As solo sports journalist Rick Waghorn relaunches his Norwich City news website in the first step towards franchising the service, I spoke to him about going solo, the importance of advertising, and the likely first places for the franchise to expand.
Originally, Waghorn says, the plan was to offer a franchise “in much the same way as you would set up a bathroom shop and people would buy the kit off the shelf from you.” But the plan has changed.
“I’m not sure that’s realistic in that perhaps that works for someone with a redundancy package to self-start a franchise from us, but I think the way it may work is: I’ve got some funding that we use to actually pay salaried journalists to open a Sheffield bureau or a Manchester bureau rather than someone actually buying a franchise off me.”
The new-look site is an impressive effort from a team of three people – putting most local newspaper sites to shame with clear layout and even up-to-the-minute features such as the ‘most read’ section, podcasts, blogs and a text service. Most impressive is a set of RSS feeds from what, in old media, would have been called ‘the competition’ – Waghorn clearly recognises that making your site a destination is more important than pretending the competition doesn’t exist. “If people only have ten minutes at lunch to go online, they’ll want a site that has all the details.”
In the 14 months since launching RickWaghorn.co.uk with money from a redundancy package, the site has exceeded Rick’s “wildest expectations”.
“It is very much hard work. In year one we roughly took about £35-40,000 which was done on a commission split with my ad man. It has been a huge voyage of discovery.”
Now Waghorn is planning “another voyage of discovery.”
“The theory is that what we’ve done with Norwich should be equally applicable to most other provincial football clubs,” says Waghorn, “so we’re starting to have discussions with different regional journalists. Now the question is how you service that in an advertising sense, but one of the interesting things is if you can start offering, if you like, regionality, then I can start offering, say, advertising in Suffolk to companies in Norfolk.
“Or, let’s say we looked at the three Championship sides in South Yorkshire. If we had those we could serve them all with one advertising rep, but offer someone advertising on all three, and do a bundle sale.”
Teaming up with senior advertising executive Kevin O’Gorman has been crucial, with O’Gorman working “the local beat, bringing little local firms onto the internet who have built their own websites and need to market them.
“We give them a friendly face – someone they’ve been dealing with on a local basis in the last few years, and he holds their hand and helps them online. I do the editorial and he services the advertisers in a very old-fashioned newspaper sense – and then you find a mate with a background in web design and get the lucky breaks, but I’ve found a ‘Team Rick’ which has worked well so far.”
Another key to the site’s success has been its flexibility, and speed.
“It’s very peculiar for football because few regional papers have a Sunday edition, and at Norwich Evening News I was the last match report anyone ever read – at 5 o’clock Monday night when the paperboy put the paper through the door it was 48 hours after the event. In the age of rolling news that doesn’t make sense. Now, arguably after the official club site, I’m the first match report they read because my match report goes up on the website five minutes after the match finishes. All of a sudden I become a Sunday newspaper because I put out my match report, my interviews on Sunday. Now that presents a challenge to local newspapers because what are they going to put in their Monday night newspapers?
“Also, when you’re not part of a local newspaper group you’re nimble. I can hold my hand up to dozens of mistakes we’ve made but because you’re only two or three people we can say ‘Oh, that didn’t work, let’s try that,’ and I think that nimbleness is another of the key factors in dealing with the internet.”
Rick’s advice to journalists wanting to go it alone is to recognise the importance of advertising. “Start talking to your advertising department, because just as much as the editorial department is suffering from redundancies, so is the advertising department. Most journalists will tell you that the only time you bump into anyone from the advertising department is at the Christmas party when you’re trying to get off with one. But these people have skills and contacts, and you bolt the two of us together and that’s where it’s worked, so I’d start taking your friend from the advertising department out for a drink.”