the Major League Baseball playoffs and the Dallas Cowboys were on the football field, users clicked on four or more pages per visit.
And then there’s a feature on the site called High School GameTime, which includes rosters, schedules and results from the state where Friday Night Lights is based. Users clicked on nearly nine pages per visit in November 2010, during the height of the football season, and generated almost as many page views as the entire news section. Put another way, high school sports fans were seven times as engaged as the people coming to read news.
It’s easy to see why. The site offers a dizzying array of statistics, rosters, and standings for more than 200 high schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Mark Francescutti, senior managing online editor for sports, says the site’s engagement demonstrates the power of “great local content that is exclusive and is important to people.” And loyalty, not search engine optimization, is the key to maintaining the audience. “We might get lucky and get linked off Google, but we want people who will come back every single day.”
The site has a small but intense crew. The News’s four full-time high school sports reporters file frequently, and editors also rely on clerks who take scores and statistics over the phone from stringers around Dallas. On Friday nights, scores are updated during games, not just reported when the games are over. There’s also a live chat where reporters update games—“controlled chaos,” in the words of Kyle Whitfield, the site’s editor. High School GameTime aggregates heavily from other sources. “Our writers are not robots,” says Francescutti. “We don’t have that old journalistic ego that says, ‘If we didn’t write it, it’s not important.’”
The News used High School GameTime as part of a package deal with Time Warner Cable that also included print ads, a radio show, a player-of-the-week contest, and a banquet at the end of the football season. That brought in up to $700,000, says Richard Alfano, a general manager. For the next season, he says, the News will sell a $1.99 mobile app for High School GameTime that will include play-by-play from at least 100 games a week.
The key, says Whitfield, is focusing on something that readers care about deeply and that no other news provider could do as well. “It’s more difficult to sell Cowboys coverage, because Cowboys fans are everywhere around the country,” Whitfield said. “We were able to organize our resources and monetize it, which is oh-so-rare online.”
Rapid audience growth is often accompanied by thin engagement. Such has been the case at Examiner.com, a freelance-driven site that has built an audience of more than 22 million unique users in three years.
Examiner is owned by Clarity Digital Group, which is controlled by Philip Anschutz, a Denver entrepreneur who has made billions in energy, railroads, entertainment, and sports franchises. The site, which was started in April 2008, has brought aboard more than 72,000 freelancers who have written on topics ranging from roses in Rhode Island to parenting in Portland. There’s not a great deal of supervision: Writers must pass a criminal background check, and they get some quick training. Their first story goes through an editor, but after that, the writers usually post directly to the site.
Page views are a key factor in determining writers’ pay, which amounts to between $1 and $7.50 per thousand views, according to AdAge, or a few dollars per article. According to Mike Noe, senior director of recruiting, fewer than a third of the writers are currently “active,” which, in Examiner parlance, means they’ve posted something to the site within the last ninety days.