Josh Yohe still remembers the moment Dejan Kovacevic came calling.

“March 4 at about 6 p.m,” says Yohe, then the Penguins beat writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I was sitting in the parking lot at Pepsi Arena in Denver, about ready to cover the Penguins-Avalanche game. Dejan called and, in his characteristically impulsive way, asked how much money I’d require to leave the Trib and work for him.”

Two months to the day later, and with the help of some savvy social media persuasion, Yohe left the Trib to accept a position as lead reporter for DK on Pittsburgh Sports, a subscription-based, online Pittsburgh sports website launched last summer by Kovacevic, a 25+ year veteran of the Pittsburgh sports media, most recently the lead sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Kovacevic joined the Trib in 2011 after more than 20 years with the Post-Gazette, where he started as a high school sports reporter before becoming an award-winning Penguins and the Pirates beat writer. He has also covered four Olympic Games, and his sports journalism awards cabinet (assuming he has one) overfloweth.

The idea for an exclusively online sports website “really all came together last July,” recalls Kovacevic. Dejan, as is he known, spoke with NEXT before a first anniversary party for site subscribers, at Highmark Stadium on the South Side. (July 23 is the official anniversary.)

“I went on vacation to Pittsburgh–because I travel so much, that’s where I go on vacation–and my brain was just clear. And usually when that happens–this has always been true to me–I think farther out about work. What’s the next level? What’s the next thing I can do?”

“It took about, I’d say, two full days for the real eureka moment to hit, and then once it did, you know how it is: once you think of something there is no going back.”

Dejan knew it was a huge risk to ditch a hefty salary and benefits and set off into uncharted digital territory, especially with a wife and two young children at home. But he also knew there was a niche to be filled, and he coveted the chance to be his own boss and editor.

He had also grown tired of what he perceived as the limitations of print-based media.

“The more proficient or more prolific that you become on the internet or through an app or something like that, the fewer newspapers you sell and the faster you accelerate your own death. If you are a print-based model.”

Dejan Kovacevic speaks with fans of his website at the Lunatic Bash on July 18, 2015. Photo by Long Hong.
Dejan Kovacevic speaks with fans of his website at the Lunatic Bash on July 18, 2015. Photo by Long Hong.

Dejan boasts over 14,000 subscribers, or 4,000 more than he originally hoped the site would attract in its first year. Subscription fees make up more than 75% of the site’s budget, while the remainder comes from advertising and some negligible merchandise sales. There is also a free DK on Pittsburgh Sports app, which has been downloaded 13,000 times and accounted for nearly 50% of the website’s 800,000 page views in June.

Sports fans can join with a monthly ($4), annual ($24) or three-year ($54) subscription. The three-year subscription is known as “lunatic” level, a term the site’s commenting community developed and has since evolved to refer to any of the site’s subscribers. (The party at Highmark Stadium was billed as the “Lunatic Bash.”)

The site itself is updated with new content all day, every day. There’s a Dave DiCello photo gallery on Mondays, while Dejan answers readers’ questions every Tuesday. Dejan has several other columns throughout the week, and he and his former Trib colleague Josh Yohe take turns on the Pirates beat. There’s also a stats guy, Matt Gajtka, and today Dejan announced the hiring of a new writer, Neal Coolong, of USA Today‘s Sports Wire, to cover the Steelers.

A major difference between print and Dejan’s product is that the former has a more formal division between fact (news articles) and opinion (columnists). Dejan says that he employs a simple policy where beat writers can offer their expert opinion—“X player is having a terrible training camp”—but they cannot advocate—“X player should start ahead of Y player.”

Although sometimes that line, too, gets blurred. “Next week I’m going with the Pirates to Kansas City, and I’m going to be doing pretty much straight game stuff and whatever else, even through we don’t do conventional game stories. But because it’s me and it’s my voice, readers won’t be [shocked] if they see me say [for example], ‘My god, why is Caminero still in this bullpen?’

“We try to make it like we’re taking you on the road with us,” he continues. “You’re a Pirates fan? You’re with Josh right now in Milwaukee. Josh is taking you through the clubhouse, he’s inserting video into his content, he’s taking pictures of Miller Park.”

“I’m not suggesting that any of [what we do] independently, cut in slices, is revolutionary,” says Dejan. “It isn’t—not one single aspect of it. But I think, put together—you’ve seen the response.”

The gates at Highmark Stadium opened at 5 p.m. Site subscribers were welcome to mingle with DK and their fellow “lunatics,” and they each received two free tickets to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds game that followed at 7 p.m. (The Riverhounds are a corporate sponsor of DK on Pittsburgh Sports.)

Fans gather at the Lunatic Bash at Highmark Stadium, July 18, 2015.
Fans gather at the Lunatic Bash at Highmark Stadium, July 18, 2015. Photo by Long Hong.

Many subscribers who spoke with NEXTpittsburgh said they are longtime fans of Dejan’s, having read him at the Post-Gazette and then following him to the Tribune-Review in 2011. For several, the tipping point to join as a paid subscriber came when Josh Yohe joined in May. Many also admired Dejan’s willingness to engage with fans in the comments, as well as his penchant for keeping it real.

“He’s not afraid to share his opinion, no matter how controversial it is,” says subscriber Dan Brenic. “He’s not afraid to say, you know, ‘I think this, and it goes against what everybody else thinks, but I’m going to substantiate it with facts.’”

Mike Pavlik, of Lower Burrell, said that he joined the site on “day one.”

“It’s different than what they can do in the newspaper,” said Pavlik, who also states that, absent an editor, Dejan can “come forward with things the readers are going to want.”

Alan Tignanelli, who goes by “alantig” in the comments, says that he finds the content to be more “free-form” and not as “formulaic.” “It’s written in a much more engaging style,” he says.

“They’re there to get hopefully the most in-depth, detailed Pittsburgh sports information,” says Dejan. To that end, he says that one of their biggest advantages is not having to meet a strict print deadline.

“Josh stayed in the Pirates clubhouse last night for an hour after everyone else did,” says Dejan “and he got this really good material about the umpire and whatever else, while everyone else had to go run upstairs to file.”

For his part, Yohe says that his job is “much different” now from when he worked at the Trib, and that not having a firm deadline is “an amazing thing.”

“In the newspaper business, deadlines are everything. Good work will absolutely be sacrificed if an editor can get a page done 20 minutes early.”

“The Trib and PG have about 30 minutes to write about evening Penguins and Pirates games,” he continues. “Trust me, I’ve been there. You can’t get all your material in and presented the way you’d like on most nights. It isn’t possible. We don’t have such concerns.”

Yohe says that he regularly sees former colleagues and that responses to his move have been “a mixed bag.”

“Some think I’m crazy. Some think it was a brilliant move. Some are unsure. Heck, I’ve heard from colleagues in other cities who are thinking about leaving the newspaper business in favor of a website. They’ve asked for advice.”

Despite the success, Dejan stresses that his is a unique case, and that it’s unlikely that his model will work in most cities.

“People say, what does this mean for the future of journalism? Nothing. I hate to say that, but it requires a perfect storm. Pittsburgh is a mid-sized metropolitan area, with an unbelievable passion for sports, and I’ve been writing about all of the teams for a long time here. And, I came in with the 52,000 Twitter followers. So even when I left the newspaper, I didn’t lose the megaphone.”

At the end of the day, Dejan says that fan engagement and slick packaging mean nothing without quality reportage.

“Our point of pride, especially between me and our beat guys, is that we’ll out-report.”

You can take the journalist out of the newsroom …

Brian Conway

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.