'Baseball Digest' Claims Web As New Ballpark

Baseball Digest At 76, Norman Jacobs is not in a rush. But it doesn't appear that the laid-back, good-humored Midwesterner ever was. And over the past decade, as publications have--perhaps shortsightedly--made all their content free on the Web, his methodical approach may have served him well.

Baseball Digest, where Jacobs is the owner and publisher, has had only a token Internet presence and has used the Web mainly as a way to gain subscribers. An article here or there was accessible on its site, but the offbeat statistics and historical pieces the magazine is known for have remained in the print version only.

As publications have risked losing subscribers unwilling to pay when the same material is gratis on the Web, Jacobs has avoided the risk. Now, even as Baseball Digest launches its first attempt at a robust site March 1, he's hewing to the walled garden.

"You've got to be careful," he says.

BaseballDigest.com, the new online destination for the 67-year-old magazine Jacobs has owned since 1969, will not offer any of the print publication's content. Instead, the aim is to draft off the brand and build what amounts to a separate business.

Billed as "the oldest, continuously published baseball magazine in the United States," the unflashy Baseball Digest comes out eight times a year and has a circulation of 125,000. Subscribers pay $23.94 annually. Jacobs says even in today's difficult times, it remains profitable, but will not provide details.

With one salesperson and the bulk of its ads for collectibles and other mail-order items, circulation revenues are its bedrock. And Jacobs says that has helped it weather the current economic climate and previous recessions. Newsstand sales account for about 10% of circulation, leading to an estimate of some $2.8 million in sales.

In advance of the new site's launch, online editor Mark Healey has given Baseball Digest a presence on Facebook and Twitter, and an Internet radio show. This is quite an evolution for a magazine that is still published on newsprint with no color photos, save the cover.

Healey, a former journalist, founded Gotham Sports Media four years ago with a Web site and magazine devoted to New York's baseball teams. The company now has a collection of properties focusing on Big Apple sports. But Healey found himself coveting a national footprint.

An avid reader of Baseball Digest since he was a kid, Healey knew Jacobs from when they explored a co-venture in 2006. And last year, he approached him about building a site for the magazine. They cut a revenue-sharing deal where Healey would have operating control. (Healey declined to provide details about the arrangement.)

"We've worked out a situation where we're going to establish his brand online," he says.

Healey describes the coming debut as a "soft launch" and while his broad editorial vision is in place, fully executing it will take some time. A goal is to closely cover all Major League teams, and he's lining up bloggers and some newspaper writers who are recently out of work for that. He wants to bring video to the site, but that's down the line. Also planned is fantasy baseball advice and access to a wealth of statistics. Decisions about ad sales--whether to use an ad network or sell it alone--are still being made.

"It will be spring training for us," Healey says.

A month ago, Healey launched an Internet radio show, "Baseball Digest Live," that will have a prominent link on the site. And thanks to Google's archiving, visitors will be able to scroll through full issues of the magazine going back to July 1945 (in that issue, a writer questioned the future of baseball on the radio).

"It will be a terrific research tool and a lot of fun to go back and see who's on the covers," says Jacobs.

When he bought the magazine, the cover price was 50 cents (it's now $4.99) and Tom Seaver of the New York Mets was named its player of the year.

Exactly where BaseballDigest.com will fit within the mass of baseball content on the Web remains in question. Competitors range from blogs about local teams to BaseballAmerica.com to ESPN.

But Healey isn't worried about finding a role, using the pre-sets on a car radio as a metaphor. "Most people don't listen to just one show or to one station every day," he says.

Baseball fans who crave information visit multiple sites a day. And Healey says all BaseballDigest.com needs to do is become part of the rotation. "It's unrealistic to say that we're going to replace anybody--we just want to complement the other sites out there, and give people another place to spend some time," he says.

Back in 1981, Baseball Digest the magazine had more than found a niche as it reached its historic circulation peak of 325,000. But that was before even USA Today, and fans had far fewer sources for national baseball coverage.

Then and now, a typical issue features a popular "Fans Speak Out" section where the editors respond--often with lengthy comments--to readers' letters. There are lists of quirky statistics, a crossword puzzle and a run of news features. There's also a column by John Kuenster, hired as editor by Jacobs in 1969 and in the post since.

When circulation crested in the early 1980s, Jacobs owned a fleet of magazines, notably Inside Sports. Higher-profile than Baseball Digest, the publication looked to compete with Sports Illustrated.

Jacobs bought it out of bankruptcy after Newsweek had sold it. And he went on to run it for 18 years as circulation hit 850,000. In 1998, he sold it to Sport magazine, which merged the two, but then folded itself two years later.

Inside Sports joined seven magazines under the Digest banner in Jacobs' portfolio. Two years after he bought Baseball Digest, Jacobs--whose Chicago-area company is now known as Lakeside Publishing--launched Football Digest. In subsequent years came extensions in hockey, basketball, soccer and auto racing. In 1982, Bowling Digest hit the market six times a year.

Unlike the glossy Inside Sports, all were printed on newsprint pages.

In the late 1990s, ESPN purchased many of the Digests, as it was launching its own magazine. It then closed them and merged the subscription lists with its database.

Jacobs says ESPN also expressed an interest in his flagship, but he decided to keep it for his three sons who are part of the business--and for himself in order to stay active.

In addition to Baseball Digest, the Chicago native oversees Lakeside Publishing's other property, a consumer cruise magazine.

Jacobs says he was not a baseball fan when he purchased Baseball Digest--he had not been to a game in 20 years--but the magazine happened to be published in the Chicago suburb where he lived. He had done well with a series of trade magazines targeting engineers, computer scientists and helicopter operators and saw an opportunity (circulation was 12,000).

Two decades later, he says: "I don't have to know baseball. I just have to know how to make a profit."

Now comes the chance to do that where others have struggled: creating a successful magazine Web site.

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