As both an industry chronicler and a lover of journalism, I care deeply about the future of media. But I don't generally pay for news. Between Twitter, Pocket, and free articles from the websites of newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post, I'm generally able to read what I want, when I want it, without having to fork over any money.
But I do open my wallet for one particular segment of the media industry: publications that obsessively and relentlessly chronicle baseball, with a particular focus on minor league baseball and the young men who play it.
My deep, dark secret is that I am a very competitive fantasy baseball player. Have been since the age of 12. As such, I want the best information I can get -- anything to get an advantage over the other 13 teams in my league.
So, I subscribe to Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and ESPN's Insider edition, which allows me to read a particular prospect writer I love.
The services are cheap, in my opinion, when considering the value I glean from them. It costs just under $5 each month to bypass the paywall BP places on certain pieces of content, while a yearly digital subscription to BA costs $66. I'm happy to pay for this mix of journalism, in-person scouting reports, and analysis.
Across the media industry, publishers would love for readers to see their publications this way: as vital, and worth paying for. Generally speaking, the outlets that are most succesful with subscriptions fit into one of two categories: they cover a passion point or hobby, or they provide information that is potentially market-moving, like The Wall Street Journal or Bloomberg's pricey information terminal. I see baseball publications that cater to a mix of baseball lovers and fantasy baseball players as a hybrid of the two approaches.
David Appelman is the founder of Fangraphs, another publication I regularly read -- and one of the few whose address I still actually type into the URL bar each day.
Asked whether baseball enthusiast publications, with their loyal, obsessed fans, many fantasy players included, are in better shape than the rest of the media industry, Mr. Appelman demurred.
"I don't think baseball is any spot that the rest of the media market isn't it," he said. "It's a difficult business to be in right now."
But, he agreed that niche publications, like his and the other baseball bibles, have it a little bit easier.
"The raw traffic numbers in the end don't necessarily need to be there, because we can stay fairly lean from a cost perspective, and once you get to a certain size you can start to generate some real revenue," he said.
Fangraphs.com generally brings in about 1.3 million unique visitors each month, he said. ComScore puts traffic to the site lower than the figure Mr. Appelman provided, but he suggested a change in the way his site's traffic is reported by ComScore is to blame for a significant (85%) year-over-year drop in unique visitors.
In February, Fangraphs.com dropped its paywall and began offering a voluntary membership program for $20 per year. "If you've been looking for an opportunity to help contribute to the long-term growth of the site, this is your chance to do just that, and partner with us to help continue to provide data and content that helps us all understand the game of baseball a little bit better," he wrote in a note at the time.
When members leave comments on articles, they're indentified as such.
"The response has been really great," Mr. Appelman said. "People have been very supportive of that model." He declined to say how many readers paid for a Fangraphs+ subscription, or how many have signed up for membership.
Baseball America, which publishes 24 print editions each year, has long put digital content behind a paywall. Echoing broader trends in the industry, a few years ago I switched my subscription -- shared with my father -- from a print and digital combination to digital-only. A one-year subscription, including the print edition, the digital edition and online access, goes for $89.97, about $24 more than a digital-only plan.
"It's a trusted source, it's a relied-on source, and people are willing to pay for the content because it's unique," said Norb Garrett, exec VP-Sports and entertainment for BA parent company The Enthusiast Network.
Even though BA's subscription numbers are "very consistent and solid," he said, TEN, as it's called, is focused on turning some of the brand's online enthusiasts into paying customers by way of an active social media presence. Here, BA shares a challenge with most digital media outlets that have a paid subscription component: getting people who engage with the brand online to actually sign up and pay up.
Between print, digital, and social channels, BA boasts a monthly audience of "more than 1 million," according to a media kit. Thirty-thousand copies of each issue are distributed, and the magazine boasts a total print audience of 150,000. In May, BA's website brought in 655,000 U.S. multiplatform unique visitors, a 12% year-over-year increase, according to ComScore data.
TEN is happy with BA's performance, according to Mr. Garrett. But it's also open to selling it, as the New York Post reported in May, along with Slam magazine, which focuses on basketball.
He said there's been a lot of inbound interest in the brand, but that TEN isn't looking to dump it. "We're not interested in any shape or form of a discount sale," he said. "We're not unhappy with the properties at all. We're just willing to listen to what the market is dictating. We have a lot of confidence in all the brands in our portfolio."
Mr. Garrett did not provide any revenue information.
So, maybe consumer revenue, buoyed by diehard baseball dorks like me, isn't going to keep baseball enthusiast publications high above water while general interest digital outlets struggle and splash. But, engaged readers are also catnip to advertisers.
Advertising is still "far and away" the primary revenue source for Fangraphs, Mr. Appelman said. He's nonetheless considering a paid, ad-free version of the site. Fangraphs readers, like many digital readers these days, have gotten tired of online ads that they consider intrusive.
The website relies solely on programmatic advertising, rather than direct sales, and doesn't run any native advertising, though Mr. Appelman said some brands have approached him.
Fangraphs also makes money by producing exclusive pieces for ESPN Insider, which Mr. Appelman said provides a nice revenue stream.
For now, he's focused on growing Fangraphs, and is leaving it up to other, bigger media companies to figure out a sustainable path forward for the industry.
"We don't need to be the company which figures out doing well in digital media," he said, "because as somebody figures it out, that particular model will transfer."