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Is MGoBlog The Future Of Sports Journalism?

MGoBlog's Brian Cook in front of Shembechler Hall - Ann Arbor
MGoBlog's Brian Cook in front of Shembechler Hall - Ann Arbor
Brian Cook is arguably the future of media coverage for University of Michigan athletics. As the founder of the wildly popular MGoBlog.com, he feeds a growing audience of maize and blue faithful who can't get enough of Michigan's revenue sports (football, basketball and hockey). By some accounts Cook is running the largest independent team-specific sports blog in the U.S.

Still, the 32-year-old blogger doesn't want an office. A shirt and tie might be next. Or a shave. Or a trim of his shoulder-length hair. At that point, you might as well ask him to wear a sweater vest. There is one thing, however, the Ann Arbor resident does want from his growing media empire of websites, magazines and merchandise.

"Vacations. That's where I would like to be in five years. I would like to be able to take a vacation," says Cook. "I went to France for my honeymoon and a couple of years ago I went to Egypt with my mom, and that's been it for going on six years now. I want to be able to recharge a little bit over the summer."

The programmer with a bachelors and masters in computer engineering from U-M started MGoBlog in 2004. His primary goal: fill a void he just couldn't ignore anymore in university athletic coverage, primarily football.

Secondary goal: incorporate a lot of his odd ball vernacular, such as "Unverified Voracity", "Tacopants" and "The Horror." The blog proved so popular Cook turned it into his full-time job in 2008 and provided consistent work for two independent contractors/reporters shortly after. In a world dominated by AP-style sports writing, Cook never worried whether people would take to his geeky gonzo journalism supercharged with sarcasm and statistics.

"I assumed everybody was as maniacal as I was and was just really, really upset with the state of newspaper coverage but couldn't figure out what to do about it. I did," Cook says. "It never occurred to me that there wouldn't be an audience for this. I know there is a big chunk of the fan base that just doesn't care about this. But there are a lot of Michigan fans, and a lot of them are lawyers and engineers, and a lot of them really, really care."

MGoNumbers

MGoBlog is a reference to the University of Michigan Athletic Dept's official website, MGoBlue.com. It's so tongue-in-cheek that Cook and his followers often name things on the site in homage to it, such as its message board (MGoBoard) or list of links to similar sites (MGoElsewhere). Which makes sense because MGoBlue.com is the only site that is seen as the more official Michigan sports Internet resource than MGoBlog.

"By far he's one of the largest college sports blogs around," says Jason Priestas, founder of ElevenWarriors.com, the MGoBlog equivalent for Ohio State University fans. "It's a pretty big gap between what Brian is doing and everybody else."

MGoBlog's traffic consistently increases by double, if not triple digits. It went up 70 percent last year, and is up more than that this year thanks to big traffic spikes in January. Those bumps came courtesy of Michigan football's coaching change, the men's basketball team's improbable NCAA tournament run, and hockey's near national championship.

"We can't grow faster than that," Cook says. "MGoBlog is so big right now we can't keep tripling every year."

The traffic hovers around 6 million page views per month on average over the last year, putting it just within the top 10,000 websites, according to Quantcast.com, which measures website traffic. The readership is about 69 percent male, 55 percent college educated, 48 percent with $100,000 annual incomes, about one-third ages 18-34 and another third between 35-50 years old. Cook describes them as "all college-educated dudes without kids and lots of disposable income."

MGoBlog's revenue mostly comes from ads, along with t-shirts, Internet ticket sales and donated money the website jokingly refers to as "beveled guilt." Beveled or not, it recently turned into a $1,000 wedding gift for Cook.

Things like that are possible because Cook was one of the first sports super fans to really capitalize on his blog. He's done so well he has earned the begrudging respect of Buckeye die-hards.

"In a lot of ways he was a pioneer on the scene," says Priestas. "He was one of the first guys to do this full-time, and he's quoted all the time. He could have chosen a better school to root for but we have no qualms with his work."

MGoMedia

MGoBlog started when The Ann Arbor News was strong. At the time no one would have said the Michigan football musings of a computer programmer on Blogger would outlive a 174-year-old newspaper. Then it happened.

Today Quantcast.com "roughly estimates" AnnArbor.com's traffic at 122,000 "people" per month on average over the last year. MGoBlue.com, the university's official athletic dept website, pulls in roughly 75,000 visitors. MGoBlog's traffic averages nearly 214,000 people per month, nearly doubling AnnArbor.com's visitors and tripling MGoBlue.com's numbers. Those are serious numbers for a rag-tag team of Michigan faithful with little-to-no professional journalism experience.

David Ablauf, associate athletic director for public and media relations for U-M, likes to say news reporters used to constantly call his office to confirm what they read on Cook's site. Those calls happen "very rarely" today.

"As you have seen this whole thing change, they are now a credible news outlet," Ablauf says. "These aren't just blogs. They're information sources because of all the details that come out of them. They are seen as credible news outlets now."

Credible news outlet, yes. Traditional, no. MGoBlog doesn't necessarily break news the same way the mainstream media does. Its first real scoop, former defensive back Morgan Trent breaking his arm, came from six people in Trent's father's bowling league who contacted Cook.

Sometimes, publishing insider info can be a bit harrowing. Cook got word that former star running back Sam McGuffie was transferring and ran the story. Then McGuffie wavered on that decision for two weeks. "It was incredibly awkward because I want him to stick around but I didn't want to be wrong," Cook says.

Almost all of this type of reporting is possible because of the vibrant MGoBlog community. Its message boards are largely filled with constructive comments for and by Michigan fans. That's a tough task considering that mainstream media message boards routinely turn into Lord of the Flies-style flame wars.

Cook and his team fight off the trolls. The website's switch to a Drupal platform did away with anonymous posting, and drive-by trolls. It then instituted a point system for posters so users need a varying number of MGoPoints to start a conversation, moderate one, or write a blog post. Those necessary point totals are increased during controversial times, like the recent football coaching change.

Cook is quick to ban people who cross the line. He also fights back by giving trolls the grief of 404 error pages and slow website-processing speeds. Sometimes he just likes to have a good laugh and cave them, which means trolls can post but only they can see their posts.

"I have guys email me saying, 'There is this weird bug where I log out and I can't see my post. I don't think anyone can see my posts,'" Cook says. "I always tell them, 'That is a very strange bug. I'll look into that.'"

That ability to quickly respond to technology and create a product fans enjoy is where MGoBlog separates itself. Cook explains that newspapers are fighting more than a century of entrenched bureaucracy that demands the appearance of objectivity and a style of writing that often results in one-sentence paragraphs written for newsprint. MGoBlog writes strictly for the web in an eclectic style with long paragraphs, a bias it publicly acknowledges and stories that can stretch into 10,000 words that are still widely read.

"We have an editorial voice," Cook says. "The New Yorker is a great example of this. It has an editorial voice that really, really inspires people to like The New Yorker if they are the people who would like The New Yorker. My site does the same thing. Newspapers don't really do that. They have a non-unique editorial voice because every newspaper has the same one. ...In a way, if AnnArbor.com wasn't around, they would read the stories in the Free Press or The News. It wouldn't really affect their lives."

That doesn't mean Cook and his fellow MGoBlog insurgents will take over the media world, or even become major players.

"To some extent the giants are getting smaller but they're still giants," says Anthony Collings, a lecturer in U-M's Dept of Communication Studies who has worked for a number of name-brand news organizations like CNN and The Wall Street Journal. "The small players might be getting bigger but they're still small."

He does add that the media landscape has changed so much that the only certain thing in the future is uncertainty. It's unclear who will survive, and that goes for both the Davids and the Goliaths.

MGoFuture

The conventional wisdom about the Internet is that a low barrier to entry allows for unprecedented competition. If that is the case, then newcomers will have a tough time emulating MGoBlog's quantitative analysis and one-of-a-kind writing style.

"I don't think there is anyone on the planet who has watched more Michigan football who hasn't been a coach in the last five years," Cook says. "I have this entire body of knowledge that would be very hard for someone to replicate."

This puts Cook in a fairly unique position, where as editor and owner he's become synonymous with MGoBlog's brand. So, what does that mean for the site's future?

"I don't think it will be a whole lot different," Cook says. "In five years, it will probably have two full-time employees. One of them will be a full-time basketball guy. The other will be a full-time recruiting guy. Then it will have a constellation of guys who I pay a little bit of money to write stuff."

He adds he would also like one more business-oriented employee that focuses on business development for the site.

Cook also envisions MGoBlog transforming into MGoResource. He'd like to create a catalog of pages centered around players, coaches, games, etc. For example, there would be a page dedicated to everything about the Michigan vs. Indiana game in 2010, such as blog posts, links and game videos. He would also separate the sports so each individual athletic community has a chance to grow.

"Having a lacrosse homepage will encourage people who want to talk about it to talk about it in a way that's not going to happen on the main page because it's going to be buried in a bunch of different stuff," Cook says. "If there is a separate lacrosse message board that you could get to by entering in the right URL, then that would increase that community."

That's a long list of time consuming tasks, even with new help. So much for extra vacation time.

- Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Concentrate and is the Managing Editor for SEMichiganStartup.com. His last feature was The Passion of Rich Sheridan.

All photos by Doug Coombe

Photos:

Brian Cook outside of Schembechler Hall

The MGoBlog iPhone app

Brian at Alumni Field

Anthony Collings at North Quad

Brian at Alumni Field

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