I hadn’t intended to do this quite so early, but you have to roll with the unexpected. So on Wednesday I put an ad on Craigslist for part-time soccer writers.
I’ve got a few applicant interviews lined up already, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to reach out to the readers here to see if any of y’all might be interested. I also figured this might be a good chance for me to give readers a status report on the site and its growth. CHSSoccer.net doesn’t exist without your support, loyalty and feedback, which makes you more or less our board of directors.
So why hire now?
First, some background.
The original idea for this site was that if we could generate a loyal audience around the best independent source for soccer news in the Lowcountry, we could offer something of value to soccer-related businesses and organizations. We’ve always thought of CHSSoccer.net as more than just a place for businesses to run ads, but as an opportunity for soccer-related organizations to create long-term relationships with fans by sponsoring coverage of individual topics.
At the beginning, CHSSoccer.net focused solely on the Charleston Battery. Then we branched out to cover some spring college soccer, some South Carolina United Battery Academy events, plus some fan culture and youth development. But entire topics — like local high school soccer, club soccer, rec soccer — have gone untouched. That’s not because we’re not interested. On the contrary. It’s because the site so far has been a one-man show, and I have to do this between my paying jobs as a freelance writer/editor/web-hack/illustrator/media-consultant/researcher/bike-mechanic. My wife pitches in when she can, but she has a full-time job.
That’s where sponsorship comes in.
This site will never require sponsorship as a pre-condition for coverage. If we see a story we think should be written, we’re on it. But when an organization pays to sponsor coverage of a topic, that agreement comes with our guarantee that the site will publish a minimum number of articles on that topic for each sponsored month. We then take that sponsorship money and use it to contract with the beat reporters we’ll need to make sure that we exceed that minimum requirement week after week. Coverage is free. Sustained, focused, high-quality coverage takes commitment.
That’s the idea, anyway. And when I first started thinking about this back in the winter, I figured it would take three or four months to build the base audience I’d need to be able to even begin thinking about expansion. For me to sell a sponsorship, I’ve got to be able to look another businessperson in the eye and say “This is a deal I’d take if it was offered to me.”
Only here we are in early May and the site already has its first full-fledged topic sponsor, Ralph Lundy Soccer Academy. More businesses have indicated an interest in working with us. And the audience here has grown to more than 1,100 readers*, with the majority of you returning on a loyal basis. Our average daily/weekly traffic isn’t where I’d like it to be yet, but it’s ahead of schedule and the trajectory is promising. And when I look at the other goal — of becoming the best source for soccer news in the Lowcountry — the numbers prove show that we’re well on our way.
Since we started reporting on the Charleston Battery as our test case here on Feb. 8, CHSSoccer.net has published 74 articles with a Charleston Battery News category tag. Not only have we written more articles with more words on more Battery-related topics than any of our competitors, but if there’s been Battery news to break, we’ve been the ones to break it.
That didn’t mean we rushed gossip out without confirmation or broke stories in ways that we thought would be detrimental to the legitimate interests of the team. It just meant that we did the work, week in and week out. We don’t have special access or anonymous inside sources. We just spend more time caring about Battery news, week after week.
The next step is to start giving proportional attention to the other segments of soccer in the Lowcountry. And since I can’t clone myself, that means adding staff.
So that’s our story so far. The growth of the site and the interest it’s generating is running slightly ahead of my projections, and to move to the next level is going to require adding a few writers (and eventually, photographers) to the rotation.
There are a lot of pretty-good news sources that run on what I call the Tom Sawyer’s Fence Business Model. That is, the publisher gets people to provide free content, and then profits from their contributions. In some cases, that’s not only an excellent plan, but the only way to get coverage on topics that don’t generate enough revenue to justify hiring professionals.
I’m not opposed to that idea. But where I come from, it’s just good business to pay people for their work if you possibly can. Just because you can get something for free doesn’t mean that you should, and that’s not just idealistic altruism talking. It’s hard to demand that volunteers meet deadlines, abide by ethical standards, or even show up to work. We want to pay our contributors because we expect them to produce quality work. The last thing this world needs is another crappy blog.
I’ve been telling clients for years that the best way to build something that lasts is to build something that generates value for everyone involved. Now I’m trying to live my own advice. So while this site will accept some free writing and photography as it grows, our plan is to transition as quickly as possible to splitting all sponsorship revenue with the people who will produce sponsored content.
Not only do I believe this model will lead to better content, I also believe it will create a special relationship between sponsors and readers. If you sponsor coverage of women’s soccer here, you’re not just advertising your product. You’re literally paying someone to report and write the unique articles that soccer people care about and traditional mass media never provides. I don’t know about you, but I appreciate organizations that support the communities I value. The bet here is that I’m not the only one who will remember which organizations support soccer in the Lowcountry.
What it means for writers
If you’re a member of the local soccer community — in whatever role — and you’d be interested in trying out for the staff rotation at CHSSoccer.net, I’d very much like to talk with you. A background in journalism is not a requirement. A love of soccer, however, is non-negotiable.
Applicants should expect to be both challenged and encouraged. I’m a former newspaper editor who ran news staffs in North and South Carolina before I quit the business in 2008. Sportswriting is new to me, but the basics of good journalism apply across topics. I’ve trained people with no journalism background to become successful reporters and editors, and helped dozens of reporters, old and young, improve their abilities. It’s a process that involves direct professional feedback and serious expectations, so please don’t apply just because you think blogging about soccer would be an easy part-time job.
I’ll give qualified applicants tryouts here on the site. The ones who show the most promise will be added to the staff rotation and will get the first shot at paying work on sponsored topics. Your earning potential in the early going will be pathetic, and much of that will be straight out of my pocket — more a token of appreciation than a meaningful rate. But those who do the best job reporting on sponsored topics will have the opportunity share a significant split of the value of their future coverage. You’re not going to get rich doing something like this, but for the right type of person, there are rewards that go beyond the extra beer money.
If you’re a young writer considering a career in communications, the money will be the least valuable part of the job. If you’re a grown adult like me and you’re interested in writing about soccer for whatever reason, I hope you’ll at least set up a time for us to talk. I value the wisdom and insight that comes with age.
To set up a chance to talk about writing opportunities at CHSSoccer.net, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. To review requirements and expectations, please read the ad on Craigslist.
Thanks for reading,
*The “individual readers” figure I use is based on the Google Analytics report for the most recent 30 days. The total number of “unique visitors” to the site is therefore higher than my “individual readers” figure, but I use the lower number because the most recent 30 days is a better indication of actual, active audience than some vague all-time count.