Independence Hall

by azaleon

Alex Bozich was taking a leap.

Actually, screw that. This was much more than a leap.

In 2012 he had a perfectly fine 9-5 job, a 2-year-old son and another child on the way.

It wasn’t the ideal time for risks, but with his financial future on the line, Bozich quit his job and poured all his energy into a website that was little more than a fan blog a few years prior.

“Do I want to follow my passion and do what I really want to do, or do I want to look back in five years and say ‘what if?’” he said.

Bozich’s gamble would have perhaps made more sense if his site, an Indiana University basketball blog named insidethehall.com (ITH), was protected by the safety net of a network like Rivals, Scout or 247sports.com, but it wasn’t.

Instead, he believed that the site could thrive by continuing the stay independent, ahead of the curve and popular-even though it was never supposed to be.

The Postmen

ITH was born out of a common phrase.

“When I graduated I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” Bozich said.

As a senior at New Albany High School (IN), Bozich started a pro wrestling website, but followed a non-journalism path in college, graduating from Indiana University-Southeast in 2004 with a degree in political science.

In addition to a day job out of college, Bozich spent nights and weekends covering games for the Courier-Journal, where his father was a sports columnist. But he wanted to get back to doing something with the web.

In May 2007, Bozich linked up with then-recent IU graduates Eamonn Brennan and Ryan Corazza, who co-founded the blog “We Are the Postmen” while they were in college. With an email chain that lasted two months, Inside The Hall was created.

“We didn’t look at it as competing with traditional outlets,” Bozich said. “We looked at it as writing from the fan perspective originally. When we first started out, we used nicknames as author names. We didn’t look to make any money off it, we didn’t think it was going to be anything major. We just found something we were passionate about and started writing about it. There wasn’t a plan to make it a career, at least for me.”

All three co-founders -Bozich, Corazza and Brennan- had full-time jobs while contributing to ITH on the side. Bozich said that in the first two or three years none of them were making a penny off the site.

“I remember trying to find time at lunch while at my 9-5 job to crank out a blog post or write it at night,” Bozich said. “I enjoyed it and didn’t look at it anything other than a hobby -that was key.”

With Bozich living in Louisville and Brennan and Corazza in Chicago, none of ITH’s writers covered IU press conferences or games. ITH wasn’t credentialed and didn’t try to be. The content strategy was to produce at least one post a day and make it something that “people wanted to read,” Bozich said.

Differentiation was key. The posts were playful, unorthodox and had a fan edge, like this one from Dec. 2007:

Screenshot of ITH

Screenshot of ITH and hey, good call on the mascot.

Since ITH didn’t do its own reporting at the time, it aggregated reports (a practice now commonplace in online media):

Screenshot of ITH

Screenshot of ITH post from 12/27/2007

And about those author names…

Screen shot of ITH post from 12/07/2007

Screen shot of ITH post from 12/07/2007

Screenshot of ITH comment section attached to post from 12/06/2007 (PRITCH)

Screenshot of ITH comment section attached to post from 12/06/2007 (PRITCH)

“Back in 2007, the mainstream media was calling bloggers, ‘guys who were writing in their mom’s basement’,” Bozich said. “I guess I wouldn’t put it in quite those terms, but it was just us giving our opinion on things that were happening, but doing it from afar.”

And what a time it was to be doing so.

Eric Gordon, Indiana’s Mr. Basketball, played a much-anticipated freshman (and lone) year at IU in the 2007-08 campaign. In the concluding months of that season, then-head coach Kelvin Sampson was ousted amidst recruiting violations. The season was a soap opera, interest in the program was high and ITH filled a void some serious/traditional media outlets couldn’t by speaking from the perspective of pissed-off alumni.

Here’s the lede of an Indianapolis Star column from the day after IU’s 2007-08 season ended:

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 2.07.22 AM

And then here’s an excerpt from a Brennan post on ITH that ran two days after the one from the Indy Star, on March 24, 2008:

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 1.34.30 AM

Out of mom’s basement

In Dec. 2009, as the site was gaining steam, Brennan left to become a college basketball writer at ESPN.com, concluding his writing with ITH.

It was around this time that the gears were set in motion to transition ITH from a “mom’s basement” site to something more.

Bozich said he began talking more and more to Chris Korman, who became the Bloomington Herald-Times’ sports editor earlier that year, about making ITH a site that actually covered the team.

“If I wanted this to be something I wanted to do for a living, I realized you could only go so far as a fan blog,” Bozich said. “We realized to build readership and build the site, we had to cover games and day-to-day news.”

Zach Osterman, then a sports journalism grad student at IUPUI, was hired as the site’s first beat reporter not long after Brennan’s departure (Osterman is now on the same beat…for the Indy Star). Talks began with IU media relations to get ITH credentialed for home games. Writers on the site started using their real names.

The site was becoming more legitimate while keeping its content fresh.

“Our coverage is a little different,” Bozich said. “We don’t write traditional game stories. One thing I talk about with Ryan (Corazza) is how we can differentiate our coverage. That’s one thing we’ve built a niche for is five takeaways, film sessions, stuff like that. Those are things you can only find on our site and it builds readers.”

In addition to being ahead of its time in game coverage, ITH was jumping on social media.

“In 2009 I joined Twitter and had no idea about it,” Bozich said. “Ryan (Corazza) told me about it. Six years later we have a pretty good following (25.1K followers is indeed, pretty good) and it’s a key way we share our content. Through analytics we can see where our readers are coming from and originally Google searches were bringing us traffic, but Twitter and Facebook have surpassed that. Anybody who’s not progressive there is getting left behind.”

And Indiana fans weren’t the only ones taking notice of ITH’s growth.

Stevie Nicks said it best

By 2012, as the IU basketball was starting to win again, ITH had arrived.

Through social media and digital word-of-mouth, it became part of the IU media landscape.

ITH's yearlyl pageviews, as compiled by quantcast

ITH’s yearly pageviews, as compiled by quantcast

Bozich said larger sports website networks approached he and Corazza about possible partnership, but ITH declined.

“The amount of interest we got from different places gave us a good idea that if we needed to (be absorbed), eventually we could,” Bozich said. “It came down to being able to dictate what we do on a day-to-day basis. A lot of the talks we had with other companies included us also covering football, which is something we had no interest in doing because it’s a basketball-only site. Plus Ryan (Corazza) is a web developer who works on our site and going to a bigger company would put us in a place where everything would be formatted the way it is on their other sites. We wanted to keep doing our own thing.”

After consulting with people he trusted, Bozich decided to quit his job and work on the site full-time.

The site continued to grow as the team became more successful. For the entirety of March 2013, ITH attracted a record 2,241,375 pageviews, according to quantcast, the service ITH uses to track traffic. In Nov. 2014, the site had 1,836,800 pageviews, but a little over half of those were from mobile traffic (935K mobile versus 901K on desktop). To adapt with its audience’s habits, Corazza has made the site completely responsive for mobile and tablets.

While some sites grappled (*grapple) with how to monetize digital content, ITH kept everything free, except for a forum, which launched in 2012.

In April of this year, ITH attracted 1.8 million pageviews.

“Not bad,” said Bozich when he was interviewed on April 29.

IU’s season ended on March 20.

Identity (non-)crisis

“How do you view your own website? What is it? How would you pitch it to me?” I asked Bozich.

He paused and then responded.

“Hmmm. That’s a good question.”

More pause.

“It’s hard to say, it’s not the same thing as a newspaper, but we’re targeting the same audience,” Bozich said. “It’s a tough question and I don’t know how I would categorize us. I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it. That’s a good question, I’ll have to think about it.”

Perhaps Bozich’s answer is key to ITH’s success.

What do you call sites like ITH, MGoBlog or 11 Warriors? A few years ago some would lump them together as silly fan blogs, able to be dismissed as sounding boards for spewing homerism.

But wait.

ITH is credential at home, away and postseason games. It’s part of the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association. And judging by the numbers, it’s where fans go to get their news.

Some will argue the site’s coverage still has traces of bias from its early days.

“I think we try to be as neutral as possible,” Bozich said. “Obviously I don’t think we’re as critical as others have been at times. I also don’t think we’re like some of the other fan sites out there. I think we do a good job of presenting information and letting people form their own opinions on what the news is saying.”

So if it’s not a fan blog and it’s not a traditional, establish media entity, what do you call ITH?

Its lack of ties to any one label frees the site to adapt to what readers want. I’m sure there are newspapers which used to scoff at making webpages full of memes and gifs because they felt like that would compromise their integrity, but do so now. And then on the other end of the spectrum, there are blogs which will never make the jump to respected news sources and the consistent web traffic that comes with it.

While ITH has strayed from the goofy/funny angle, it continues to differentiate its coverage by presenting content in easy-to-digest ways that go beyond traditional story forms like five takeaways, podcasts, IU-centric recruiting pagesscholarship availability tables (which continually come in handy…), video and more.

Simply put, if an IU basketball fan wanted to build his/her own website, it would probably look something like ITH.

We’re carving out our niche within the market,” Bozich said. “I think there’s always going to be a place for traditional coverage, it’s just that it’s changing; look at the H-T and Indy Star. From our standpoint, if you continue to grow, you’re producing something that people are enjoying and connecting with.”

What do you call ITH?

For now, we’ll just say successful.

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