Miscellany

ESPN Ombudsman Tackles Grantland

The Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride, serving as ESPN’s ombudsman, weighed in on Grantland. She gave the definitive academic cum journalist take, which came to roughly the same conclusions as others. Aspects of the site work. Other aspects need work. It will be interesting to see how it grows moving forward.

McBride echoed my initial concern about the content seeming disparate.

At its best, Grantland is clever and funny, for smart people who want to be intellectually challenged and entertained at the same time. At its worst, it is a bunch of hyperbole and aimless columns that lack a clear focus.

We like it, mostly because it’s a stake in the ground for strong writing and thinking, two species that are failing to thrive in the modern media landscape. But the offerings are inconsistent at this point, and there’s room for improvement — specifically in how the editors and writers view the purpose of their work.

I think the last sentence is the important one. The writers are talented, but no one seems completely sure what the site is or how to write for it. Simmons and his editors need to get the team playing coherently and develop an identity. Resolving the seemingly incongruous notions in this Simmons quote from the column will be pivotal.

“The Internet is about procrastination. I have something like 450,000 downloads per podcast — does that make any sense? I think we underestimate people’s appetite to A) read quality things; B) waste time; and C) waste tons of time.”

How can reading quality things be a waste of time? Grantland has been sold simultaneously as a repository for serious, thoughtful writing and a nexus point for sports and popular culture. Can those things coincide? Can they merge in long-form when written by anyone besides Simmons or Klosterman? Can they carry a large enough audience?

McBride also hammers some of the specific pieces, pointing out that “Although the writing is funnier and more accessible than that in the New Yorker, it still takes a concerted effort to finish a piece.”

If there is a problem with Grantland, you can see it in the juxtaposition of those pieces. They are almost exactly the same length. The North Dakota junior college basketball story could have been a book or a movie script. The returning-to-baseball column should have been, at best, a short blog note. Klosterman has a real story to tell and deserves the space to tell it; Jones just shares a bunch of personal anecdotes and deserves an editor to serve as his safety net.

Simmons’ analysis going into Game 6 of the NBA Finals was prescient and compelling, even for non-basketball fans. But his welcome piece blathered on for more than 3,000 words, yet failed to articulate a vision for the site until the lower third. He could have summed up his overwhelming anxiety in a pithy tweet.

Not sure why the ombudsman needed to dispense advice to specific writers about specific pieces, but I think the length is also a balance for Grantland to figure out. Long-form writing does not always equal good writing. Some thoughts need refinement rather than fleshing. My guess is that gets resolved when we see the blogs in the flesh rather than in weird “blog previews” (whatever that means).

Another interesting point is the maleness of it, which Deadspin’s word search pointed out initially.

But it’s not all dense prose. The Reality TV Fantasy League is a clever spin on a silly genre. Simmons, Connor Schell, Joe House, Lane Brown, David Jacoby and Jay Caspian Kang all got to draft a team of reality TV participants. Katie Gorman gets to be their commissioner, meaning she tallies up all the scores every week based on the inane behavior of the players.

Although Dan Fierman, deputy editor for Grantland, vehemently disagreed, we thought the initial offerings strongly tilted toward a male audience. There are only a handful of women on staff. And Deadspin’s word analysis of the site’s first 30 hours was revealing: he (155 instances); his (155); him (62); she (4); hers (0); her (8); I (420).

I don’t think the maleness will be a concern, nor am I inclined to throw stones from an all-male sports website. The site’s two superstar names, Simmons and Klosterman, are both very male writers. It’s not surprising the site would run them out early to drive traffic and they would set that sort of tone. There are female editors. Presumably, Molly Lambert and Katie Baker will be featured more when they establish themselves and more women will be writing and contributing. Louisa Thomas just wrote a piece about women’s tennis. Female voices will be heard.

Right now, the site is sitting on a Saturn 5 rocket furnished by ESPN and sponsors with a previous relationship with Simmons (Subway) or friends of Simmons (Klondike). Looking ahead, Simmons’ vision and the talent he assembled will need to maintain that momentum.

[Photo via Getty]

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