Bernie Puchalski and Bill Potrecz leave the Standard for greener digital pastures
BY VOICE STAFF
On a recent Monday morning, Bernie Puchalski and Bill Potrecz, the founders, editors, and reporters of BPSN, a new online Niagara sports news network, arrived at the Niagara Olympic Club. (BPSN is so named for the initials of its founders.) The club, which is adjacent to to the shuttered West Park Secondary School, was hosting the region’s Zone Three high school track and field championship.
Starting pistols popped and runners in singlets made rings around the ochre track, while others warmed up in unused lanes. Results and event reminders were being blared over loudspeakers. There was an order of chaos in the air. Puchalski and Potrecz looked at home.
The two men, who are both in their mid-50s but could pass for a decade younger, spent a combined 55 years covering Niagara sports for the St. Catharines Standard before taking buy-outs in early 2017.
“It was a downward spiral, and we saw it all coming. When I started there in 1984 covering sports part-time, we had six-and-a-half people covering sports—I was the half,” said Potrecz. “Now, the paper has six people in its entire newsroom.”
Puchalski began his career covering Regional politics in 1989, before switching to sports in 1996. The move was welcome to him.
“I covered Regional Council, all the committees, the police services board, the health board. All of the parochialism drove me crazy,” he said.
Potrecz’s career at the Standard began when the Burgoyne family—the paper’s founders—still had ownership. During his 30-year tenure, the paper moved from chain to chain, from SunMedia, to Osprey, to Quebecor, to PostMedia.
“It was like being on a treadmill with the speed turned up each year,” said Potrecz. “You don’t realize the stress that you’re under until you leave.”
“People come up and tell me that I’m a completely different person now,” said Puchalski.
Prior to taking their buyouts, Puchalski and Potrecz had discussed the possibility of creating their own independent outlet to cover Niagara sports.
“We knew that we had to give it a shot. If we can’t do it, then it can’t be done,” said Potrecz.
After some six months of small business classes, and web and logo design, the two launched BPSN last September.
“Aside from my family, there’s no one I trust more than Bill,” said Puchalski. “We trust each other to do the tough parts. Last week we spent hours just entering track and field results into the computer. Your eyes glaze over as you’re doing it. But I’m not afraid to do that, and neither is Bill.”
Since September, the two said, they have had some 310,000 page views by 85,000 different users. Their best week saw 13,500 hits. All told, they’ve written some 720 stories at a rate of about 20 per week.
“We have new local sports daily—from Fort Erie to Grimsby,” said Potrecz, explaining that the site has found its sweet spot in covering high school sports.
“We thought that the Icedogs and River Lions would do well,” said Puchalski. “With five thousand people at the game, maybe two thousand would want to read and in-depth story about it afterwards.”
Surprisingly, though, coverage of these games garnered far fewer hits than young athletes. A story about the championship football game between A.N Myer and Notre Dame racked up 7000 views.
“It’s kids sharing it on social media,” said Puchalski. “My youngest daughter, Tess, already takes photos for us sometimes and we’re getting her to be our social media operator too.”
“I started on the high school sports beat at the Standard, back when there were beats,” said Potrecz. “All of that has been pushed to the back-burner, so it’s really gratifying to get back to it.”
Despite the attention that their high school coverage has received, Puchalski said that BPSN has to refrain from becoming “a slave to hits.”
“We know there are some stories that aren’t going to attract a lot of readers—like the one on Wayne Parrish being named the CEO of the Canada Summer Games. But we have to cover those sorts of stories for credibility,” he said.
Puchalski and Potrecz say that their site is now entering a “crunch period,” during which they are trying to monetize their work. Since its launch, BPSN has been self-financed.
“We have sold some ads, but we’re also looking for voluntary help,” said Puchalski. “We don’t want people to just think of us as an ad platform—we want them to see us as a community service.”
Niagara Olympic Club president Sharon Stewart said her organization’s sponsorship of BPSN is based on a belief that the coverage provided is important.
“It’s great for the kids to see stories on themselves and others,” said Stewart, as she walked around the grounds of the event last week. “[BPSN] isn’t restricted by anything—the stories are as long as they want them to be.”
Puchalski and Potrecz said that they find working for themselves liberating.
“We’ve always been like that, doing our own thing—Bill would be at the Standard’s basketball tournament and say, ‘You’re starting early. It’s our tournament, and I have to go cover something else after.’ Now he’s even worse,” joked Puchalski.
The two said that their ability to be efficient has been critical to keeping the stories coming.
“We can do a seven hundred word story in forty-five minutes,” said Potrecz. “Pull into a Tim Horton’s and make use of the WiFi. Or the library at the Seaway Mall. That’s our second home.”
Several of BPSN’s stories have appeared in the Voice, which has exclusive print rights in Pelham.
Most importantly, the two said, they’re doing what they love.
“My daughter had to do a story on careers, and she said that she had to interview me,” said Puchalski. “The first question was, ‘What is a successful career?’ And I said that if you love it, it’s a successful career.”
Splitting up from each other at the track meet, Puchalski squatted down near the starting line with his camera, wile Potrecz ambled off towards the long-jump pit to interview a girl wearing a University of Toronto sweater. By that afternoon, BPSN’s homepage was already full of stories from the day. Find it at http://www.bpsportsniagara.ca