Putting Reporters IN Hockey Fights Is A Business Model Now

Take note, ESPN.
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The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published its final print edition in November, but continues to exist online as TribLive.com, and as part of the restructuring as the paper was on its deathbed, set up a company called 535Media to “encompass the Trib’s digital, multimedia and other website operations.” Part of 535Media is Upgruv, “a personalized content service offering busy young professionals a mix of trending news from Western Pennsylvania and beyond.”

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Rob Rossi, long the Penguins’ beat writer for the Tribune-Review, then a general sports columnist for the paper, jumped to the digital side last summer to become 535Media’s special projects manager and the sports editor of Upgruv. That’s pronounced “up groove,” for the record.

During his strictly writing career, Rossi had notable run-ins with Sidney Crosby and Penguins general managers Ray Shero and Jim Rutherford. He’s a pot-stirrer of the highest order, and as he proudly puts it, “I don’t think other than maybe (New York Post legend) Larry Brooks, there’s a lot of people in this industry that when they were a beat reporter were as tough on the team that they cover as I was with the Penguins. I’ve always made it pretty clear that I call BS where I see BS.”

This week, Rossi saw some bovine feces emanating from the Washington Capitals, who came to Pittsburgh trailing their series with the Penguins, 2-0, before future Hall of Famer Alex Ovechkin knocked Crosby off balance and former Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen clobbered the two-time MVP in the head with his stick, drawing a major penalty and game misconduct. What Rossi saw was a deliberate attempt to injure Crosby, who wound up concussed, and he wrote a column at the end of the game calling for Ovechkin to be suspended for the remainder of the playoffs, while also unfurling a theory that the Capitals had conspired to take out Pittsburgh’s best player.

In the postgame press conference, Rossi pressed Washington coach Barry Trotz, and pressed him hard, on Ovechkin’s role in the incident. Following that, Rossi cut what Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo called a “wrestling promo” on Trotz. And it really was.

But that was also the point.

“Greg’s not wrong,” Rossi said. “It was a WWE-style promo, and if people think that suddenly makes me a less credible journalist, well, look, I mean, I think the most credibly journalistic thing that was done in the entire round 2 was the way I did not let Barry Trotz off the hook when I asked him a question. I’ll put my journalism up against anybody, and if that sounds like I’m cutting a promo, well, maybe it does, too, but it really isn’t. The notion anymore that we are in a business where we aren’t going to have to do some things that are not traditional, I think that’s antiquated. I mean, how many people just got laid off at ESPN? How many people have I seen laid off in my city? And friends I know across the country. … I’ll let the column stand for itself. What I do to get people to the column – if the worst thing I’m doing is cutting a wrestling-style promo, then, come on, people.”

To borrow a phrase from WWE, what Rossi did was what’s best for business. His bosses told him that with the NHL playoffs, he should go be himself, and that was what he did, with great success.

Within 24 hours, Rossi’s column had close to 100,000 reads between Upgruv and the Trib site, which also posted it, with the average time spent on the Upgruv page over two minutes. It was a record-breaking day for Upgruv, and the rising tide also lifted the boats of 535Media’s other ventures, Everybody Adventures, Everybody Craves, and Everybody Gardens.

Far more people are aware of Upgruv now than were at the beginning of the week. While the premise of the column was dubious – it’s hard to believe that the Capitals really had a closed-door meeting in which they decided to set out to injure Crosby – it was unique and engaging, something made clear by the amount of time people spent with their eyeballs on it. Asking about it in the press conference was the professional journalist’s way to handle things, and it’s not surprising that things got testy between Rossi and Trotz. The video does exactly what it’s supposed to do, which is to make you want to read the column.

“We want to take the hot take format and expand it into something you can do a little deeper, bring a little perspective to,” Rossi said. “We don’t want to wait for the news cycle. We want to try to get in on the conversation while it’s happening.”

In a sports media landscape where people are losing jobs left and right, this is not entirely refreshing, but it is an example of using someone’s talent to the fullest and getting a still-nascent outlet on the map as a result. Upgruv has Rossi to do that in his way, just as FanRag Sports (where, full disclosure, I also write) increased its footprint exponentially last year when it picked up baseball scoopmaster Jon Heyman upon his departure from CBS Sports.

“I was brought to the Upgruv website and the 535Media side of my company because I have one of the biggest public followings in the city of Pittsburgh among sports media,” Rossi said. “I had the biggest one at the Tribune-Review. My job there is to help build that audience. I don’t think that’s clickbaiting. I think when you have a social media component built into the way you do things, I’m trying to get people to go to the column.”

That’s the deal in media just as it is for any brick-and-mortar shop trying to get people in the door to buy things. The next thing is to get them to keep coming back, but that’s not possible if they don’t come in the first place. That’s business.

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