By R.L. Bynum
Inside Carolina one of nation’s most popular independent school-focused athletic sites
The future for the newspaper industry is gloomy as companies focuses on growing digital revenue, knowing that it’s only a matter of time before print dies.
Although Inside Carolina’s business model is vastly different, the website has shown that there can be profitable life after print.
The last of its monthly magazines was printed in 2015 after 13 years. But ad sales, subscription fees and a tradition of good reporting, led by 10-year beat reporter Greg Barnes, have kept a loyal following of Tar Heels fans coming back to the independent site focused on UNC athletics.
“We’ve got just a terrific staff who all are very experienced professionals and do it the right way,” said Ben Sherman, IC’s editor since 2002. “I think that’s recognized by readers and others.”
In terms of subscribers and traffic, Buck Sanders, the president of the company, said that IC is among the top five of similar team-specific sites in the country, with better numbers than all the other similar sites on its CBS/247 Sports network. There are CBS/247 sites focused on every Power Five school and some Group of Five schools. In 2000, ESPN magazine named it the top college basketball website.
“We were sad to see the magazine go,” Sanders said via email. “It was a labor of love, but as a profit center it was a very small part of our revenues, especially considering the cost of production, which is vastly higher than digital content production.
“The ability to produce and monetize video to a greater extent helped compensate for the loss of revenue from magazine production,” he said. “Net-net, it was a smooth transition financially, though a painful one for sentimental reasons.”
Newspapers have gradually shifted to putting stories behind metered paywalls or hard paywalls in recent years to boost profits and compensate for the lost print revenue. IC needed no such adjustments. It has had a digital-subscription model since 2001 while still allowing non-subscribers to read much of its coverage.
“Going from a free website plus a print publication to a paid-subscriber model is a much more difficult proposition,” Sanders said of recent shifts made by newspapers. “What is free and what is subscriber-only has not changed at IC.”
The revenue streams from subscriptions and advertising have IC on solid financial footing at a time when newspapers are trimming budgets and laying off people on a sadly regular basis.
“Since 2001, subscription revenue has brought in the greater share of total revenue,” said Sanders, who didn’t want to reveal what percentage of revenue comes from subscriptions or advertising. “Advertising revenue fluctuates and, at times, fluctuates substantially. That said, the share of advertising revenues IC earns has grown as a percentage of the total revenues over time.”
Podcasts one popular IC product
In addition to stories, videos and the high-traffic message boards, IC has as many as five or more podcasts (with commercial breaks, in most cases) a week during the peak of the school year, and Facebook Live analysis before and after games. On WCHL, IC produces a tailgate show before UNC football games and does 90-to-120-second updates during the week.
“The podcasts were something we did for many years without advertising,” said Sanders, who hosts some podcasts. Tommy Ashley is the host for most of them.
“The technology for producing radio-quality audio has increased dramatically since we began doing them, and we invested in that technology. Over time, they became quite popular, and they are a way for us to reach our audience when it is more convenient for them to listen than read. Monetizing them only made sense at some point.”
Guests are a major part of episodes on many sports (and non-sports) podcasts. IC podcasts instead feature IC writers or contributors, with listeners downloading to get their insights.
“The podcasts have evolved,” Sherman said. “Buck was a bit of a visionary with that and about being ahead of the curve of knowing that podcasts are something we need to get into. Not just podcasts, high-quality podcasts, consistent high-quality in terms of the tech side of it.
“Nobody is droning on,” Sherman said. “We stick to our core message and MO of being independent and objective. Tommy does a terrific job hosting that and they have a group of good guys who are consistently on there. It’s a great outlet for our staff to share analysis beyond what can be written in an article or on the message boards. They have great chemistry and that comes though.”
IC has evolved since its founding in 1994
Shortly after David Eckoff founded IC as a magazine in 1994, he added the website. Sanders started The Tar Pit — a UNC-football-focused site — in 1998, bought IC in 2000 and merged those sites. Sherman created UNCbasketball.com in 1996 and that site was merged with IC in 2001.
“Our goal since we had to close down the magazine was to try to figure out ways to get that content online,” Sherman said. “That’s still a work in progress. We’ve got some more stuff we’re going to be doing this year to continue that goal. There is a need for quality feature writing and some of the stuff that we did exclusively in the magazine that we need to do more online and we’re working on that.”
IC was on the Scout network in February 2017 when CBS/247 bought Scout. That led to Ross Martin, who had run a Carolina Blue site on 247, joining IC in August 2017 as resources and subscribers were pooled into IC. He is a content editor who also writes about the Tar Heels.
Not a fan site?
Independent sites focusing on one school and producing journalism often fight the perception that the content is produced by fans. Some consider any site that focuses on one team exclusively to be a “fan site,” but there is a spectrum of objectivity. That market confusion should be cleared up once users read the content. While IC obviously targets UNC fans as its primary audience, it does a good job of operating as a news outlet.
There are several independent sites that write about UNC athletics. IC is the largest of the four that are credentialed for games. The others are:
- Tar Heel Illustrated, which veteran sports writer Andrew Jones has run since August 2014. It requires a subscription to read about 80% of its content. Jones said that it is one of the fastest growing sites on the Rivals network. Its stories also appear on Yahoo!, which bought Rivals in 2007.
- Tar Heel Blog, an SB Nation site run by Tanya Bondurant since 2016. She took over after founder Brian Barbour left the site.
- Turner Walston’s Argyle Report, which began last summer, features coverage mostly from student writers.
- While Carolina Blue magazine continues, and is credentialed, it now has a minimal website presence.
“Our readership knows what we are,” Sherman said. “They are very familiar with the idea of the objective, independent coverage that we’re there to provide. We’re not there to be cheerleaders. We’re not there to be fans. We’re there to provide objective, independent coverage of Tar Heel sports and recruiting.
“I think there probably are some that view sites as fan stuff and some probably are but we’re hiring people because they’re good at their job,” he said. “We’re hiring them because they’re passionate about it, not if they are a fan.”
Focus meets demand
There are similarities between IC’s coverage focus and the college-sports focus of the consolidated News & Observer/Herald-Sun sports staff. Both primarily cover football, men’s basketball and recruiting, and for similar reasons — those three topics have large digital audiences that other sports lack.
“We’re here to deliver what the readers want, so we’re not providing event coverage across all 28 sports at UNC,” Sherman said. “It’s not, ‘how do I cover everything?’ It’s more, ‘what do our readers want?’ If you’ve got a site, especially one that has loyal subscribers as the core of the site, then we should always find out and deliver what the readers want.”
For fans looking for independent reporting of most non-revenue UNC sports, Argyle Report and The Daily Tar Heel are the best outlets for that.
IC’s Matt Clements provides Carolina baseball coverage, including weekly interviews with Coach Mike Fox. Like the N&O/H-S staff, IC ramps up baseball coverage as the postseason nears.
Sherman says that they don’t decide what to write based on what other outlets are doing.
“We have been focused inwardly on how we can get better,” Sherman said. “Everybody on our site is really self-motivated and driven. So, it’s internal discussion about topic ideas. So much of what we do comes from staff discussions and reader feedback about what people want.”
Wide social-media following
The N&O no doubt has many more readers. It may not be a reliable metric, but it’s interesting to compare the number of Twitter followers.
@InsideCarolina has more than 109,000 followers while just over 3,100 Twitter users follow N&O’s @nandosports and just over 9,000 follow its @accnow account. Two other accounts for UNC-focused sites, Tar Heel Illustrated’s @HeelIllustrated (more than 25,100) and @tarheelblog (more than 13,900), also have more followers than the combined total of those two N&O accounts. @TarHeelTimes, a Twitter account for a site that aggregates UNC sports stories, has more than 15,100 followers.
Recruiting a big part of IC
IC has a dedicated full-time football recruiting writer (Don Callahan) and a writer who focuses on men’s basketball recruiting (Sherrell McMillan). Both have written for IC for 15 years. For many years, only IC, The Poop Sheet (which became the ACC Sports Journal) and a few other outlets covered Carolina recruiting.
The N&O added a dedicated recruiting beat writer fall 2016, first current UNC beat writer Jonathan Alexander and, since December, Jonas Pope IV. Clint Jackson covers recruiting for Tar Heel Illustrated.
“There was a time where some elements of local media looked down upon the recruiting side of it and that’s fine,” Sherman said. “It’s a big component of our premium subscription content.”
While most of IC’s game coverage is available to anyone, a large percentage of its recruiting coverage is behind the paywall, marked “VIP.” There is a fixed column of recruiting information on the right side of IC’s main page.
IC boasts a large staff
The number of IC contributors covering the Tar Heels compares to the eight full-time N&O/H-S writers who are part of the sports staff covering all sports. IC has three full-time staffers who write and several regular contributors.
IC’s full-time staffers who write are Barnes, Martin and Callahan. In addition, regular writers/contributors include Ashley, McMillan, Clements, ICTV studio manager J.B. Cissell, photographer Jim Hawkins, John Bauman, Dewey Burke (who did postgame podcast analysis during basketball season), Jon Seiglie (who hosts some podcasts), Rob Harrington (another recruiting writer), Adrian Atkinson (who writes insightful statistical-analysis pieces about UNC basketball), Jason Staples (football analyst) and Mike Ingersoll (former UNC, NFL lineman). Behind the scenes, there are Sanders (who sometimes hosts podcasts), technical producer Michelle Hillison and Sherman, all who are full time.
Barnes has long tenure as beat writer
Many of the contributors have been with IC for years, including Barnes (at right with Martin during a post-game discussion early in the basketball season). He was a freelance contributor for IC for nearly four years before he became its full-time beat writer in in 2002, leaving his job as the head golf pro at the Occoneechee Golf Course in Hillsborough.
Even if you ignore the brief time spent by Joe Giglio on the UNC beat and by Steve Wiseman on the N.C. State beat in recent months, Giglio’s time covering the Wolfpack (since 2009) and Wiseman’s time covering the Blue Devils (since 2010) is significantly shorter. Alexander just started on the UNC beat last month.
Any reporter who spends years on any beat will cultivate numerous sources, which was no doubt one reason The N&O/The H-S reversed an ACC beat shuffle made in December.
“He’s broken a ton of stories,” Sherman said of Barnes. “Certainly no one owned the NCAA coverage like he did. That was 2010 to 2017. “When national people were glossing over the story or getting on the soapboxes occasionally and leaving it alone, he was consistently on it for seven-plus years.”
The many stories Barnes has broken include some big hirings and firings.
“It’s a consistency, the work ethic, the breaking news, the eye for the good story,” Sherman said of why Barnes is valuable to IC. “He posts those first reports within five minutes of the game ending and it’s really a good story and it’s done that fast.”
Each school year, IC also has a paid student intern with the title of beat writer assistant. Among the former interns are Tate Frazier (who worked at Grantland, now is a digital audio producer at The Ringer, Bill Simmons’ site, and is host for the national college basketball podcast “One Shining Podcast”), Bryan Ives (a sports content researcher at ESPN) and Bret Thompson (a production assistant at ESPN).
While The N&O/The H-S has at least one writer and a photographer (sometimes accompanied by columnist Luke DeCock and additional writers for rivalry games), IC consistently sends at least two writers (sometimes three), a photographer and a videographer.
On the road, The N&O/The H-S usually has only its UNC beat writer covers the Tar Heels. IC usually has two writers and it reports from wherever the Tar Heels play. IC was the only area outlet in the Bahamas when the basketball team played preseason exhibition games there in 2014.
“Our basic approach is that we need to be everywhere and that’s always been our MO from as long as I’ve been at Inside Carolina to make sure every event that is of interest to our readers, that we were there,” Sherman said.
And many Tar Heels fans will be on the site to read the coverage.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
Andrew Carter wrote a well-done piece — which appeared on 1A of Sunday’s editions of The N&O and The Herald-Sun — on the evolution of Dennis Smith Jr.’s career. He once played for an AAU coach who eschewed shoe-company affiliation. But now an FBI probe links his father (who coached him on an Adidas-backed AAU team) to Adidas payments made through an N.C. State coach.
In a commentary in The Ringer, Jonathan Tjarks contends that Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr. were “forced out” at Duke after being forced to take on a smaller role that didn’t enhance their draft stock.
Kaia Findlay wrote in Indy Week about the evolution and popularity in North Carolina of women’s roller derby.
Suddenly, big hair is in and shorts look more like shorts. In an N&O/H-S column, Barry Jacobs looked in to the ever-changing fashion trends for basketball uniforms, including the increased use of tights.
How did Jahlil Okafor go from ACC Player of the Year, a national champion in his only season at Duke, the third overall NBA draft pick and first-team All-Rookie to riding the bench for the Brooklyn Nets this season after barely playing for the Philadelphia 76ers? Michael Scotto looked into it for The Athletic.
UNC alum and former N&O sports writer Steve Politi, a columnist for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., won a lottery among sportswriters covering the Masters for a chance to play the Augusta National course the Monday after the tournament concluded. He wrote about his day, which marked his first round of golf in 10 years.