Flrunners and the MileSplit network

What started as a website for a high school cross country team has grown into a profitable, nationwide conglomerate of hyperlocal running coverage.


The MileSplit network and member site Flrunners all began during founder Jason Byrne’s junior year in high school.

Interested in Web design, Byrne developed a website to showcase his team – with recent race results, scouting reports of key rivals and profiles of individual athletes on the team.

By his senior year, the site had gained a following aside from those who attended his school and supported the cross country team. Although he was graduating and bound for college, people were approaching him at races and voicing their desire to see the site continually updated.

So Byrne figured that if he were going to run a website devoted to high school running while in college, he might as well do it right and get paid.

And Flrunners was born.

Along the way, additional coverage like feature stories, photographs and rankings were added and coverage was expanded to incorporate the entire state. Extras like forums for users to socialize as a community also attracted visitors.

The website’s popularity took off.

Competition and Philosophy

It is not without competition. However, the coverage on similar sites is significantly different.

The nature of high school athletic competition is local, Byrne said. Very few athletes are interested in what’s going on in other states across the country, but many of them are very interested in what’s going on a few cities away.

Other websites, like Dyestat and Flotrack, focus on the big, prestigious races – and so does Flrunners – but bearing in mind the principle of locality in high school competition, Flrunners gears more of its coverage toward satisfying curious scholastic athletes eager to peruse other nearby runners’ performances.

It’s a concept that others have tried and succeeded at as well.

Coachnet, a website moderated by Lyman High School coach Fred Finke, was Flrunners’ forerunner – focusing on Florida and providing race results and numerical analysis such as rankings.

Other states have webmasters operating similar ventures as well, which ultimately led to the creation of the MileSplit network by Byrne in 2001.

MileSplit was meant to be a way for state-sized websites to collaborate and compete on a national level with Dyestat and Flotrack.

The model is not unlike broadcast networks that have a national presence – like CBS – but then have various affiliate broadcasters on the local level.

“It didn’t immediately take off,” Byrne said.

The Economic Model

But the network has come a long way. There’s now a paid national staff and the network has affiliates in 30 states.

For those states with sites that are understaffed, the national staff contributes to the reporting. And for those states without an affiliate, the national staff provides coverage to ensure that every state is represented.

MileSplit’s primary source of revenue stems from advertising.

There’s no venture capital or serious collateral investors, Byrne said. It requires a lot more work initially, but prolongs the longevity of the operation by excluding investor influence.

Some people startup with venture capital and can hire a sizable staff for their operations, but then can’t keep the investors happy and have to lay off that newly hired staff, he said.

The network combines the audiences of each individual website and thus increases the amount of viewers able to be served up to advertisers. MileSplit partners with Universal Sports, a division of NBC, to sell advertising. These ads appear nationwide and the revenue generated goes to MileSplit.

After paying for things like operating the servers and maintaining the national staff, MileSplit shares the remaining profit – when possible – among the affiliate websites. There’s no national cut or money flowing to the network from the individual sites, but the individual sites can profit from being a part of the network.

Byrne said the agreement has worked well. Prior to partnering with Universal Sports, MileSplit partnered with Rodale, the company behind Runner’s World magazine, and before that dabbled with Google AdSense.

Although, placing Google ads wasn’t very profitable by comparison, he said.

The network also retains the right to disallow ads with content it deems not suitable for the targeted audience (i.e. beer ads on a website targeting high schoolers).

Under the umbrella of MileSplit, affiliate websites still retain some autonomy in their advertising decisions.

For instance, Flrunners can sell advertising independently to local businesses. An example of these types of ads would be for non-chain running stores like Track Shack in Orlando, Fla. These ads appear only on Flrunners and the website gets to keep the profits from its independent advertising.

An additional source of income for Flrunners in particular is derived from its sponsorship of an invitational cross country meet. The event attracts heated competition and attention, and makes money for the website through entry fees and sponsorships.

Another autonomous decision made by the affiliate websites is whether to put up “pay walls.” Flrunners does have a subscribers only portion of the site following the “freemium” concept. This is where most of the in-depth stories and the juiciest content goes with the hope that after visiting the site for other features like race results, users will be enticed to subscribe in order to access the enhanced content.

Flrunners’ subscription fee represents a substantial portion of the profit, but usually gets reinvested in content production such as hiring photographers, Byrne said.

Content Generation and Monetization

Flrunners currently has four photographers who cover events regularly. Other staffers write and attend to daily operations of the website – such as moderating the forum.

A lot of the content is generated by student-athletes, coaches and parents who are enthusiastic about the sport.

Basically, it’s a collaboration between audience and journalist – networking to enhance the product and cover the niche.

Most of the traffic is site-specific. Visitors know what they’re looking for rather than stumbling randomly upon the site and new visitors often arrive after hearing about it via word of mouth.

Even with Google, visitors often search for “Flrunners” or input the URL in the search bar rather than searching for generic terms such as “Florida high school running.”

This has led to the downplay of search engine optimization.

Byrne said he is aware of SEO when he writes headlines or derives sub-URLs, but largely ignores it when writing stories and focuses on human readers due to the site-specific nature of the website.


Byrne said the most important aspect of successfully operating an Internet venture is to be innovative.

That’s why he hopes to phase out the public forum – which he sees as largely a holdover relic from the ’90s – and transition into other forms of social media to serve the purpose of facilitating interaction between users.

This could include Facebook, Twitter, Ning, Google Groups or some other platform accomplishing the same thing.

His advice to new media entrepreneurs:

“Focus on the product. Create something excellent – something you yourself would use, that does positive things and that people like. Don’t focus on the financial [aspect] and don’t focus on your competition, though don’t be blind to them either. Just create something good and that makes you feel proud and then good things will happen.

“I’ve seen a lot of people with shady and anti-competitive business practices get ahead. It’s very frustrating. But you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and it’s important to me to always try to be a good citizen first and do the right thing. In the long run, I believe that shows through and you will reap the rewards. Hey, it worked for Google (“Don’t be evil” mantra)!”

Education in the future of journalism

So John Nichols seems to believe that a free-market model for journalism doesn’t exist and that the government must bail out the news industry with subsidies.

I’ll give him this, he does make a pretty compelling argument, even if it is one I find rather circular and exclusionary. He said, and rightly so, information can’t be stopped. However, he claims that if journalism isn’t subsidized, and it can’t make money on its own, then journalists won’t be able to continue their craft and thus the news won’t be distributed. But, uh, information can’t be stopped, right?

In theory, this is where citizen journalism would come in. So, maybe the way to save journalism is for professionals to partner with citizens. At least, Charlie Beckett thinks so.

These issues have been discussed to no real avail for quite some time and I doubt a solution will be expounded in the next 200 words or so on this blog. But, here’s my two cents. Journalism needs to shift focus. This has pretty much been the discussion all semester on this blog, so for today I’ll focus on journalism schools and their curriculum.

In 2009, journalism professors worldwide met and held a conference on the issues with journalism education. Some thought that the problems were that students weren’t learning the right set of skills.

But, even among those who thought this, they couldn’t agree on what the right set of skills was. The majority it seemed agreed – and I think they’re right – that electronic media and new forms of communication should take precedence in the curriculum.

But there were dinosaurs who thought there wasn’t enough focus on research conducted solely in print sources like books. That makes about as much sense as saying the resolution of laser printers can’t match that of lead type.

Sure students need to know some of the old methods of research, but the idea of excluding Google is laughable – as is conducting interviews through social media (this is one case where the old method works better).

As the national editor of the Los Angeles Times told his reporters who kept getting scooped by The Washington Post on Watergate stories because they were trying to interview only by phone, “Get off your asses, and knock on doors.”

But, I think the real problem is the disconnect between academic and professional preparedness.

Journalism is largely a professional craft. Academic education isn’t a requisite for entry into the trade. But experience is and this experience is often gained through internships. Which is largely where problems arise. Students often have to sacrifice a lot to take on these internships.

Either the internships are unpaid, forcing the strapped-for-cash student to split focus between the internship and some sort of job to make ends meet, or the student has to pay tuition to receive academic credit for an unpaid internship – but then often academic financing will help cover the rest of the cost of living.

Another option is that parents of journalism students might help them out while they do pro-bono work, but this tends to mean only middle and upper-class students enter the trade because they’re the only ones fortunate enough to have parents who can do this. And then there’s no variety in journalists.

All the while, schools seem to be pushing for internships out of a students normal comfort area – say in Montana for a student from Florida. This is a valid notion since exposure to a broad array of experiences expands journalists’ frame of reference, but this probably isn’t feasible due to the aforementioned reasons.

There’s gotta be a change in how students get the experience they need to get jobs, because a degree alone won’t do it and the sacrifice isn’t worth it to many to then get a lowly salary in their first “real job.” So they defect to other professions.

There’s gotta be a way to get students the experience they need to be prepared to enter the field of journalism without making them choose between success in their academic and professional careers.

SuperMedia: a book report on steroids

Networked Journalism is like steroids for the news media.

And as with any steroids, it doesn’t give the user a reprieve from doing the work; but it does offer a way to get more out of the work the user does.

Charlie Beckett, the originator of this whole Networked Journalism thing said, “Networked Journalism is a process not a product.”

It’s a way to blur the line of demarcation in the production stage between “us and them” – professional vs. citizen journalist – and thus restore the media’s authority that Beckett said is lacking, or at the very least, seriously weakened in journalism today.

He isn’t saying we abandon professional journalism in favor of crowd sourcing or wikis, but rather that professionals use these and other tools as a means to accomplish their journalistic end.

The journalist will still be in charge of editorial decisions, but the role of “gatekeeper” will shift to “facilitator” who connects people to the information they seek.

If you think about it, that’s really been the goal of good journalism all along.

But, the idea of Networked Journalism – or process of it – is really about revamping traditional media in three ways: connection, collaboration and commercialization.


“Good journalism has always been about networking,” said Beckett.

And indeed this is true. It’s not just some new phenomenon of journalism moving online. Journalists have always strove to connect with readers, other journalists, sources, etc… It almost goes hand-in-hand with collaboration, but for now, I’ll think of connection more in terms of tools for accomplishing it.

It’s a great time to be in journalism from a connection aspect because new technologies render certain problems of news gathering obsolete.

Journalists need not look for a pay phone to read stories to writers back in the station, they can just submit things from a laptop with wireless Internet access or a cell phone from the field.

Twitter can also be helpful to journalists in a variety of ways involving connection with others.

There are many other tools helping today’s journalists, but they are so numerous that they deserve much more in-depth coverage than I have space for here.

Suffice it to say that technology has greatly enhanced the ability of journalists to be connected, and yet some haven’t embraced the ease with which this can be accomplished through the application of digital means.

This has got to change and that is a basic premise on which Network Journalism is built.


Collaboration is the by-product of connection with an audience. Some journalists seem to be fighting the idea of collaborating with the citizenry on matters of production, but this goes against the grain of what journalism is about.

“Properly done, news should be a conversation among those who know and those who want to know, with journalists – in their new roles as curators, enablers, organizers, educators – helping where they can,” said Jeff Jarvis, media blogger, journalism professor and author of SuperMedia’s foreword.

This isn’t saying that journalism should be abandoned as a professional endeavor, left to amateurs with blogs and other various forms of social media. That’s not what Networked Journalism is about.

But, it is about collaboration between media professionals and their audience.

The Protestant Reformation happened largely because people were no longer content to rely exclusively on priests to report to them on matters of religion as explained in the Bible. People wanted a more interactive role and the new technology of the time – the printing press – facilitated this desire.

Journalism is undergoing its Protestant Reformation in that people are no longer content to rely only on “professionals” to impart them with information about current events.

They want to play a more interactive role in their own media consumption and new technology has facilitated this desire by marginalizing a once large barrier to entry into journalism – the printing press.

“Power of the press now belongs not to those who own one, but to those who own a modem,” said Paul Bass, editor of the New Haven Independent.

With millions of people who own modems able to have a voice and play a role in journalism, collaboration is inevitably necessary for commercial journalism’s survival.

So, journalists in the traditional sense should listen to Peggy Sturdivant’s philosophy of embracing the “journalistic tendencies as the common denominator” and collaborate.

It really will be beneficial.

As Beckett points out, “Journalism is topical. It is about telling people something as quickly as you can. Everything else is history.”

Indeed the idea of journalism being the “rough draft of history” should precipitate more collaboration.

Take for instance the collaboration among journalists from competing organizations in Washington state – some of whom had never met – and their citizen collaborators on Twitter in quickly gathering news about a storm.

This is a prime example of how Networked Journalism can aid in effective news gathering and transmission.

Also, journalists in formal roles are often easily identifiable and thus can be relatively easily censored.

Think of the regimes in Iran or China where media freedom is a laughable ideal. The government controls the means of communication (to a point) and can suppress journalists from reporting unfavorable events to the rest of the world.

However, the government lacks the means to silence every voice with a cell phone, blog or Twitter account. Therefore, under the Networked Journalism process, reporting of events like the Iranian election riots are still able to escape suppression by government censors and the rest of the world then benefits from the collaboration between journalist and citizen.

The goal is effective dissemination of information in order to lead to a more informed citizenry. Collaboration and Networked Journalism can help accomplish this goal.


Networked Journalism is a social good like Beckett said, but at the end of the day needs to be a commercial endeavor.

Society benefits when journalism thrives because people are more informed. But, journalism needs to discover new ways of supporting itself.

Some, like John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, believe that the government should supplement journalism so as to circumvent the free-rider effect that seems to run rampant in online journalism.

However, editorial freedom might theoretically suffer should the government get involved.

Beckett has some insight into this since some of the media – including outlets he worked for – in the UK are already supplemented.

At any rate, there seems to be little debate that self-sufficient journalism, commercially speaking, is the best. Although, this isn’t always possible.

However, grants and capital dry up and government supplements are perpetually in danger of being withdrawn as new administrations come and go.

Networked Journalism offers the potential to increase commercialization through the linked ecology Jarvis said is inherent of the Internet.

If advertising supported the press all the years it was in print, there is a way to do so in the digital era. Key words and click-through rates to online advertisements are one way. Banner ads are another. Pop-ups are annoying and now defunct.

Other means include an ad playing prior to watching a video on a news site, or charging for certain content of pertinent interest after having drawn the reader in initially with free content in a concept known as “freemium.”

As journalists catch-up with technology, so too will advertisers and new ways of capitalizing on the commercial value of Networked Journalism will arise.

After all, the basic principles of journalism haven’t changed and it’s value hasn’t diminished.

This is why journalists need to embrace new technologies so that, in the words of Charlie Beckett, they can “save journalism so it can save the world.”

‘Jimmy’s World’ only worse today

Unchallenged information is the enemy of journalism.

Usually it’s manifested from sources who wish to deceive agents of the media, like politicians. Occasionally, though, journalists are the perpetrator.

This is an even more egregious act than simply passing along unchallenged information from outside sources. People trust the media to protect them from spin and half-truths, not inundate them with lies.

Today, the copy editor is all but gone from the newsroom. This may lead to more journalistic deceit of the public because nobody questions the validity of the story as was once done when newspaper budgets permitted copy editors.

Although, fabrication of stories isn’t a new phenomenon – or one that can be stopped by simply having a copy editor.

Look at Janet Cooke’s “Jimmy’s World” that ran in The Washington Post in 1980. It was a fabrication. In this case, even editors questioned it’s validity, but their calls went unheeded by superior editors who should’ve known better, like Bob Woodward.

We now know that the story was based on information relayed to Cooke by social workers and other bureaucrats. Had Cooke written the story as a trend story or labeled her narrative as based on a composite, the controversy might have been avoided.

But, her story might not have pleased the editors in trend-story format and may have been quashed from publication all together.

Still, Cooke was looking to make a name for herself and though she accomplished this, she also ended her career.

The problem, however, isn’t always a low-level reporter looking to make a name for himself or herself. Sometimes, journalists wish so badly for a certain story to be true, they don’t go through the proper measures of authentication.

And this isn’t only a newspaper problem. Look at the scandal in the television medium that brought down Dan Rather, one of the most respected journalists of his era.

But focusing on newspapers, as the copy editor and various other fact-checking jobs within the newsroom get the ax due to budget cuts, there may be an increase in non-news news slipping into the paper like bogus trend stories and there may, unfortunately, be more fake stories penned by copycats of Jayson Blair.

Journalism: keeping it real since circa a long time ago

Many a post on this blog recently have discussed new means of content production in order to save journalism.

The discussion has been about ways of preserving the concept and ideals of journalism while staying innovative and preventing its demise so that its mission can be carried forth.

As shown, journalism can’t serve the public interest if it is marginalized because it’s stuck in the ways of old.

Innovation keeps the relevant information reported by journalists, well, relevant in the minds of readers because they can access it through all the latest trendy means.

For more on this, feel free to curiously peruse previous posts here.

But today’s topic deals a bit with the other side of the coin: Media bombardment and information overload.

There’s never been a more exciting time to be in journalism, say many editors and publishers. These words ring out like echoes through J-schools across the land. And like life rafts to drowning swimmers, they help students stabilize beliefs about prospects for future employment in the industry.

This assessment of the industry today is of course true.

The advent of increased technological means of dissemination means more jobs for those who’ve acquired the necessary skills.

Where up-to-date news once meant at the end of the day, or maybe on the hour for 24-hour news outlets, up-to-date now means right now, this second.

With this influx of new jobs to fill and the ever-present option of creating an independent start-up, the barriers to entry have all but been removed, said Jack Shafer in an article in Slate.

This is true as is the fact that readers can access sites in a multitude of ways – probably as varied and as quickly increasing as the number of news sites themselves.

So, now is a great time to produce news in a world full of media-hungry consumers who are never more than a click away – even while walking somewhere.

The problem is that there isn’t enough information to satisfy this hunger. At least, not enough pertinent information.

This is where fluff takes hold.

Fluff takes two forms: contributory and direct.

Contributory fluff is the filler fluff used in publications that have run out of things to say, but need more to satisfy readers desire for new material. This fluff gives rise to the notion that the news is irrelevant because it often makes stories out of non-stories (See “Trend Stories“), or includes some pointless tidbit that elicits a “Wow, I’m never getting that time of my life back” response.

So, it’s our job as journalists to use news judgement and cut out the (contributory) fluff.

The old adage of give the people what they want says if people want to read new information, give them new information to read. But this doesn’t necessarily work in journalism.

Journalists are entrusted to stick to the relevant stuff and that’s what they should do.

The next sort of fluff is direct.

This is more of a product stemming from the fragmentation of today’s audience.

With splintering groups going off to start their own news outlets (See “Don’t miss the boat on hyperlocal partnering“), many are bound to only be relevant to a very small group. It’s not my goal to say these groups’ expression doesn’t matter, it’s just that it doesn’t matter to the majority of us.

While these minuet publications may make it financially through help from the core base of readers, they often fail when they expand beyond their realm.

This can be seen on a larger scale by looking at media conglomerate Tribune Co. It expanded too quickly and couldn’t keep up revenue wise, thus the company filed for bankruptcy.

However, many local weeklies and free newspapers are doing okay. But, back to the point.

Like spam filling up an inbox, unsolicited e-zines and free newspapers stuck under the windshield wiper of one’s car, direct fluff publications bombard consumers with too much pointless information and elicits a “Who cares, and why isn’t somebody controlling the distribution of this stuff” response from the majority.

When this happens, journalism’s relevance is diluted.

People lump the relevant publications in with the irrelevant as all “news.” And this isn’t good for the relevant ones.

So, I’ve taken a bit of a critical approach to the very ideas of new content generation I’ve preached about prior to this post. One might be inclined to call me hypocritical.

But this isn’t the case.

All I’m saying is that in this age where everything happens quickly and gets reported even quicker, journalists need to remember what it is they’re trying to accomplish.

So collaborate with citizens. Start new publications, in print or online. Become a one-man show like Kery Murakami at the Seattle Post-Globe.

Just remember: Focus on the product. Keep your readers in mind. Be innovative. But don’t be a part of the fluff spewing around cyberspace.

Journalism isn’t a reality show, it supposed to show reality.

Wordled Speeches

Wordle is a form of text analysis that represents the comparative frequency of words in a text by the size they appear in the Wordle.

The bigger the word, the more times it’s used, and vice versa.

For example, here is what a Wordle based on the RSS feed for this blog looks like.

This can be quite useful to journalists in two categories of ways.

First, it can be a great way to visually illustrate the theme of a speech or other important document to the readers. So, in this respect, it is a tool journalists can use to help them make sense of something for their readers – always a good thing.

And as journalism increasingly goes digital, so too does visualization aids importance increase.

But that’s not the only way it can help journalists. It can also do so by helping journalists make sense of text themselves; for you must understand something before you can try to make sense of it to another.

Using Wordle to compare, say, campaign platforms between candidates or speeches given by one president in relation to the previous one, can quickly give a journalist the gist of what is important or present them with several angles to explore in their story.

Sometimes the graphic analysis of text makes concepts or ideas that may be hidden in poor writing stand out when they might otherwise not have.

So, the implications of Wordle for journalists are many, but they all fall within the help category under either “helping the reader” or “helping the writer so that he or she can help the reader.” Either way, it’s a useful tool.

Just remember: The enemy is unchallenged information. So, don’t rely solely on Wordle to do the work of devising angles in stories for you.

Case Study: Vanity Fair’s editing of Palin speech

First off, Vanity Fair has clearly aligned itself with a political ideology by engaging in bashing Sarah Palin.

But then those hacks never did practice under the guise of objectivity anyway.

While the editors responsible for the markups to Palin’s speech certainly have grammar and usage mastered, they failed to recognize three things.

First, that the version of the speech they wielded the multicolored pens at was a transcript provided by a news service.

Like taking pictures at a sports game, capturing the action is the key.

It’s a problem inherent with reporting speeches. There’s no going back to record what was said, but revisions on place spellings (like Point Thompson being Point Thomson) can be done later. So capture the action and revise and edit later.

When the editors “counted off” for errors, they were kind of missing the point.

Second, based on the Youtube footage of this speech, there wasn’t a teleprompter. Record almost anybody, suave politician and President Barack Obama included, away from this machine, and he or she will stumble at some point.

So, if Palin included a few conversational redundancies like “we all,” I forgive her. Too bad the editors didn’t.

While we’re on the subject, I wonder where Vanity Fair’s “edited version” of the State of the Union Address is? Oh wait…

Third, to a mainstream media insider, these grammatical irregularities included in Palin’s speech provide evidence of incompetence.

But, since Palin ran her campaign on being a different kind of politician and not doing business as usual, sounding less scripted and more on-the-spot conversational in a speech to her core constituency probably boosted her popularity.

Normal people can connect and relate to the type of rhetoric used in her speech, which is probably good since she alienated a group of people who would’ve otherwise voted for her in future elections, like for president in 2012, by resigning midway through her term.

However, all of this seemed lost on the editors who were a part of this exercise.

They didn’t make the speech better, they just changed it. But, this does underscore the importance of copy editors. Reporters are likely to return to the newsroom with notes from an event like this and write a similarly flawed story.

It’s editors job to catch and fix these errors. So, I think it is irresponsible to say editors aren’t useful.