Local TV stations have been trying to upgrade their Web sites to better compete with newspapers online. Yet, not many have moved as aggressively as the Louisville Fox affiliate did this week.
WDRB hired the local paper’s leading sports columnists away at once. As they move from the Courier-Journal, the plan is for Rick Bozich and Eric Crawford to each write several columns a week for WDRB.com.
They’ll also blog throughout the day and serve as headliners as the station looks to create three micro-sites covering sports at the University of Louisville, University of Kentucky and Indiana University. Also, Bozich and Crawford will turn columns into TV pieces.
Nabbing a pair of the most prominent sports voices in town might not make financial or strategic sense in many markets, particularly ones less sports-crazed than Louisville. But, it’s surprising more stations haven’t tried similar gambits to boost their digital presence.
Newspapers like the Gannett-owned Courier-Journal are struggling and the breadth of news coverage is declining. Stations, meanwhile, are collecting new carriage fees, while the advertising market is rebounding.
Why wouldn’t stations take advantage of that confluence to bulk up their Web offerings by hiring columnists, who can attract an audience single-handedly, and other print journalists? Appeal to people online during the day – especially the growing amount no longer receiving a morning paper – and again with the evening news.
Also, using columnists to bring more opinion -- obviously noted as separate from the news -- into TV newscasts would seem to be a worthwhile differentiator. Particularly in sports, where debate fuels so much interest and scores and highlights now are so widely available elsewhere.
In Louisville, Bill Lamb, the head of WDRB, doesn’t want the apocalypse to come, but he suggests the Courier-Journal could go out of business. Less dramatically, it’s possible the paper could reduce the number of days it publishes, similar to what's happening in New Orleans and Birmingham, markets similar in size to Louisville.
The hiring of Bozich and Crawford is the brainchild of Barry Fulmer, WDRB’s director of news. Lamb backed it, looking to position the station’s Web site to be the leading candidate to draw Courier-Journal readers should the paper go belly-up, majorly retrench or go all-digital.
“It doesn’t require great intellect to think like this,” Lamb said. “To me, it’s just a natural (outgrowth) of where do we want to be in five years, where’s the market going in five years?”
(Efforts to reach Gannett to discuss the Courier-Journal were not successful. The paper has indicated it expects to replace both columnists.)
In the meantime, the Courier-Journal is moving behind a soft paywall, an opportunity not lost on Fulmer. He said in a WDRB video that Bozich and Crawford will continue to do much of what they’ve been doing “for free” on WDRB.com.
For their part, Crawford said in the same piece that the move smacks of what ESPN has been doing in launching local sports Web sites in several markets, largely by hiring away top sportswriters. It’s been surprising big-monied ESPN hasn’t done so in more cities with thinning newspapers beyond the five it’s tried out.
Bozich joined the Courier-Journal in 1978. Crawford came on board in 1992, while his father was a news columnist there for close to 30 years.
With their deep local ties, WDRB’s Fulmer and Lamb approached Bozich and Crawford a few months ago looking to grab both of them.
“We were thinking what could we do right now that would be a game-changer,” Lamb said.
His station is trying use them as star players to win now and later.