- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2009

With consumers shifting from newspapers and television to the Internet, it is the obligation of any news organization to evolve.

Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic knows this and is getting bigger, digitally speaking. The regional sports network is ramping up its Web operation with a growing focus on exclusive online content and unique reports that will not appear on television. The goal of the station is to make its Web site, comcastsportsnet.tv, the go-to site for local sports.

“I think we’re kind of in this unique position to aggregate local sports content and now’s the time to throw resources behind it,” said Mark Lapidus, CSN’s director of marketing. “It’s our niche with the linear channel, and it’s really going to be our niche online.”

CSN relaunched its Web site about 14 months ago but at first had relatively modest amounts of unique content, largely relying on reports that were produced for television. The network’s plan now is to supplement that content with reporting and commentary exclusive to the Web site.

CSN is planning to hire four new content producers who will report and produce segments for the Web, making it one of the few news outlets anywhere that are actively adding to their reporting capabilities.

“We planned this earlier this year, and I was really pleased that the company supports it enough to want to continue it,” Lapidus said. “It would have been easy for them to say, ‘Let’s put this on hold for the next six months,’ but they didn’t.”

The hiring of the new reporters comes after the network installed former “Washington Post Live” host Russ Thaler as the network’s chief digital correspondent earlier this spring. He and other correspondents have produced daily “CSN Update” segments for the Web site that feature summaries of the day’s events, highlights and previews. Thaler also writes a blog and produces other video segments exclusively for the site.

CSN launched a mobile site in December and also offers a flurry of text alerts.

Interestingly, the network has received little instruction from Comcast’s corporate offices in Philadelphia regarding its digital operations. While the company asked that the design of the CSN Web site fit a template used by all Comcast-owned stations, it has not weighed in on editorial decisions.

In seeking new reporters - “backpack journalists,” as Lapidus calls them - the network is hoping to find stories that are different and in keeping with the more fun-loving nature of the Web.

“What I hope our new content guys and women can do is find stories that are a little more off the beaten path,” Lapidus said. “They have to have a passion for local sports to do this. I want people who can come in with five ideas and say, ‘I want to shoot these three things this week because it’d be cool.’ These people will make a lot of their own decisions.”

The challenge facing CSN, of course, is figuring out how to turn the new digital efforts into more revenue. Lapidus admitted that the network has no guarantee its new efforts will help the bottom line. But he said that in 2009, no news organization can afford not to have a robust Web operation.

“I’m so happy that the company is willing to invest to the degree that they are giving us staff to get this up and running before we actually start trying to turn some sort of profit,” he said. “You have to start somewhere. It’s the old chicken-and-egg scenario.”

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