She'd already begun crying. And not in the good way.
This was five years ago, the summer of 2014. I'd been growing increasingly disillusioned with the state of newspapers, mostly that I hated that our profession was being anchored to print and, thus, was being dragged right down with it. But this time was different, and my wife Dali could detect that right away from how I was speaking about it.
A decision had been made at the Tribune-Review, the paper employing me at the time, to change commenting platforms on their blogs.
No big deal, right?
Well, maybe not to the no-online-experience-whatsoever people making that decision. But it sure as hell was a big deal to me. Because by switching from WordPress to Facebook, the commenting community I'd built up for years -- going back to my tenure at the Post-Gazette -- would have been obliterated. Everyone would've had to re-register. Everyone would've had to use real, full names. Which, of course, almost no one would do.
I resisted. Passionately. And they relented ... until I took a week's vacation and they implemented the change while I was away.
That was it. As the iconic character Milton from the cinematic masterpiece 'Office Space' spoke when he'd been pushed too far:
"OK," he spoke. "I could set the building on fire."
My wife Dali had been rolled up on the couch. It was the middle of the night. She's been dead tired from a long day, but she humored me and listened as I started prattling on. I wasn't sitting. I was standing in the middle of the living room. Bouncing around like an over-caffeinated infant. All fired up. About how newspapers wouldn't even exist within a decade. About how, in the interim, newspapers weren't making any meaningful initiatives toward monetizing their product. About how absurd it was that the whole industry, it seemed, just seemed to be awaiting its ultimate fate.
That's when the tears came. Because she'd seen me like this at other times, and she knew there was no going back from whatever insane thing I was about to say.
So I raised the possibility of a subscription site.
(No reaction from her.)
I brought up the idea of simply starting up from scratch. Leaving newspapers altogether.
I retold the tale from 2004 at the Athens Olympics, when I was on a media bus with ESPN's Stephen A. Smith. He'd only heard of my name as a baseball writer in Pittsburgh, but even that surprised me. And without having any reason to invest time in this virtual nobody in his life, he instead spoke with great gusto -- I'll bet you know what that sounds like -- of properly recognizing one's individual brand within the structure. He spoke of his own experience in negotiating new contracts when he was a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He spoke of finding out, with mathematical support, how much he meant to that paper's readership.
Being honest here, I thought he was nuts. Because that's not the paper mentality. No one, not even a star like him, pulls that off. And then as now, I don't exist in the same solar system as someone of that stature.
But what he said in that hour we shared on that bus in Greece never left me. I'd always ask about online numbers at the PG. I'd always emphasize the online content and, above all, the online connection with readers through features, such as the old Penguins Q&A. I always wanted to know more, to do more in that area. Because it felt, unlike everything related to print, as if it had a chance to grow rather than shrivel up and die.
(This didn't move her at all. I mean at all.)
I knew I had to shelve the idealism at this stage. It was time to get real. I was making a six-figure salary at the Trib, with health insurance, benefits, the whole deal. I'd be walking away from that with two young children, a mortgage on the house and all the other scary stuff that comes with such a scenario. And she, unlike me, is the pragmatic one. Until I'd come up with a financial formula, this was going to be a waste of breath and tears.
Well, given that no one anywhere had tried something this stupid -- walking out on existing employment to start an independent, competing, unique media entity -- I obviously had to get creative with the cash component.
"What would we charge?" she asked.
I don't know.
"Why would anyone pay for something they can get for free?"
"How much money would we need just to live, to pay the bills, to make this worth it?"
Yeah ... so I took a stab at a formula, and it was nothing more than that, as I hadn't been prepared at all: 10,000 readers at roughly $20 a year. That was it. And if we got that, we'd clearly have $200,000 in cash, enough to cover our bills (she'd have to quit her job, too), as well as travel, tech and other site expenses. This wasn't exactly a profitable perspective, but hey, it was about starting up.
(The crying finally stopped.)
"Do you have 10,000 readers?" she asked.
I have no idea. I mean, I know my page views at both papers, and the hotter columns -- Steelers, Penguins -- would reach around 20,000-25,000 page views.
"That's fine, but those are free. How many would be willing to pay?"
I mean ...
"Can you get it to 10,000?"
I ... think so?
"What about the people who comment? Would they come aboard?"
I finally lit back up. They'd definitely come. Of that I had no doubt. Not being presumptive, either. It's just that a connection is a connection, and I'd felt that for years.
"So, what if they get the ball rolling, we build up some momentum and it takes off?"
Not knowing how long my window would be to convince her, I then went full-bore into embracing the concept. Right then and there.
You know how businesses always tell their customers WE COULDN'T HAVE DONE IT WITHOUT YOU or something like that?
Well, we really couldn't have.
My vacation was going to be over Monday morning, and I was not going back to the Trib. But I had only four days to sort things out and, ideally, launch. The last perception we'd want is that I'd quit without anything lined up. There needed to be something.
First step was to reach out to the Steelers, Penguins, Pirates and Pitt. If I wasn't going to get credentialed, this wasn't going anywhere. Fortunately, the main people with those organizations -- relationships developed over many years -- were not only awesome but also encouraging.
Next was to seek as much advice as I could from people I trusted. So I called Tom McMillan, the Penguins' longtime vice president and one of the smartest men I know. I called Dave Molinari, who I'm told has found new work recently. I called my dad.
My dad's been gone a year. I miss him every day. I really miss him today.
I also called Milo Pavlik. Some of you will know him as 'Milo Hamilton' from the comment section. I always felt he'd had the fairest handle on our community, including letting me have it when I deserved it. So I emailed and asked if we could hook up by phone. He generously offered his time. We talked about the community, about whether this could work, about whether we could ramp up that momentum we'd need. And Milo was both excited and encouraging.
That meant more in that moment than I can convey.
So, at a little after 9:30 a.m. on July 23, 2014, after I'd announced via Twitter that I was leaving the Trib to start my own site, we launched under the following banner:
Wife did that. She taught herself graphics, because she knew we'd need that skill, and she worked like crazy on what's up there. But, just as she hates it now, so, too, did the earliest of the site trolls ... some Philly fans on a Flyers blog made this to make fun of it:
Come on. That's really funny. I've treasured it ever since.
That led to Alex Messmer, an immediate subscriber living in Austria, helping out. He's a professional graphic designer, and he'd produce the logo that adorns the site/app to this day, as well as a bunch of fun promos that helped us carve a niche as being a little different, maybe a little more fun:
Alex was instrumental for us. So much of what we needed to achieve was to look professional, you know?
My first column for the site was from PNC Park, running on the same day as the launch, about Justin Wilson hitting a batter to send a message. Having it be baseball made sense, given the time of year, but having it be right from a game, with no deadline, with a chance to scour the clubhouse for original information, that set a personal bar for a long time.
From there, the readers came bursting through the doors: $28,000 in the first three days, entirely in subscriptions. Wife had been arranging a $100,000 loan through PNC, and we called that off. We'd bootstrap it every step of the way because, to keep repeating the theme, the readers made it that way.
The rest has been told and retold. We experienced championship-level highs, and we went through lows, as well, mostly brought about by a few miserable people who couldn't stand what we'd become and hoped to cut it down. We did do things differently. We disrupted, as they say in the business world. We became noticed all across the continent, sparking other ventures like ours on various scales. We became every bit of the Pittsburgh sports landscape as any other outlet. We developed an app. We developed proud partnerships, both in business and in other media networking. We kept growing and growing, both in scope and in quality.
It all began with you.
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