On six months at The Athletic, the Royals, Bird Scooters, and the future

Let’s start here: On March 5, I started a new job covering the Kansas City Royals for The Athletic.com. It was a good and exciting change for a number of reasons; the Athletic is expanding, rapidly; the site is filled with terrific editors and great writers and smart people. Yet the best part was something simple: My new employers offered a straightforward demand: Write good stories that people want to read.

OK, there was more to it than that. But that was essentially the deal. There was no need to produce filler content. There was zero focus on page views, so need to trick somebody into clicking on something mediocre. The only goal was to build an audience through stories that were meaningful and worthwhile. 

So, on Monday morning, I found myself sitting inside a coffee shop in Kansas City. It was Labor Day. Some people rode by on Bird scooters. That seems to happen a lot these days. As I sat there, I looked at my phone. I realized it had been nearly six months to the day since I wrote my first story for the Athletic.

In most ways, it’s been the best work decision I’ve ever made. The response has been incredibly cool. Our readers are engaged, supportive and smart. The site is growing and fun and allows us to serve readers in the right way. 

I still get questions about the new gig, of course. Sometimes it’s from friends. Sometimes it’s my parents. Sometimes it’s from old readers. Many of the questions, of course, concern the site’s paywall, and if you’ve never read it, here is a great explanation for why it is necessary — and why so many other news organizations, some that still flood readers with unsightly adds, are pivoting toward subscriptions. 

I feel like I’ve become something of an online subscription zealot in recent months, whether the product is music or writing or whatever. But to borrow two paragraphs from that piece by James Mirtle, here’s an important part:

“Journalists are not losing their jobs because they are bad at what they do. The No. 1 killer of newspapers and websites – and radio and television appear to be next – is ad rates, in print and online. As Facebook and Google corner the ad market, and companies increasingly turn to social avenues to promote themselves, ad rates are dropping, often at exceptional rates.

“In the (recent) past, you could attempt to make money online by going for scale – a high number of clicks – but that is becoming increasingly difficult. Even a very high-end website, like the New York Times, has online ad rates of about $8 CPM (cost per thousand impressions). Most newspapers and websites are much lower than that – and the number is falling every year.”

The basic point, of course — the point I like to imprint on my friends — is that if you like something and you want it to exist, you should probably find a way to support it.

We all make choices when we spend. I don’t have cable anymore, for instance. It makes sense for me. It’s possible that not paying for sports writing (or any journalism) on the internet makes sense for you in the same way. Yet in the case of journalism, web advertising is not likely to support the business in the long term. So we (and you) have to find another way.

This point is not intended to sound like a sales pitch —  you’ve probably noticed we have a lot of those around the internets. But if you have read my Royals coverage in the past, or if you follow me on Twitter, and you are still a little skeptical about paying for stories online, I wanted to show what we’ve done in the last six months. We’ve had over 200 pieces on the Royals in that time — most of them in-depth stories with reporting and insight — and we’ll have even more in September and this offseason. 

Here is a sampling: (You can start an Athletic free trial here.)

1. 

Finding Hope: How a Royals prospect fought through addiction and returned to baseball: This was the story of A-ball pitcher Carter Hope, a former third-round pick who battled an addiction to heroin, washed out of baseball and then made a miraculous recovery. (Aug. 9, 2018)

***

2. 

Twenty-five years later, those who were there remember Hal McRae’s famous rant: This was the story of Hal McRae, a reporter named “Scoop”, a flying ash tray, and a great baseball story from April of 1993. It ran in April. It’s one of the most fun stories I’ve ever reported. (April 20, 2018)

***

3. 

‘I was ashamed’: How Danny Duffy navigated the aftermath of his DUI and the longest offseason of his career: In the final days of spring training, I talked to Danny Duffy about what he wished he could have said last summer and his offseason back at home. (June 19, 2018)

***

4. 

Kansas City will always be the place where Kelvin Herrera found his voice: Eight days before he was traded, Kelvin Herrera, the Royals’ reliever, sat in a dugout in Oakland and told me about his childhood in the Dominican Republic, his unlikely signing story, his struggles with English, his relationship with Yordano Ventura and why he loved the Royals. I knew he was about to be traded. I didn’t realize it would happen in just more than a week. (June 19, 2018)

***

5. 

How former Royals star Billy Butler came to absolutely dominate a local softball league in Idaho: Now retired, the former Royals designated hitter is having some fun with family back home. Last year, his career ended at the young age of 30. And then he joined a local softball team called Pharmgrade and just owned the Idaho Falls Parks & Rec men’s league. (July 23, 2018)

***

6. 

A Corn Island tale: The Royals’ Cheslor Cuthbert had to leave home and learn Spanish before he could make the major leagues: This was a story on third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert’s roots in Nicaragua and relationship with his father. I met his father at Fenway Park in late April or early May. We also wrote about his love of chickens! (May 8, 2018)

***

7. 

‘He got screwed’: How Mike Moustakas let go of the past after his nightmare trip through free agency”: Before he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, Mike Moustakas had become one of the most respected teammates in the Royals’ clubhouse. He spoke about his strange offseason and his return to Kansas City. (May 28, 2018)

***

8. 

The harrowing inside story of how reliever Blaine Boyer and a semi-retired Toronto bus driver avoided disaster: Just after the start of the season, the Royals found themselves in Toronto and facing near calamity when their bus was struck by a large piece of ice that came flying off another bus on a Canadian highway. It was a little like Speed. Except Blain Boyer played the role of Keanu Reeves. This was the story from the people on the bus. (April 17, 2018)

***

9. 

Inside the Royals’ anti-porn campaign: During spring training, the Royals brought an anti-porn group to their Arizona facility to offer a seminar of sorts to their minor-league players. The decision sparked lots of takes from across the internet. Here was the story of how the seminar came to be.

***

10. 

Ned Yost’s future may be uncertain, but his Netflix queue is all lined up: A few years ago, Ned Yost began explaining his important relationship with Netflix. In the final days of spring training, I finally got to write about it. (March 26, 2018)

***

11. 

The pedigree and promise of Khalil Lee, the Royals’ next homegrown star: In early May, I spent a night in Wilmington, Del., where outfielder Khalil Lee, 19, one of the Royals’ top prospects, was spending the first half of his season. (May 14, 2018)

***

12. 

How Kansas City native David Cone became the stat-nerd king of New York baseball: Former Royals pitcher David Cone, a Kansas City native and world champion with the Yankees, is now a broadcaster in New York, where he regals his audience with advanced statistics like few other broadcasters can (and do). (May 22, 2018)

***

13. 

How a 1942 Kansas City Monarchs cap became a piece of movie history in ‘The Sandlot’: Here is a story on a classic hat, a classic movie, a random Kansas connection, and You’re Killing Me, Smalls. (June 4, 2018)

***

14. 

Bats, Beer and Mr. Belding: Three days with the future of the Kansas City Royals: In late May, I spent a weekend with former Royals first-round pick Nick Pratto, a slew of other top prospects with the Low-A Lexington Legends, and Dennis Haskins of Saved By The Bell fame. (May 29, 2018)

***

15. 

Bo Jackson, legendary scout Art Stewart and the biggest hole at Royals camp: Art Stewart, one of the most legendary scouts and team officials in Royals history, wasn’t at spring training this year. Yet Bo Jackson was for the first time in years. The story. (March 6, 2018)

***

There were plenty other stories over the last six months. There were stories about the Royals’ international scouting department, about prospect Seuly Matias, about how yoga helped save the career of prospect Bryan Brickhouse, about shortstop Nicky Lopez and his terrific walk rate, and about rookie Brad Keller and his surprising upside. There was the story on Royals GM Dayton Moore advocating for Luke Heimlich; and the story of Jason Adam’s amazing return; and there was the story about the bromance between Lorenzo Cain and Salvador Perez.  There were more stories, too. And we’ll have more in the future. In Kansas City, that means more on the Chiefs and colleges. Elsewhere, that means more everything.

For now, though, I’ll stop. If you’ve read or subscribed in the last six months, a sincere thank you. If you’d like to check out these stories and more, you can start here: https://theathletic.com/freetrial

This was not supposed to sound like a sales pitch. But I guess, in the end, it sort of did. Well, gotta be better than the Bird scooters.

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