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Smelser: Try new things, fail faster

June 29, 2010

Erik Smelser Photo by Marlon Scott

By Matt Wilhalme

In an era where newspaper collapse has become common place, the director of the St. Louis Sports Agency wants journalists to fail – faster.

The only way to find out what works, Erik Smelser said, is to fail quickly in order to buy some time to figure out what will.

“We are in the business of news with an emphasis on business,” said Smelser, who never went to journalism school and had never really reported on anything until recently.

In the spring of 2009, Smelser proposed a plan to develop audience and generate revenue.

Using sophisticated computer programs, the agency, which previously collected statistics as agate used in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Suburban Journal; now crafts short articles for www.stlouishighschoolsports.com without the aid of one of his 11 reporters.

“On any given week in St. Louis, there are 400 athletic contests in just high schools,” Smelser said. “Even if I hopped them [his journalists] up on speed, gave them a fast car and said ‘All you have to do is show up’ they still couldn’t get to all of them.”

Today more than 40 percent of the data collected by the company is via a web-based form submitted by the coaches themselves. The other 60 percent is gathered the “old-fashioned way” as Smelser described it, by college kids working phone lines.

These statistically created game stories give Smelser’s team not only significantly more content, but also the opportunity to do more investigative enterprise stories without being locked into writing multiple game stories.

Focusing instead on context and conference reports, he has discovered that this methodology has become successful in building greater audiences outside of just the “two tribes” involved in a given contest.

“For too long, newspapers have been thinking about high school sports as a subset of your sports fan, they’re not,” Smelser said. “The typical high school sports fan looks very much like your newspaper reader: they’re families, they’re mothers and aunts and grandmothers who couldn’t give a crap about what the [St. Louis] Cardinals or the [St. Louis] Rams do. But, they are intimately interested in what Bobby did at ball last weekend.”

Covering a market that spans eight counties and more than 320 high schools, Smelser has been able to numerically measure “what moves the needle” on the web and determine what schools generate the larger amount of hits online. He and his team have made various attempts to improve those numbers through video and photo galleries.

Through failure they have found success.

“You will not find in your geography an audience that wants you to succeed more than the parents and the friends of high school athletes. They are not cynical about what you do. They don’t want you to fail,” Smelser said.

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