Effective immediately, our West Virginia coverage is going on hiatus.
I hate this. I’m anything but the type to start something and not see it through. And I’ll take total blame, even though this has been discussed at length within our full staff for months. So if you’re a fan of the Mountaineers and this angers you, please direct all of it at me, including down there in the comments.
Here, hopefully, are answers to questions on this:
• Why now?
It’s entirely about money, and this is when we’ve made most of our decisions on that front.
We invested more than $50,000 in 2016 on West Virginia coverage, including having the only full-time Morgantown-based reporter of any Pittsburgh outlet. That’s a ton of money for a self-supported startup. We also traveled to the Big 12 basketball tournament, all football road games, and I provided our region’s only firsthand coverage of Ginny Thrasher’s Olympic gold in the air rifle in Rio de Janeiro.
With very, very few exceptions, the readership, though all of it was appreciated, was very low. Matt Welch would be working a live file from a game in Oklahoma, and we’ve see fewer than 200 views on the file hours after kickoff. He’d also produce extensive, ambitious features — outstanding stuff — that would see much the same.
What’s more, we had zero sponsorship support, unlike all of our other current beats. We’d known the numbers would be low for readership, but we thought we could make up some or all of that difference through sponsorships. Not one materialized despite what we felt was an extensive outreach.
This has nothing to do with the school, its alumni, its students or how much winning/losing gets done or anything like that. To repeat, we went into Morgantown when no one else from the region did.
It just didn’t work.
• What will happen to the money that’s freed up?
We actually won’t save a penny by doing this.
For one, and most obviously, Matt’s not going anywhere. You’ve seen him expand his duties in recent weeks, and you’ll soon see him doing much more on those beats and a couple surprises coming later this summer. He’s a terrific talent, and we can’t wait to see him apply that across the board.
For another, we have plans to add to our two most popular beats, the Penguins and Steelers, as well as to the remaining colleges. That will include even more travel than we did in 2016 — which almost isn’t possible — and other initiatives.
• Could anything reverse this?
Anything’s possible. If were to see a path toward making the beat profitable, almost surely in the form of a major sponsor for West Virginia coverage, we’d resume right away. But again, there’s been no trace of that to date.
• So all the other beats are profitable?
Nope. There’s always the Pirates, the only other money-loser for us. That’s partly because baseball is the most expensive to cover, but also because of slightly low readership and equally low sponsorship support. They’re just not a hot thing.
But from a coverage standpoint, we’re talking about the Pirates here. They’re an absolute must, and that will never change here. In fact, we’ve doubled the baseball coverage you’re seeing this spring and into the summer in an attempt to boost that, and I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll see that work.
All of the rest of our beats are profitable, or they don’t cost much to cover, or they’re significantly sponsored. All of them. No exceptions. Duquesne and Robert Morris bring consistent traffic and, in each case, modest sponsorships. The Riverhounds are below what we want for readership, but they do OK during their season, which starts Saturday. Also, they and their primary corporate partner, Allegheny Health Network, have been major sponsors/partners to the site from the day we launched. Without the efforts of the Hounds and AHN in the early days, this place wouldn’t exist, plain and simple.
If the Pirates are the only exception to being profitable, we can live with that. To repeat yet again, they aren’t optional.
• What about Penn State, which is so much farther away?
Depends on how that’s defined, I guess. State College is obviously a lot farther than Morgantown, but there are more Penn State alumni in Allegheny County than in any county anywhere. And what’s more, when we did the same thing there that we did in West Virginia — hire the only full-time reporter based in State College, Audrey Snyder — it resulted in traffic that actually topped Pitt for a while, as well as significant sponsorship revenue.
Geography, like all the other stuff I mentioned above, means nothing. It’s about the reader response and revenue.
I’ll be in comments, as you’d imagine, for anything you might have. But I want to close with this: Because of our West Virginia coverage, we were able to uncover not only Welch but also Matt Sunday, two enormous assets for this venture, and I couldn’t be happier about that.