Net-J: TucsonCitizen.com Sports Network

"Our modest success . . . proved that a major news provider in Arizona, either the Star or the Arizona Republic, could have great success creating a sports news network."

TucsonCitizen.com Sports Network
Ramping Up Traffic

In May 2009, the afternoon Tucson Citizen newspaper shut down and its website was converted to a blogging site with content to be created by editor Mark Evans and as many community bloggers as he could lasso.

TucsonCitizen.com (TC.com) was mostly a response to the complicated legal issues surrounding Gannett's dissolving its joint operating agreement with the city’s Arizona Daily Star, owned by Lee Enterprises.

With a surprising proposal to J-Lab, Tucson Citizen became the Networked Journalism project's first topic-oriented network and the only pilot project that involved digital-only partners.

While the site’s traffic at the time was decimated by the shutdown of the newspaper, it was still the city's largest blog site.

After overtures to create a Tucson Citizen watchdog network didn't pan out, Evans worked with Anthony Gimino, a freelance sports writer and a former Citizen sports columnist, to create a network of sports blogs initially focused on the University of Arizona's Wildcats athletic teams.

TC Sports Network launched in September 2009 with six bloggers. Within a year, it grew to 10 partners with some focused ideas for expansion.

"The effort was an immediate success," Evans reported. After the launch, "overall traffic to Tucson Citizen jumped 50 percent in one month." He said it continued to climb, month over month, for more than a year. By spring 2010, Tucson Citizen created a home-page presence for the Sports Network and an inside sports page with a carousel of revolving images that aggregated the network's blogs in one place.

The participating sports bloggers also saw traffic increases from Tucson Citizen referrals. As important, the Sports Network gave them credibility, press credentials and access to players. "Interview subjects are more likely to speak to a reporter who is with an accredited media organization rather than talk to an independent blogger," Javier Morales, founder of WildAboutAZCats.net,  told the Tucson Weekly. “TucsonCitizen.com was significant to our site in that regard."

In the process, the TC Sports Network established a national footprint, with the likes of ESPN.com, The Seattle Times, The Oregonian, the Los Angeles Daily News, San Jose Mercury News and fan message boards from all over the country linking to network stories, Evans said.

Gimino, also a sports blogger, was hired part-time to manage the network. The ultimate hope was to keep adding sports bloggers until the network was attractive to advertisers.

But by early 2011, the network was scaled back after the stipends for the bloggers ran out and the two-person Tucson Citizen operation was stymied in achieving a grander vision.

Starting Out

In vetting partners, Tucson Citizen looked for reported sports blogs instead of opinionated fan-boy sites. Initial partners were WildAboutAZCats.com, founded by Javier Morales, a former basketball beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star; a top poster, Scott Terrell, on the UASports.net message board; Wildcat Sports Report, a university-affiliated sports site; Steve Rivera Ventures, a website created by the former Arizona basketball beat writer for the Citizen; Still In Progress at Press Time by sports writer Christopher Wuensch. Also participating, but out of the formal network, was High School Sports with Andy Morales who already had a popular blog on Tucson Citizen, and the 110 Sports podcast with Matt Minkus, which posted podcast interviews with local and national sports figures and parsed them into a Q&A for Tucson Citizen.

The network partners shared stories, quotes, tips and contacts' phone numbers. Several posted breaking news simultaneously on their sites. Tucson Citizen got the benefit of multiple reporters at games, news conferences and daily coverage – and sometimes scooped the local daily.

Tucson Citizen entered a partnership with local CBS affiliate KOLD for Wildcats coverage. 

Tucson Citizen is feisty because as a small operation it has to be. Evans and Gimino wanted to keep expanding the network but that proved to be difficult.

There were too few well-reported sports blogs in Tucson, so they looked to grow in Phoenix, where there were numerous bloggers for the city's four professional sports teams plus Arizona State's athletics. They discussed some content swaps and a couple of partners, including with their Gannett big brother, The Arizona Republic, based in Phoenix. These plans hinged on technology being in place to automate it and the idea didn't gel, Evans said.

The second idea was to build out the sports content on Tucson Citizen and then spin off the network into a stand-alone sports website and even a statewide sports network. Evans envisioned Tucson Citizen partnering with the Arizona Daily Star to sell ads and share some of the revenues with the network bloggers. "That idea also failed due to the complexities of the relationship between the two corporate partners, Gannett and Lee," he said.

The second year of funding bought a little more time for expansion and by late 2010, Gannett ponied up money to hire Gimino full-time. Nevertheless, when the stipends ran out, some of the bloggers stopped posting; others posted less frequently because their personal circumstances had changed.

Evans credits the Sports Network with significantly boosting traffic to Tucson Citizen. Eight of the top 22 blogs on Tucson Citizen between September 2009 and September 2010 were sports-related and they counted for nearly 20 percent of all page views to the site, he said. WIldAboutAZCats alone sent more than 128,500 visits to TC.com in the first year.

Moreover, the inbound links ratcheted up the site's Google ranking, and with paid bloggers the site started to be indexed in Google News and Yahoo News.

Still, while the network's traffic numbers were good, they were not great enough to draw interest from the advertising sales staff that Tucson Citizen shared with the Arizona Daily Star.

The remnants of the sports network still exist, but the home-age presence and portal page are gone. Sport stories come from about 10 participants, whose blogs are rolled into the Tucson Citizen's lineup of 100 other blogs, plus feeds from USAToday and The Arizona Republic.  Only a handful of the bloggers post frequently. 

The site ramped up a social-media effort in January 2011 with a part-time hire, and the sports blogs surfaced as the backbone of that effort. "Even though the sports network is dead, the sports blogs are shared on social media far more than any other content even though other blogs outnumber sports blogs nine to one," Evans said.

"I think with a little more manpower, we might have been able to pull it off," Gimino said. "But with two and a half people for a whole site, we found ourselves limited by manpower and, without even a little carrot of grant money, it was a hard sell."

Evans feels good about the project. "Our modest success, even though we were an outlier in the project due to our unique situation, proved that a major news provider in Arizona, either the Star or the Arizona Republic, could have great success creating a sports news network."

"TucsonCitizen.com is not the vehicle to do that; it lacks the sales, technological and administrative infrastructure to pull it off, " Evans said. "But our near success despite our many handicaps proves it's a viable idea."

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