Pittsburgh Tribune-Review sports columnist gives it all up to be his own boss
Dejan Kovacevic seemed to have everything in place. He was front and center in a passionate sports town as the lead columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He had stability for his family with a nice salary and benefits.
Then last July, Kovacevic walked away from all of it to launch his own website. Even he jokes about the audacity of such a move in today's precarious media environment.
"I had a momentary lapse of reason," Kovacevic said.
Actually, Kovacevic, 48, had a vision that there was a better way for him to cover the Pittsburgh sports scene. Thus far, it is hard to argue with the results.
His site, DKonPittsburghSports, will hit its one-year anniversary with nearly 14,000 subscribers; he says they pay an average of $20 per year. He says the site also earns another $60,000 per year from sponsors.
Given the current growth, Kovacevic hopes to reach 20,000 subscribers by the end of 2015. He does the math and it comes to potential annual revenue of nearly $500,000.
"That's a lot of money," said Kovacevic, sounding almost surprised at that figure.
The money is more than enough for him to hire full-time Pirates and Penguins beat reporters for his site, and he is looking for someone to cover the Steelers. He adds he is paying "newspaper-level wages" for those positions.
Kovacevic, though, is the main attraction. He built a following with more than 20 years of covering sports in Pittsburgh. In 2011, he placed among the top 4 columnists in the Associated Press Sports Editors contest.
Kovacevic says he enjoyed working for newspapers, but he thought the future was elsewhere.
"Doing a site had been in my head for a long time," Kovacevic said. "More than anything, it was the frustration with newspapers over their inability, slash, ignorance, slash, and unwillingness with how to deal with the needs and wants of their readers."
Kovacevic said he initially had an eye-opening moment when he started a reader Q/A column while covering the Penguins in the mid-2005s. It became immensely popular, enabling him to see the potential for interaction with the readers.
Kovacevic says the coverage on his site is "personality driven" with his reporters encouraged to thrust opinions and analysis into their stories. On average, he writes four columns per week, plus a Friday insiders columns.
"We're the antithesis of newspapers, where it is faceless and you're never supposed to use ‘I' in a column," Kovacevic said. "That doesn't work anymore … Everything on our site takes a more conversational 'come-inside-with-us' tone. We take the subscribers inside the teams. To be honest, I don't see the newspapers as our competition. They're not doing it like we're doing it."
Kovacevic initially planned to take out a $100,000 loan when he started the site. However, he said he took in revenues of $38,000 from subscribers on the first day and he never had to go to the bank.
At its basic level, Kovacevic thinks his formula is simple: Sports sells. He says if Bill Gates walked into a Pittsburgh newsroom and learned the Steelers generated 40 percent of the traffic on the paper's site, he would say, ‘Which 40 percent of you are covering the Steelers?'"
"Sports accounts for more than half the traffic on any newspaper's website," Kovacevic said. "Yet these newspapers still have newsrooms of 200-300 people. It doesn't make sense. We cherry-picked the one thing everyone reads."
Kovacevic added on average most of his subscribers pay $1.50 per month, "or roughly the cost of a daily newspaper." Many of those readers access the site via an app. He said half of the site's 400,000 page views came from the app in June.
"The app has been a game-changer for us," Kovacevic said.
It remains to be seen whether Kovacevic has started a trend. Among sportswriters launching their own sites are: Gary Shelton, formerly of the Tampa Bay Times, and Dave Elfin who covers the sports beat in Washington D.C.
Kovacevic said he has fielded numerous calls from sports columnists and reporters who are interesting in starting a site. He passes along the following advice.
"In order to do this, you have to be old enough to have the trust of the community," Kovacevic said. "And you have to be young enough to see what the next waves are [in media]."
Follow-up: Last month, I did a column on how the Dallas Morning News was wrestling with whether it could afford to send a reporter to cover hometown sensation Jordan Spieth in majors. After staffing Spieth's victory in the U.S. Open, the Morning News dispatched its golf reporter Bill Nichols to St. Andrews this week. The paper decided it had to be on site for Spieth's bid to win the third leg of golf's Grand Slam.
Recommended reading in sports journalism:
ESPN's Adam Schefter defends revealing information about Jason Pierre-Paul's medical reports in an interview with Richard Deitsch of SI.com.
Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic discusses her job and journalism with Ed Odeven.
Joe Vardon talks about covering LeBron James at the APSE site.