CNati.com is/was a local startup sporting news company. Frontlined by C. Trent Rosecrans, of the defunct Cincinnati Post, it was an independent news source that attempted to fill a void created when the Cincinnati Post, Dayton Daily News, and Columbus Dispatch either closed their doors or ceased covering in-depth coverage of the Reds.
That all changed when C. Trent accepted a job with CBSSports.com and was unable to continue to spend time writing for the site. I sent an e-mail interview to both Rosecrans and Lee Heidel, who developed the website and co-ran CNati. Because it was such a tumultuous time, the interview was delayed until now. But good things come to those who wait. Topics range from how CNati got its start, what went right, why the site was never able to turn much of a profit, and thoughts about how a similar project might work elsewhere. Hope you enjoy it!
Justin for Red Reporter: For those who aren't aware of the site, please describe CNati.com. What are its goals, and what makes it different from other local sports news outlets?
C. Trent Rosecrans: CNati.com is a local sports site focusing on Cincinnati. When it started, it was to help relieve the void left by other places that are dropping like flies, and not just complete newspapers shutting down, like the Cincinnati Post. In addition, we saw the Columbus Dispatch stop covering Cincinnati sports and then Dayton, too. Three consecutive Reds beat writers from the Dayton Daily News won the J.G. Spinks Award -- and the last, Hal McCoy, was ousted before he felt it was his time. If that can happen to Hal, it can happen to anyone. And it's not just Cincinnati -- there are a lot of lonely beat writers out there, where it'll be a sole beat writer on a trip. That sounds like whining from a former beat writer, but what it means is there's one stream of information out there -- not the miltiple ones. Or there will be two, still, it's nothing like a bunch of people talking to different sources and gettting more info out there, not to mention different writing styles and insights. I'm not saying John Fay or Mark Sheldon do a bad job or Hal, Scott Priestle or I would do it better -- what I'm saying is we'd all do it differently and the reader would have a choice. Yes, there are a ton of places to read about your favorite team, but fewer places close to the source. There's a familiarity that will allow different reporters to get different things and express them. There's also limited access.
UPDATE: Well, Justin approached me with this Q&A in June. Honestly, it was right when things were getting harried with my new position. Shortly after I started writing this, I was hired by CBSSports.com for a full-time gig. That, well, changed things. I was putting in a good 70 hours a week for CNati, if not more, for very, very little money. Once I got a paying job, I've dedicated my time to a paying gig. As for the future of CNati? It's up in the air. As many have noticed, the content hasn't been updated like it was and we didn't apply for credentials for the Bengals or Bearcats, so, that may tell you something.
Justin for Red Reporter: What are your roles within CNati.com?
C. Trent Rosecrans: I'm kind of in charge of the content and Lee does all the hard work.
Lee Heidel: And I would say the opposite. Trent does all the heavy lifting with content development and the day-in day-out of the business. I'm in charge of the website development and IT concerns. We share the business development end.
RR: How did CNati come about? I know it was partly a manifestation of journalists trying to make their own way as the newspaper business collapsed in Cincinnati, but I'd be interested to hear more about the backstory.
CTR: I was at the Cincinnati Post when it closed and was then hired by Clear Channel Cincinnati to write for their websites. And, well, after a little more than a year they decided they were a radio station and didn't want a writer. So, well, it threw my world for a loop. I stayed here and didn't persue some things because I thought I was going to be able to stay here and build something. Or so I was told. But not so much. Oh well. But, there was this little economic situation in our country and newspapers are failing and not hiring anyone, so I was pretty down. In that time, you talk to those closest to you. And Lee and I were college roommates, I was best man in his wedding, he's really my brother, so of course he was one of those people I talked to first. He encouraged me and said, "we can do this better than Clear Channel." And as far as content and website design, look and usability, he was 100 percent correct. What they've got on us is a sales staff. And sometimes you need to make money. But Lee and I brainstormed and started this thing and when he showed me what it was going to look like, I was wowed. And then when it went on live. Unreal.
LH: Trent is the perfect combination of passionate about his subject matter and good at what he does. It was criminal that his talents were being underserved in other positions. We set out to highlight his skills and try to carve out a new niche in the market.
RR: The site debuted with CTR's amazing interview with Ken Griffey Jr. It was extremely candid, it ranged all over the place in focus, and is, for my money, the best example of the very private Ken being Ken. It was certainly nothing like what I'd ever seen in a newspaper. Two questions:
a. First, do you agree that it was clearly different from what could appear in a newspaper, and if so, how so?
CTR: Oh, I don't see that going in a newspaper at all. Newspapers aren't big on Q&As, and these day, where would they have the space. It was a pretty long interview. If it were in a newspaper, best-case scenario, it's a third of the length. And it's edited some... I don't know, you're right, I don't know that I've ever seen something like that in a newspaper. I think someone would have said to me if I turned that it, "what's the point?" And I'd have a hard time answering them -- but I think it worked.
RR: b. Second, how did that interview come about? It clearly was the sort of thing that could only happen after a long, positive relationship between journalist and player. Was this a special arrangement with Griffey, or more of a chance encounter that turned golden?
CTR: I've had a good relationship with Griffey since I've been in Cincinnati. I don't know why, but we've always gotten along. There are some people you just click with, and for me, Griffey has been one of those. I traded emails with him today, as a matter of fact. Anyway, I knew I needed something good for our launch date, saw the Mariners were headed to Detroit, figured I'd go up, see if he had a few minutes (as a card-carrying member of the BBWAA, I have access to every park and don't even have to call ahead, just show up and walk in). One thing on the Reds beat, you knew if you needed a story or something to write, you could aways go to Junior and it'd be something people would read. So I went up that day and another reporter had gone through his agent and all that and set something up for that day and they talked for 10 minutes. And then Junior gave me another 20. And it was fun stuff. And then we held it for the day that we knew we were going to announce the launch -- and for a long time it was our biggest day traffic-wise, in part because it got some run on Mariners boards and nationally.
RR: What sort of workload has been required to make CNati go over the past year? How does it compare to what you (CTR) were doing at the Cincinnati Post?
CTR: The biggest difference between this and the Post is the travel. I'm not traveling. That said, take that out and it's more work. I've got to manage people, plan photos, plan stories, arrange credentials, try to sell advertising, monitor message boards and comments. It's more than a full-time job. Much more than 40 hours a week.
RR: What has been the business model for CNati? What has gone right and what have been the biggest challenges to making the site profitable? I imagine that local advertising was a big part of it...?
CTR: Yeah, and that's not been something we've been able to get. Much of that could be due to my failings as a salesman. I'm awful at that kind of stuff.
LH: We weren't willing to take investment money on the project. I think that may prove to be our biggest mistake. We wanted to bootstrap everything so that we wouldn't be beholden to outside investors. As a result, we didn't have the capital to advertise or expand our reach in ways that would have dramatically increased our audience. That being said, advertising did pick up towards the end. We had proven ourselves in the market and drawn in some great partnerships.
RR: Cincinnati may not be the smallest major league market in the nation (for any sporting league), but it's certainly below-average in terms of fans and dollars. Do you think a company like CNati might work better in a larger market, or do you see this as the type of site that will work best in a market like Cincinnati?
CTR: OK, for the record, I just got back to this -- so we're talking August (everything before was written in June, but it's all still pretty much up there). Anyway, it didn't work in Cincinnati. It may have had a shot, but it would have taken much more of a sacrifice than I was willing to make for myself and my wife. I think it could work somewhere larger -- take a look at D.C., there are several start-ups and my friend Mark Zuckerman is able to do something similar with the Nationals beat -- as Justin points out.
LH: I think Cincinnati is the perfect spot for this type of project because it's a little bit under the radar and there isn't as much direct competition from national outlets with more name recognition and money. As Trent rightly pointed out, in our case it would have required more risk than either of us were willing to take.
RR: The Spring Training fundraiser was clearly a defining moment for the site, when you raised over $6,000 from individual donors to send CTR to spring training to cover the Reds. It was so successful that it inspired copy-cat efforts elsewhere. How did this idea come about, and how likely did you think it was that you would succeed in raising the necessary funds?
CTR: It was all Lee. I was thinking we'd raise maybe $1,000 and I could go for a week. When we met our goal of $4,000 I was shocked. When we finished up with more than $7,000. Unreal. And the Zuckerman gets $10,000 and that was pretty cool. He's been able to travel during the regular season on that.
LH: As usual, Trent sells himself short. He has built up a loyal audience during his time in Cincinnati. His readers were excited to support his coverage. We simply gave them a means and they responded.
RR: What sort of carry-over was there from the Spring Training fundraiser and/or trip in terms of traffic, notoriety, etc?
CTR: There was some. I was on NPR's Talk of the Nation and Zuckerman got some more attention and in every interview he gave me credit for the idea. I kept it, even if it was Lee's idea. Traffic was at our highest point during spring, but based on my previous endeavors, I wasn't surprised by that.
LH: The exclusive spring training content really increased our number of visitors. It did decrease a bit as the season wore on; but we gained hundreds of regular readers from that experiment.
RR: Were there thoughts about attempting a similar subscription plan during the regular season? More generally, do you think individuals will pay, on a regular basis, for online sports news? And if so, under what circumstances?
CTR: That's the big question. I don't know. I don't know.
LH: I don't think you can operate a business with your hand out every day. Sacrificing our reach by setting up a pay wall didn't set well with us. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people that would never pay otherwise.
RR: What advice do you have for others who might be interested in putting together a project similar to CNati in another city? What have been the major lessons you have learned thus far?
CTR: It's tough to make money. And I'm just not sure if it's sustainable. I'm trying to think of what advice I'd give other than "don't" -- but still, I wouldn't want even to say that. Someone out there is going to have an idea of how to make it all work. It's just not, apparently, me. We were close, I think... maybe. I can't tell you how sad I am not to be doing this anymore. It kills me inside, but I've got to make a living. I was so grateful my wife put up with this crazy idea for more than a year without a real payoff. I wish I could still do it but not worry about money. Maybe this was the absolute worst time to try something like this with the economy as it is, but that's what got me there. It was a crazy ride, but I loved every minute of it.
LH: The risks here fell with Trent. It was his name and face at the fore of this project. I chose to be more publicly involved than I had to, in hopes of alleviating some of that pressure. At the end of the day, it was his sacrifices that achieved all of our successes. I would definitely encourage other writers and technologists to pursue their own model of local journalism, sports or otherwise. If you're producing good content, it will yield results. It might lead to a job with an established company (like it did for Trent) or independent success.
I think the most important thing you can do is to treat it like a real, full-time business and not a hobby. Get your business structure and legal concerns squared away before you publish a word. Then, find talented people to partner with and get some seed money.
RR: CTR announced today [note: this question was written back in June] () that he has accepted a job with a larger company, and thus will need to significantly scale back his involvement in CNati.com. CTR isn't the only contributer to the site, but he has always been the dominant figure. What are the plans for the site moving forward?
CTR: Well, as you can see, it's nearly killed it. We've had some discussions to try to keep it going in a different form, but not quite sure where that stands. It's just not as pressing as it once was. It's sad to me, but it's also reality. I'm not a person to really half-ass anything, I full-ass everything I do. If I'm in, I'm all in. And that's where I am with CBSSports.com right now. Sadly, that means no "Thinking Out Loud" or CNati. That could change, but it may not. I miss it, but I will say it feels like a weight off my back. It was really, really difficult and a felt a huge weight. I mean, I had people tell me I was stupid for trying -- one person in particular told me he had someone look into it and he couldn't make it work financially and if he couldn't, I'd have no chance... That pissed me off and inspired me to work even harder. Too bad that guy was right. That sticks in my craw. But I had a good run and I think I put out a hell of a product. I miss it every day, I really do. I miss the people -- the ones I dealt with in real life and on the computer. My readers were amazing and their support (financial and emotional) was amazing. It really meant so much to me I will always be grateful for everything. It was a great part of my life and a hell of an experiment. Financially it may not have been a success, but it was a hell of a good swing.
LH: I think there's still a future for CNati. Maybe not in its prior incarnation; but it will evolve and become something new. We created an amazing community and we have some great ideas about the future. But, as before, it's finding the time and the money to make these ideas a reality.
Thanks to C. Trent Rosecrans and Lee Heidel for taking the time to do this interview. You can find C. Trent's current work at his MLB Facts & Rumors blog at cbssports.com.