POWERED BY

Miscellany

An Interview With ESPN.com Editor-in-Chief Rob King

For the longest time we’ve had a checklist with names of media members we’d like to pick the brain of. Some inquiries don’t go so well; others take time. ESPN Vice President and ESPN.com editor-in-chief Rob King falls in the “took some time” category. (Last year, we called a sideline reporter about an interview, and they said they had never heard of the site, and passed. We’ll make another run this summer.) If we were nervous speaking to our childhood writing idol Tony Kornheiser, and unsure of what to ask been-asked-everything Chuck Klosterman, we were probably most worried about how King would react to our questions, since, over the last three years, we’ve – how to put this politely – written a lot of media critiques about ESPN. To our delight, he dodged nothing – Reilly vs. Simmons, Page 2, battle with Yahoo – and regaled us with tales of his cartoonist days.

Q: Your background is in newspapers and now you’ve moved over to the web. In your experience, what are some of the biggest differences in working as an editor at both places? Was your transition a smooth one, or did it take some getting used to?

In all fairness, I left the Philadelphia Inquirer four-and-a-half years ago. In the time since, the terrific folks in Philly — and elsewhere — have pressed on in a fairly heroic quest to help their respective newsrooms navigate a period of extraordinary change and uncertainty. It’s safe to assume that through their efforts, most newspaper newsrooms of today differ from the one I knew in 2004.

With that disclaimer in mind, I can say that I’m always blown away by the pace, complexity and intimacy of the digital space.

Take deadlines, for instance. In my newspaper days, I used to look at the clock and panic about a deadline two hours away. When I was in Studio Production here at ESPN, I’d frequently find myself looking at a control-room clock and thinking, “Oh Lord, the show’s starting in two minutes.€ Nowadays, Alex Rodriguez can sit across from Peter Gammons on a remote set in Miami, and as I watch the raw feed on the interview from my office in Bristol, CT, I find myself thinking, “We’ve got to post this stuff right now.€ And it happens.

Every newspaper I ever worked for had some understanding of its audience’s needs, its traditions and its expectations. For example, the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill, NJ, labored long and hard over the names of its All South Jersey high school athlete honorees. In Louisville, the Courier-Journal had to excel at coverage of schools, the State Assembly, the Derby Festival and college basketball (and not necessarily in that order, as I recall). The diversity of Philadelphia’s city and suburban neighborhoods occasionally made planning an inviting front page a mystifying task. But if the Eagles, Phillies, Flyers or Sixers made any sort of postseason run, things got simple real quick.

Things never seem that simple in an Internet newsroom. At ESPN.com, at any given moment, no matter the enormity of the story leading the site, fans come our way seeking what they want, when they want it, however they choose to consume it. West Coast fans may not care about a disgraced Yankee slugger, NFL fans may want Draft insight more than NBA trade deadline rumors, and college basketball rankings may bore the MMA fan looking ahead to the weekend’s card. Some fans don’t want a story or a video or a podcast, they just want a score or a schedule. Some haven’t even come to us through our homepage, using a search engine or widget instead. And every one of these fans has every right to expect that his/her expectations will be met.

So we take pride in doing our best to meet those expectations, no matter how complex. Our designers and engineers are tireless in trying to build a site that functions with the speed and versatility fans have come to expect in this space. Our editors, writers and multimedia producers constantly seek innovative ways to inform and engage our audience. And a bunch of smart folks dig in every day to meet the needs of fans who choose to enjoy sports through mobile devices, through social networks, through gaming.

Finally, there’s the intimacy. By that I mean, the immediacy and democracy of feedback in the digital space differs dramatically from that of the newspaper newsrooms I knew. That may be the worst sentence ever written, and I apologize. But I believe you know what I mean. In my newspaper days, we got letters to the editor, letters to the Ombudsman (or Reader Advocate), an occasional letter in the mailbox and a rare phone call. We got circulation numbers twice a year.

In these here Internet parts, you get a constant stream of e-mail, real-time poll results, live chats, comments, conversations, and nearly-up-to-the-minute feedback from shared communities of interest (i.e., blogs such as TBL). These varied contributions don’t often pass through the filter of a Reader Advocate, they’re frequently unedited, and they’re unfailingly direct.

In the digital space, you get circulation numbers, only they’re called metrics, and they arrive, like, any second, on demand. Under these circumstances, folks producing content have a much better chance of understanding their audience’s needs, of identifying smart opportunities to try creative new approaches, and of measuring the success of their efforts. So okay, it’s also true that these folks stand a better chance of hearing harsh feedback on occasion. But I remember all too well newspaper days (and nights) when we busted our backsides to produce something really special … and never heard a peep from our audience. I prefer the level of connection we enjoy with our Internet audience. And it’s cool to see so many newspapers now doing the work to develop this kind of rapport with their audiences, in print and digitally.

Q: When you took the job, did you feel that the ESPN.com EIC gig was already the most important job in sports journalism? How long ago would you say it surpassed the EIC position at SI and the NYT?

Every person who has preceded me in this role has been smart, passionate and committed to serving sports fans, and I’m honored to have joined their ranks. I love this job. I take this responsibility very, very seriously. I am blessed to have a chance to work with a staggering collection of creative, talented professionals, and yes, what we get done in our shop gets a bunch of eyeballs. But I’m sorry. I can’t buy into the “most-important” tag.

I don’t know Terry McDonnell personally, but I know and respect his body of work, and it seemed to me that he had a pretty important gig on Feb. 7 when he and his Sports Illustrated team broke the Alex Rodriguez story. Tom Jolly, the sports editor of the New York Times, directs a section that routinely features a gem of a story that we wish we’d discovered first. He remains a very important guy in this business.

And so do Garry D. Howard, and Harry Bryan, Terry Taylor, and Pat McLoone, and Colleen McDaniel, and Dan McGrath, and Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, and Lynn Hoppes. These people – and so many others whose names aren’t widely known – are essential leaders in sports journalism, folks who are satisfying fans’ needs at the critical local level, nurturing new generations of journalists, and in many cases, helping keep their newspapers relevant and solvent.

Q: Tony Kornheiser boldly said print was dead last summer. Seattle’s on the verge of becoming a 1-paper town, much has been written about the financial woes of the NYT, and many other big-city papers are sharing content or shedding staff to cut costs. Are you still a newspaper subscriber? Do you consume most of your news online? Is this just a downcycle for papers, or is the print product no longer feasible due to the growth of the internet?

I most certainly am still a newspaper subscriber. The Hartford Courant arrives every morning in my driveway, and the New York Times joins the Courant on the weekend. I also receive the daily edition of the Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today at the office. I dig through these papers every day for everything from heavy-duty content such as President Obama’s high-stakes stimulus plan to listings of family-oriented weekend activities (which explains how I found myself contributing to our Feb. 7 A-Rod coverage via Blackberry from my seat at a Monster Truck show, my four-year-old son on my lap).

I also consume a lot of news online, whether on individual sites, through feeds or via search. That said, when I hear phrases such as “Print is dead,” I know what folks are saying. Paper and ink and trucks are expensive. But writing and reading are priceless, and they will endure. Of course they will. That’s why you do what you do with this site, and why so many newspapers and magazines are working so feverishly to re-imagine their futures. That’s why mobile devices aren’t just telephones, and why they have to feature (for now, anyway) full keyboards. That’s why the online versions of the NYT, The Washington Post, USA Today and many others enjoyed such dramatic growth in 2008. And I have every confidence that systems built to deliver what is commonly referred to as “print” will continue to emerge, whether they’re things like the Kindle, or the iPhone, or something else altogether.

It’s important not to lose sight of the human toll of this transition, however. Pension plans suspended or abandoned, furloughs, buyouts, layoffs and shuttering of newsrooms … These developments are exacting a terrible price on the energy and commitment that have always driven American journalism. That’s why examples of work such as Eric Nalder’s Polk Award-winning series on malfeasance in military housing contracts, work generated against a backdrop as worrisome as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s, seem more courageous than ever before.

Q: As a former cartoonist, how badly would you say the internet that decimated the comic strip?

Disclaimer No. 2: I had to draw the cover of my college reunion book this week, and it almost killed me. It has been almost 12 years since I drew my last “professional” cartoon. I’m pathetically out of shape, so you should consider the source here. It has been my impression, however, that the issues of newsprint and available news hole, newsroom budgets and localization have also played very large roles in changing the dynamic for comic strips. From where I’m sitting, the explosion in popularity of Sudoku figured to be as much of a problem for the cartoonist as the Internet, because those puzzles take up serious space on comics pages.

Q: Did you have a favorite comic strip growing up? Are there any you still read regularly?

I “discovered” Walt Kelly’s Pogo strips long after they stopped running in papers (although there was a brief, sad period where some folks tried to revive the feature), and they changed my life. The writing was hilarious and convoluted, and the brush work was exhilarating. I studied Calvin & Hobbes and Doonesbury like they were textbooks, and my bookshelves are still full of Watterson and Trudeau collections. Now I pretty much check out Zits, Get Fuzzy, Pearls Before Swine, and Jump Start (Robb Armstrong is an old friend).

Q: One of the biggest issues regarding the internet: page views. For better or worse, it is one of the best barometers of a site’s success. Certain topics are automatic page-view generators – lists, any handful of polarizing coaches (Belichick), players (Kobe), or teams (Duke); for bloggers, think Erin Andrews – and while that’s good for the bottom line, how does a major website like ESPN not become beholden to page views? What happens when a writer starts to get judged – and paid – based on page views? Is this the kind of system that leads to writers being pitted against writers? And content being generated specifically to target topics that will get clicked on? How does an editor prevent that?

I agree that everybody loves a good page view, but we spend a lot of time here focused even more intently on other metrics of fan engagement and satisfaction, particularly time spent on our site. I don’t want to fall in the category of spin doctor here … We’d love to have the number of unique visitors Yahoo Sports has, and we’re working every day to grow our audience. But we’re very, very proud of the amount of time our fans spend with the site. For example, last week our fans spent an average of 25 minutes on our site, as opposed to Yahoo Sports visitors, who spent 10 minutes at that destination. And when you look at the total minutes spent within the sports category, ESPN.com has greatest percentage, which basically means that at any given minute, more folks are on ESPN.com than any other sports site. Which we like.

We don’t judge or pay our folks based on page views. We do use metrics — including page views — to identify content areas fans have great interest in, such as power rankings, or stories that deserve greater exploration. And we do use page views as a barometer of whether a big project had the impact we’d hoped, using the information for future endeavors. It’s important not to go too crazy with metrics in editorial decision-making, however, because before you know it, metrics can become like Rashomon – susceptible to a zillion different interpretations. It’s hard to work that way.

Q: How would you characterize Page 2’s transformation over the last few years? In its prime maybe 6-7 years ago, it was wildly popular; in our opinion, it doesn’t seem to capture the zeigeist like it used to. Is this a cyclical thing? A change in direction? Is the page still looking for the right combination of writers and edge and humor?

Everyone associated with Page 2 cherishes the page’s legacy and the extraordinary opportunity it offers writers and editors to engage fans with a unique blend of humor and perspective. We want the page to be great, and we’re working every single day to get there. Like every facet of ESPN, Page 2 will continue to evolve to remain relevant to fan’s interests and expectations. Watch this space. I’m excited about where Page 2 is headed in 2009.

Q: The Bill Simmons – Rick Reilly “feud.” Real or imagined? For anyone who has read between the lines at Bill Simmons’s “website” – which hasn’t been updated since November – there’s clearly some friction. We imagine massaging egos is a difficult task – how often are you diffusing situations?

I know how interesting this is to your readers and other sports fans out there, and I hate to bum out folks who enjoy this storyline. But I have to tell you, this isn’t the melodrama I’ve seen described on this site and elsewhere.

I want to be clear on a few things. Working with Bill Simmons is one of the great joys of my professional career. His intelligence, candor and passion to be excellent every time out are inspirational, and I’m proud to call him a colleague and friend. I’m also very fond of Rick Reilly, have been from the very first time we met. So there’s nothing about working with either of these guys that I’d characterize as difficult.

Now they’re different cats, true, with different styles and very likely different audiences. Personally, I like that, and I like that they’re also very similar in wanting their work and this site to be as great as it can be. I mean, think about how they work, how they write, and the varied ways they’re scoring with fans – Bill with his hugely popular Podcasts, Rick with the entertaining video pieces he’s doing with SportsCenter. In a weird, wildly unreported way, they complement each other, and I think sports fans are richer for it.

That said, I think the friction you describe, particularly from things Bill has said or written, had far more to do with how quickly his pieces and podcasts were getting edited, posted and promoted, which has nothing to do with Rick and everything to do with how well I perform in my job. You had a funny line once about Bill leaving a pile of poop at my door, and I thought, “Don’t be giving him any ideas.€ At any rate, we’ve fixed our internal processes, so this is no longer an issue. And my office is safe.

Q: ESPN has acquired a murderer’s row of investigative reporters in recent years, and the E-ticket is the kind of read that is sorely lacking in newspapers. How aggressive do you think ESPN.com can get with reporting on any given topic, considering its lucrative TV deals with the NFL, college basketball, college football, etc and cozy relationships with players? Sometimes, do you feel it is safer to let someone else break a news story that may be deemed “negative,” (cheating, scandal, etc) and then react by flooding the zone with reporters and opinions, as was the case with the recent A-Rod news?

By no means were we pleased to see Sports Illustrated break the Alex Rodriguez story. ESPN takes great pride in its commitment to investigative journalism and enterprise coverage, and as you said, this company has done terrific work under the leadership of a number of folks, most notably Sr. Vice President / Director of News Vince Doria, to identify and hire talented reporters and editors with deep expertise in gathering this information. Regardless of our partnerships, we bust it to give fans the truest picture of the sports world. And we’re gratified that we’re supported in these endeavors at the highest level of the company.

Q: Another area where ESPN.com is far in front the competition is hiring diverse writers. For as much heat as ESPN.com takes from ornery bloggers, is this a topic that is under-discussed? What would you say to your competition if they argued that ESPN can make diverse hires because it can entice writers with the lure of TV, big bucks and many platforms?

I think having a wide array of ways for talented storytellers to reach audiences is something to celebrate, not feel defensive about. As for “big bucks,” that strikes me as more of a generalization based on extremes than real fact. Look, the important thing here is that the sports world is truly complicated, and sports fans are extremely sophisticated. A newsroom that lacks contributors with equally diverse sorts of experience and expertise isn’t set up to meet its audience’s needs.

If this is an under-discussed topic, I don’t think it will be for much longer. The A-Rod story, in my opinion, demands some ability to report within Major League Baseball’s vital Latin American community. The Williams sisters’ lack of support for Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer can be explored a lot of ways, but I’d expect the issue might be addressed most pointedly by contributors who have experienced firsthand some form of discrimination. With greater frequency, some event or issue emerges which challenges the “safe haven” nature of the sports world. Just as important, every day we have an opportunity to present news and features in ways that bring fans together through greater understanding of the complex issues. Okay, that’s probably the second-worst sentence ever written, and I apologize again. I just mean that a staff equipped with diverse experiences is set up to succeed at making the complex stuff understandable.

Best example I can give at the moment: Wright Thompson’s upcoming piece on the 1962 University of Mississippi football team. When you read it, you’ll know what I mean. But I raise this primarily because I appreciate both the traditional and unconventional definitions of diversity. As a native of Mississippi, Wright – a white male – may not be the traditional definition of a diverse hire. But his unique experience and talent make him invaluable to me, and I learn something every time I read his work. I feel exactly the same way about Liz Merrill, and Howard Bryant, and J.A. Adande, and so many of the other folks we’re lucky to have on this staff.

QUICK HITTERS
Q: Favorite movie superhero. I can’t do this in a single word or sentence, because as a former cartoonist, I get launched by questions like these into some pretty strenuous overthinking. Costumed superhero or action hero? Superhero culled from comic books and cartoons, or one crafted for the screen? I hate going apples to oranges, but I’m forced to provide a list that will expose me as a) pathetically indecisive and b) exhaustively nerdy. Costumed superhero (tie): Christian Bale’s Batman and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine … Action hero (tie): Ellen Ripley and Neo, despite the crimes of logic and quality committed by the third installments of their narratives.
Q: Treadmill or elliptical. Treadmill … as I recall. I’ve been negligent of late.
Q: Book currently on your nightstand. The Most Ultimate Captain Underpants Collection by Dav Pilkey. Yes, really. My son and I just finished Volume Four, and what these books lack in sophistication, they make up for in pure milk-flying-out-your-nostrils hilarity.
Q: Greatest sporting event you’ve ever attended. The 2000 PGA Championship, Valhalla Golf Club, Louisville, KY. Tiger Woods, y’all.
Q: Leno or Letterman? Letterman . No contest. Did you see the takeoff on the Gammons-A-Rod interview? He’s the best.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Latest Leads