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Star Tribune joins 48 dailies in sharing sports content

They pinkie-swear this is not about cutting out AP. But how much will a new content-sharing alliance among 49 daily papers — including the Strib — change your sports section?

The unnamed consortium — modeled after the 16-month-old Ohio News Organization — expects to begin by the NFL regular-season opener, says the chief organizer, Cleveland Plain Dealer sports editor Roy Hewitt. The newspapers will share coverage plans — and the resulting stories — via a password protected website.

Each editor can then pluck stories from the pool to fill in gaps left by the industry’s financial cutbacks — say, a championship not involving a local team, or an “advancer” on an upcoming opponent written by the beat writer that knows that team best.

While the consortium was organized under the auspices of the Associated Press Sports Editors, Strib assistant managing editor for sports Glen Crevier says, “AP doesn’t always move stories from other newspapers, or they might move a very shortened version. This way, you can use what you want — 20 inches [of copy], or 2 inches.”

On a very basic level, it makes sense that 49 outlets that still have their markets’ largest sports staffs help each other. Instead of ad-hoc, one-off arrangements, pooling will become instant, and a habit. Editors in Ohio were initially reluctant to tell each other what they were up to, but now don’t hold anything back.

Seeking Google juice
One of the alliance’s key facets: maximizing web traffic.

Members can reprint anything they want on paper, but online, can only offer a headline, excerpt, and link to the originating site. That way, the paper that crafted the story gets most of the hits — with only one full version floating around the web, maximizing Google juice.

(Coincidentally, AP is attempting the very same scheme for its own investigations and original content. The wire service wants to make papers link to a central site, even though the papers themselves own AP. The Strib and Plain Dealer, like many other outlets, have given notice they’ll withdraw from the wire service, but that’s a bargaining position over price, fueled by a draconian two-year advance-notice requirement.)

While the content creators get a bump, the sending site might also see an uptick, as a more useful sports aggregator for locals.

I learned the virtue of this when I started doing Daily Glean. After every home team win, I included “Sore Loser,” with a link to the visitor paper’s game story and columns. Near as I could tell, readers loved it — any time I forgot to include the post-victory links, I heard about it. I’ve always wondered why dailies, the largest news websites in their markets, don’t do a better job of aggregating anything involving the home teams.

Hewitt, a veteran of the Ohio pool, says “For me and the Plain Dealer, it’s more about enhancing the website than enhancing the paper. Most of the copy in the paper is produced by my own writers — we don’t have a wide-open page I can’t fill.”

The end of out-of-town travel?
Any sports staffer with frequent-flier miles can see the writing on the wall: a necklace of big-market back-scratchers will hasten the demise of out-of-town travel. Some day, sports scribes might be like local reporters: rarely, if ever, leaving their metro areas.

Hewitt says that hasn’t happened in Cleveland. His paper’s reporters still regularly travel to NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and Big Ten away games — and unlike Crevier’s gang, continue to cover the perennial Indians-free World Series and non-Browns Super Bowl.

“My reader is used to my guys — no one in the Twin Cities is going to know the Indians like my guy does,” says Hewitt, who ran the PiPress sports section from 1988 to 1993. “We’re better because we are unique, and we have to maintain that advantage [to get web traffic and subscribers]. But it would be great to have a Pat Reusse [link] the week before the Browns-Vikings game.”

Crevier says the benefit accrues on stories where his troops are not the experts. “For me, it’s particularly interesting for big events,” but adds that instead of Vikings writer Mark Craig doing a Bears Week feature on Devin Hester, he can pull one from Chicago. That would free Craig up to do more proprietary Vikings stories, videos, blog posts, or whatever.

Hewitt notes that the Chicago reporter will not be writing for a Minnesota audience; content won’t be tailored for out-of-towners (which helps protect local staffs). If there’s a purely Minnesota angle, the Strib would have to do its own story, or add its own writing and reporting to the Chicago piece.

PiPress involvement?
Still, it isn’t hard to envision a publisher eying the arrangement and forcing more coordination. That’s necessarily not a bad thing; I recently talked to a veteran sportswriter who also questioned the need to attend every out of town game. Then again, sports drives nearly half of the Strib’s web traffic.

One thing that isn’t expensive is the pool itself. Hewitt estimates it will cost $100 to $200 per paper, mostly to pay for server space on the Plain Dealer website.

One guy who might have an acute need for such an arrangement is Mike Bass, who heads the smaller Pioneer Press sports staff. However, the PiPress is not among the initial 49 sign-ups.

 “It’s something we have discussed internally and with people overseeing the project,” Bass says. “We might end up doing it at some point, if we can work out all the details. In fairness to everyone involved, it wouldn’t be right to discuss those details. We agreed to stay in touch.”

It could be awkward for the PiPress’ twincities.com to have the same out-of-town links as the Strib, though both sites regularly run the same AP stories. If the PiPress joins the Strib, could we see each other’s stories appear on both websites?

No, says Hewitt; the Ohio arrangement protects outlets in the same market from sharing work with direct competitors.

For a full primer on the new content arrangement, see this PDF document.

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