Professional Conference Call: Paul Fichtenbaum, Chief Content Officer, The Athletic

This past Friday’s guest as part of Sports Business Chronicle’s weekly conference call was Paul Fichtenbaum, Chief Content Officer at The Athletic.

Fichtenbaum discussed the early days of his career at Sports Illustrated, becoming Editor-in-Chief, what drew him to venture-backed The Athletic, how the subscription-based digital outlet evaluates new markets, hyper-local competition in varying cities, if there will ever be a pivot to video, advice for journalism students and much more.

In case you missed it, here are prior calls with professionals from Instagram Sports, Athletes First, the New York Yankees and Vegas Golden Knights, among other organizations. View our upcoming schedule, too.

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On background in sports journalism…

Been in this business a long time. After college, I started at a local newspaper and learned how to eat lunch at 3 o’ clock in the morning because I used to work the overnight, so that was a good experience and then went to work for a national magazine, the old SPORT magazine. From there I went to a magazine called Sports Ink, which was kind of the pre-run of the SportsBusiness Journal. That publication was a startup and lasted about a year or so when I was there.

Then, I was lucky enough to land at Sports Illustrated. I started off as a temporary employee and within a few months, I was able to work my way to regular staff status. I started out as a researcher reporter, which is a fancy way of saying I checked a lot of facts and that was always a humbling experience. I wrote a few stories for the magazine and realized that I wasn’t as nearly as good a writer as some of the greats who were at the magazine. I segued into an editing role, which I really liked. I liked being behind the scenes and helping shape things and working with writers and making things better.

I was at the magazine for about 14 years and got a lucky break in that we on the digital side of things, Sports Illustrated had been in partnership with CNN. We were running our digital operations out of Atlanta and the management of Sports Illustrated wanted to bring the operation up north to New York, so it could sit side-by-side with everybody else at Sports Illustrated and take editorial control of it essentially. I became the first Editor-iin-Chief of SI.com in 2004. I ran that for about eight years and then transitioned, was lucky enough to lead the franchise across all its platforms. That began in 2012, and I did that for almost four years before stepping away in the middle of the summer of 2016.

I’ve been in lots of situations and lots of different situations because of Sports Illustrated. I was allowed to build an operation from the ground up in SI.com. I actually kind of did that twice. The first time in 2004. The second time after we parted ways with Turner Sports. We were in collaboration with them for a couple years and when that partnership dissolved, we built SI.com up again. It was fun being on the ground floor, and it feels good being on the ground floor again of a company that is growing something that I think is really good. Fun times.

On how his research job at Sports Illustrated came about…

That’s a really interesting and funny story. Behind my desk in home office here, I have a framed letter that I found a few years ago when I was cleaning out some stuff in my basement. It was from 1988 or 1987. I’m not sure which year. I could take a look. It was a rejection notice from TIME Inc. when I sent in my resume to try and find a job at Sports Illustrated and was kind of told that pretty much we don’t have a job for you now and we probably won’t have a job for you later. So, I used that as a motivational tool for me because a couple years later I was lucky enough to find my way in the door.

It was by happenstance at the magazine I was working at Sports Inc. I wrote about the NHL and as it turns out, the editor of Sports Illustrated at the time, Mark Molvoy, is a huge hockey fan. He knew some people who worked at Sports Inc. and always asked them, ‘Why are you guys writing so much hockey?’ The response that he heard was, ‘Well, there was a guy there who has a lot of ideas’. So when Sports Inc. went out of business, Mark got in touch with me and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come and do a little consulting with me over the summer?’ I did a little consulting with him and at the end of the summer, he said, ‘Why don’t you come on board?’ That’s how I made my way into the halls of Sports Illustrated. It was serendipitous for sure. I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

On what drew him to The Athletic…

I left SI in July of 2016. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do. I knew I kind of felt wrung out from the legacy media business. I had been in it for a long time. It’s a challenging business in a disrupted market. It’s a tough slot. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I thought it might be fun to try the startup game. I worked with a couple of startups as a consultant. I met Alex (Mather) and Adam (Hansmann). Again, it was kind of serendipitous. A contact of mine who I knew from the Turner Sports years kind of called me after he saw the announcement that I was leaving SI and said, ‘Hey, I know this company that is starting up and I could facilitate a discussion’. I said, ‘Sure, what the heck?’

I was actually in San Francisco talking to a few companies, and I met up with Alex and Adam and I was really drawn to a lot of things. They have a very focused business plan and a smart business plan. These guys, I felt, really understood the possibilities and the daylight that was occurring in the sports world because of all the pull back from both local and national media. Instantly, I felt like this was a really good play. I started working with them on a consultancy basis. I gave them some ideas on some editorial things that I thought would work in their world. I helped them do a little recruiting a few months later. We kept in touch and then when there was this major disruption in the sports marketplace in early 2017, they asked me to come on board a couple months later to help build the foundation for a bigger media company, and I was thrilled to do it.

On what makes The Athletic unique and working with the co-founders, who came from Silicon Valley…

I loved the fact that they were a little different from the traditional media. I loved the fact that they looked at things differently. They have a unique viewpoint. Mostly, they are hardcore sports fans who felt like there were a lot of people around the country who were not being served as well as they should be. There was an opportunity there to serve a passionate sports fan. What’s not to be drawn by that? It was really pure. As I like to say, without any advertising, it’s back to basics.

I went to journalism school many years ago to learn how to tell stories. Then, you get into the real world and if you’re a part of the advertising marketplace or if your business is based on advertising, whether that’s print or digital advertising, it gets a little more complicated. This was a pure play. I am now focused specifically on a constituency of one. That’s the reader. If we can make that connection with the reader, if we can provide value to the reader, then we have a really good shot at success. We’ve been very good and focused on that, and that’s why the company has grown so rapidly in such a short time.

On if there’s a relief not dealing with advertisements and the chase for clicks/page views…

It’s exhilaration really. It’s what we all got into the business to do. It’s to tell great stories. As I talk to people, both in our company and outside our company, and talk to people I’ve been doing a lot of recruiting over the past six months as we’ve been expanding rapidly, one thing I tell everybody is that I’m never going to ask them to write the State Farm play of the game and insert it into their copy. You do that in traditional media if you’re based on advertising, it’s fine. It is what it is. That’s the business model. That’s what pays the bills. You do whatever you need to do. For us, it’s just solely about the consumer and the audience and how do we tell great stories that are going to be differentiating, that are going to be unique enough that somebody is going to want to pull out their credit card and subscribe and stay subscribed.

It’s an exhilarating feeling to just think about things holistically. What’s the best story we could tell and how do we tell it? There’s a reason, especially on digital outlets, that there’s a proliferation of content and a lot of places focus on quantity not quality because they’re trying to earn revenue. You earn revenue by serving pages. Every page view that a publication or publisher can turn is a revenue-producing opportunity. Because of that, that’s why there’s so much aggregation. That’s why there are so many hot takes. That’s why there’s such an SEO-focused approach from so many outlets. They need that audience to turn pages and page views. The way the publishers make the money is to turn those page views into revenue. That’s another reason why the pages are so loaded up with either autoplay video or overlays besides the regular ad units that are on traditional pages. There are units that slide up, slide down and slide from the side to have a very disrupted reading experience.

I like to say you’re going to a lot of sites and you’re playing Whac-A-Mole. Just trying to close out of everything just to get to what you’re trying to get to. We don’t deal in any of that. It is a relief. It is great to just think about what are the best stories that we can do. How do we tell them in a way that is going to be unique and differentiating? Frankly, I’d rather depend on my ability and the ability of the great staff we have on hand to tell good stories and gain an audience that way than more of the traditional advertising approach.

On if The Athletic plans to stay subscription based versus testing other business models…

I never approach that subject with the founders. That is beyond the scope of my responsibility. Everything I talk to them about is the subscription business. I don’t foresee that. I would say it is probably better to talk to those guys about that since that’s not really my area of responsibility.

On balancing national vs. hyper-local coverage…

Those things intermingle very easily. We definitely super serve the local fan. That is our bread and butter. The national verticals that we’ve launched have been opportunistic in a lot of ways. There was a lot of talent to be had because of the marketplace. What we can do is create a product that overlays. The national coverage can overlay the local coverage. The beautiful part is that the platform is customizable enough that you can just choose the kind of stories that you want, the authors that you’re looking for and the teams you’re hoping to get information on.

You can just personalize it to your specs and having more choices is better than fewer. If you think about the bundle that is available to subscribers, what started off as just a few local markets now has grown to 28 or 30 local markets with several national markets and you get everything for the same price. It’s a really rich possibility as a subscriber that you could choose the best journalism across the landscape via sport or your local team. We think they work well together and have not had any conflicts because of it. It’s just more choice for the subscriber.

On if The Athletic has any markets that surprise him based on fan interest/readership…

Honestly, not really. I think things are going as we had plotted out and planned. We’re getting great buy-in in a lot of places. We know that there are a lot of markets that used to be three newspaper towns or two newspaper towns that have been consolidated into a one newspaper town. We knew in some of those markets in which there are few choices for the local fan that we could make a big impact in. I don’t feel like there’s been any surprises for us. It’s the reason why the CEO, the co-founders, have planned this out and the expansion plans have gone the way they have because they’ve been well thought out. I really don’t feel like there’s been any ‘Aha’ moments for us. I think it’s progressed naturally and sort of along the lines of what we’ve expected.

On the strong emphasis on NHL coverage…

When we launched Toronto, there was a great outpouring of support. Even in the capital of Canada, there was not as much coverage of their national sport as there used to be. If you think about the newspaper industry in Canada and the newspaper industry in the U.S., the industry in Canada has been hit even harder in pullbacks in support and consolidation than it has in the U.S. There was definitely an opportunity. We realized how little coverage there was for hockey across the board. We started getting more aggressive.

Then, in September of 2017, we had a pretty big launch. We launched the national hockey vertical, along with coverage in the rest of the Canadian NHL cities that we did not have coverage in previously. It’s been a raging success for us. We’ve expanded that coverage across North America in the U.S., and hockey is a very big stronghold for us because so many outlets, so many local entities, when they cut back on their coverage, a lot of times hockey is the first sport to go. Of the major sports, it’s perceived to have the smallest fan base. We’ve been able to go into a lot of places and provide some really good coverage. The response has been pretty exciting.

On if two subscription sports sites, like The Athletic vs. Boston Sports Journal, can co-exist in one market…

Yeah. I think each market is different and should be thought about on a case-by-case basis because of the differences in how the fan bases react. I do think there’s plenty of room in these markets for differentiated coverage and deep coverage and unique coverage. That’s what we hope to bring in. We’re fine with the competition. We understand. I think the reason you’re seeing so many more of these subscription sites popping up across the country is that the digital advertising business is so challenging. It’s very difficult to make money and frankly, the direct-to-consumer market is a much safer one if you think about it.

There’s a reason why there’s been such a shift in the way publishers proceed. If you take a look around at some of the major digital operations, almost every week you see a site say, ‘Hey, we’re going to a subscription model’. I think Bloomberg did that last week or maybe two weeks ago. It’s just a very good business model. You reach your consumers directly and if you create the right community around them, you can have a subscriber for a long time. In this day and age, it’s just a better business model than most digital advertising models for all of the reasons we talked about earlier.

On engaging with subscribers through community events, comments sections, etc…

I think that’s a really important element of what our focus is. Part of it is we need to get new subscribers. The second part is once we get subscribers, we want to hug them to bring them into a community with which they can feel good about. That’s why we ask our writers and editors to get into the stories and get into the comments section in each story. If you’re a baseball fan and you’re reading Ken Rosenthal and you have a comment in there and all of a sudden, you’re getting a response from Ken Rosenthal, that’s a pretty valuable thing. Our readers have reacted really well to that. It’s something that we keep pushing our people to do — to be as community-oriented as possible.

It’s just a way to keep a subscriber for a really long time. It’s kind of fun. It’s neat. If you take a look at our comments section, they are among the best things you can read. The level of discourse is at a very high level. There are thoughtful observations and discussions going on, even on subjects you’d think would be divisive. There’s a reason for that. It’s because people are paying to be there and this kind of behavior is expected. If you get into the comments sections of the stories on the site, you’ll see a lot of really good and thoughtful ideas and the writers and editors getting in there and having those discussions on an ongoing basis. … We want to be different. If we’re asking people to give us their credit card, we’ve got to work harder at it. 

On opportunities in international sports coverage, especially soccer…

Definitely. A global outlook is something that is in the very near term of what we’re looking to do. Internally, we’re long on soccer. We think there’s great growth potential there. There are so many teams with big followings that don’t get served as well as we think they could get served. That focus is definitely with us in the short term.

On how The Athletic chooses to enter a specific market…

It’s a little bit of everything. We definitely have the eyeball test. We go in and we take a look and we determine what the coverage levels are across the board and then we make decisions based on the best knowledge we have and then we roll with that. For instance, in New York, we launched in early February. Right after we launched, we had a lot of inquiries saying, ‘Hey, why don’t you have a dedicated beat reporter for the Devils? How come you don’t have dedicated beat reporters for the two MLS soccer teams?’ We got enough of those inquiries that we said, ‘OK, we’re going to go cover the Devils and the two MLS teams’. We went out, and we brought people in to cover those beats, so we have our ear to the ground.

Every market is different. They’re run independently by local editors and writers, so they know the markets best, but at a corporate level, we definitely have our ear to the ground. We take our requests seriously. That’s part of our community, and we’re there to super serve a passionate audience. We know if we can super serve a passionate audience, that we’re going to have a really strong business. We’re never going to be done. We’re always going to be evolving and we’re always going to be listening to the readership to see what they’re looking for and try to serve them the kind of content that would make them be a subscriber and continue to be a subscriber.

On evaluating different market sizes and profitability in each…

It’s always a consideration, and we want to make sure that we have a long-term plan for all of our markets. We know that there are some markets that we’re going to go into that it’s going to be a huge hit immediately. That happened for us in the Bay Area. We launched on Aug. 1 and I have to say, we have the best-in-class edit team there. We made dramatic movement immediately and have continued in the Bay Area. There are some markets that we know are smaller and might not have as many passionate fans, yet we’re committed for the long-term.

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The fact that we have so many other local businesses around the country to either support it both on the business and edit side and these national overlays that we think add a tremendous value. We definitely take into account the market size and the possibilities, but the really cool thing is that we’re always thinking long-term and that’s why sometimes we’ll even launch a market with one or two writers. Then build out from there. We did that with Minnesota. We launched hockey coverage with Mike Russo and three months after we launched with Mike, we cover every professional team and a bunch of college hockey teams in Minnesota. The great part is the founders have a long-term vision here and are not really concerned with short-term blips, because we do feel that long-term, if we do the right things, we can make a really good business out of it.

On the biggest shift in the sports media landscape…

The biggest difference on the content side is the digital marketplace. It’s changed everything. And TV. The proliferation of coverage on TV. There are very few games that don’t get broadcast. Almost every game will be broadcast, so there’s a proliferation of news. There’s so much of it. As a brand, how do you cut through the clutter to deliver something that could be different for the readership? I think that’s a challenge for a lot of publishers.

I just think there are so many different outlets for content, including social, which everybody is on every minute of the day. News becomes very transactional. To me, the most important news or the best news to get if you’re working at a content company is really that access news. You can make news just by getting the right access with decision-makers in sports or athletes. Transactional news is here, and it’s gone pretty quickly because everybody takes it. It’s just the proliferation of outlets, the availability of news 24/7 that’s sort of changed how you have to think about content.

On how much emphasis there is on breaking news…

It all depends on the skills of the person who works for us. There are some people who are always breaking news. We love breaking news. It gets people into the top of the funnel. Then, once we get them into the top of the funnel, they can sample all the rest of the stuff we have and hopefully, make them a long-term reader. Breaking news is great. Access news is really good. It really depends on the skill of the reporter. There are just some people who are wired for breaking news and have contacts. There are some people who are really better at big picture, thoughtful, deeply-reported stories. There’s always a push and pull. Whether you have something that could expire soon. Whether you want to get it published on the platform or if you’re going to use Twitter to get that news out. That’s a discussion that’s had all the time between editors and writers. Then on a case-by-case basis, you make those decisions.

On his advice to students looking to get into the sports media industry…

I would say it’s a very challenging place. It’s very challenging because in most places, budgets are slimmer and getting slimmer than expanding. I always tell people that it’s great to have a wide set of skills to bring to an organization. In this day and age, especially in more traditional media, there are fewer staff people. Everybody is asked to do a lot more things. Just as an example over the last six months, I have been talking to a lot of baseball beat reporters, recruiting them when we launched our vertical in February.

What I learned is that there are a lot of newspapers in which the beat reporters are not only reporting, but they’re editing and they’re producing their own content. Literally publishing their own content. They go onto the CMS. They input the story into the CMS. They pick a picture. They create slideshows. They write the headline, and they self publish, which is kind of terrifying on so many levels, because there’s no safety net. It just shows me and tells me what’s really valued in a lot of newsrooms is the versatility and the ability to do several different things. Sometimes at the same time. Be able to have many different skill sets to help an organization. I would say it’s great to have a wide range of abilities because then you can fill any kind of hole that pops up.

On the pitch to recruit top talent…

I’ve been doing a lot of that. There are people on different ends of the spectrum. There are some people in the media business whose hair is on fire because of the company they work for and the requests that are being made of them. There are some people on the other end of the spectrum who are quite comfortable where they are. I talk to people about the future and the business model and how successful that is, and I think that’s sort of the future.

I also tell them that what we hope to do is to unleash the creativity of the writers by asking them to do less but better things. We don’t do aggregation. We don’t want to do hot takes. We don’t do traditional game recaps. What we’re looking for, I like to say, is the second day story the first day. A more feature look at something, more analytical, deeper reporting. For instance, I hired a football writer a couple months ago. The football writer told me that the requirement was the person had to write 30 stories per week on average. That’s like four to five per day. It’s hard to do your best work when you’re churning out copy. What we’re hoping to do is to get one really good piece per day that’s better than you can get elsewhere. If we can do that, I then think we can make an impact with the audience.

What we’re allowing people to do is to do really good work in their careers and that’s appealing. If you talk to the baseball writers, and I use baseball as an example because the season is so long, for a typical writer at many outlets, they’re writing four or five stories before the game starts. During the game, they have their head down typing away because at the final out, they have to push a button because they have a deadline to meet and then they run downstairs to the press conference. Get a quote. Plug it in. Hit send. Then Groundhog Day, do it again the next day. I want our people not to type during the game. To actually watch the game. Then after the game, look around. You can wait out everybody in the clubhouse because we don’t have those deadlines. We don’t have a printing press or delivery truck deadline to meet.

 The next guest for our weekly professional conference call is with Sean Henry, Chief Executive Officers at the Nashville Predators. It’ll be Friday, May 18 from 3:00-4:00 p.m. ET.

The pitch is that we can allow people the flexibility to do the best work of their careers and support that work. That’s a very powerful thing to tell people who have come into the business the same way I did. That’s really to learn how to tell stories and to tell those stories. To be able to sort of unleash that creativity, get people some time to breathe and produce work that is well-crafted is really a compelling thing. … I think that the word I hear a lot is grinding. A lot of writers think they’re being forced to grind because that is what’s required of them. We can provide them with a different level of opportunity that I know is very powerful.

On if The Athletic’s vision has stayed the same over time since joining as a consultant in Aug. 2016…

Yes, it’s stayed the same. The focus is tight, and it’s really finding the best talent in the market and seeing if we can bring that best talent on board. If we can produce things that are better than the competition, then we’re going to win. Our first inquiries in markets are who do we think are the best-in-class people. That’s been a focus from day one.

On bringing on Rick Reilly as a contributor, media reporter Richard Deitsch and other big name journalists…

We’re looking for people who we think can produce best-in-class work. That’s really the most important thing. We know that if they have a large audience, that a certain percentage of their audience will make its way to our doors. We try to always balance the journalistic side of things with the audience side and with many people, there’s a great match. Like you mentioned, Richard Deitsch. He does fantastic work, and he’s got a big audience. We brought him on board, and he’s made a great impact for us. We’re looking for people who we think can do some unique things, some things that are differentiating. I know you’re probably sick of hearing this, but that’s how we feel like we could make inroads is by showcasing and doing things that are different from what other outlets are doing.

On if The Athletic plans to stay away from the pivot to video pattern in sports media…

Well for now, that’s what our focus is. There’s a reason so many media outlets have done that “pivot to video.” It’s because CPMs for video are $30 and CPMs for text are $1, so it’s really following the advertising dollars instead of following the audience desires because most of the audience is not looking for that video. If they’re looking for video, a lot of them are looking for live streaming games, so our focus is entirely on our audience. We’re dialed into them. We’ll do whatever we need to to make sure they’re super served.

There probably will be a time later on that we may want to kick the tires on some video. It’s not now. At the moment, we’re almost entirely focused on the written word. We do do some podcasting in spots here and there. We do think that’s a really good storytelling tool, but again, these digital media outlets that rely on digital advertising dollars have pivoted to video because either they understand that there’s a much larger CPM for digital video advertising, or they’re solely hoping to use it as a promotional arm for their TV network. Both of those don’t necessarily intersect with the desires of the reader. I get why they do it. I was part of it. I did it when I was at SI. Now we’re in a different world at The Athletic, where we don’t have to worry about advertising dollars. We just worry about the subscriber needs.

On favorite stories at The Athletic that have come out recently…

I would think some of the longer stories that we’ve done. There was an amazing story on Artemi Panarin from the Columbus Blue Jackets that was done maybe last month or six weeks ago, which talked about him coming from such a poverty-stricken area. Just a thoughtful and important story to tell. Katie Strang did a story a couple weeks ago on a former NHL player who was sexually abused and how that led him down a dark place, in which eventually he died young because of a drug overdose and the tentacles that come out of that story. We’ve done some really important stories that I think register on a lot of levels. It’s hard to pick out specific ones, but those are two that are semi-recent that have made an impact on me.

About Mark J. Burns

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