Opinion

Jack Shafer

Move over Bezos, ESPN can do news better than you

Jack Shafer
Oct 23, 2013 22:28 UTC

The pompous slogan, “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” actually undersells ESPN’s ultimate potential.

If the Bristol behemoth were a stand-alone company instead of a Walt Disney Co./Hearst Corporation co-venture, it would be the most valuable media property in the world, worth $40 billion against annual revenues of $10.3 billion, according to one estimate. Wherever sports happens or is discussed — cable, broadcast TV, radio, online, mobile and print — one ESPN tentacle can be found wrapped tight around it, squeezing out revenue, and the others probing for fresh sucking places. It speaks four languages in more than 61 countries and has a larger standing army than Canada. I made up that army fact, but if ESPN had one it would be the world’s most predatory, profitable and entertaining.

Like Alexander the Great, ESPN has recorded so many victories in such a brief time that it will soon weep upon discovering that no additional sports worlds exist to conquer. The company has entered its mop-up phase, a place where most mature companies end up, doing more of what it does best, finding new ways to serve the old stuff, but not advancing at the old velocity. But if ESPN wanted to break out of the gold-plated sports ghetto that it now owns, what better strategy than to spend its millions refashioning itself as “The Worldwide Leader in News.” International news. Political news. Domestic news. Cultural news. Business and financial news. Local news (it already has a sports presence in five top cities). Weather. And, yeah, even sports.

The idea isn’t as fanciful as it seems. ESPN has been trundling in the news direction for a couple of decades now, at least since its executive editor John A. Walsh joined in 1988, and built out such franchises as ESPN Radio, ESPN The Magazine, its documentaries, the network’s Outside the Lines investigative work (see this Bonnie D. Ford investigation on triathlon deaths and former New York Times-man Don Van Natta Jr.’s feature on the rise of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell), and more. Walsh notably raided newspaper sports sections for reporters, picking up such stars as Chris Mortensen and Peter Gammons. In 2011, ESPN added its Grantland website, a longform journalism site that weds sports to pop culture (examples, the Hollywood Prospectus blog and the hiring of Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Wesley Morris).

ESPN’s recent acquisition of statistician/journalist Nate Silver further extends the company’s news reach. Silver, who started his journalism career in sports, will cover that topic and every news variety that generates numbers — politics and elections, economics, government, weather, science, culture, pick-up-sticks, et al. That’s a roomy mandate. It’s as if ESPN’s chiefs flew Silver to the North Pole and said, “Son, everything south of here belongs to you.” Silver’s help-wanted shingle gives a sense of his ambitions, stating that candidates who bring writing chops, statistical savvy, and programming skills with them are more likely to win a job. “Let’s say fewer things but be more correct about them,” is Silver’s editorial philosophy.

Journalism’s new Marquee Brothers

Jack Shafer
Aug 21, 2013 22:03 UTC

When Nate Silver packed his FiveThirtyEight.com flag into a box this summer and trundled it from the New York Times, where it had flown for the last three years, for planting at ESPN, he cemented his status as one of the Marquee Brothers, that fraternity of overachieving reporters whose journalistic triumphs have inspired media outlets to grant them nation-state status inside the greater organization.

In exchange for a mountain of ESPN cash and the authority to hire a team of his own, Silver will now apply his statistical hoo-doo to every sporting event, political twist, weather record and market phenomenon for which sufficient data has been assembled. In addition to running the sports numbers for ESPN on his own site, scheduled to launch January 1, Silver will also be performing political and polling analysis for the network’s cousin, ABC News. “Sports might be a third of the content,” he said about his site. “Politics might be a third.”

Other brotherhood members include Ezra Klein, the lord of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog; Walt Mossberg, perhaps the Ur-brother, whose Wall Street Journal column about personal tech birthed a conference business and more at All Things D [see addendum below]; Andrew Ross Sorkin, the founder and boss of DealBook at the Times; Andrew Sullivan, whose AndrewSullivan.com crew has operated inside  Time magazine, the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, and is now independent; the Freakonomics guys (economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner), who were indie, set up shop at the Times, and went back to being indie, and the various sports stars, Peter King of Sports Illustrated, who captains The MMQB, and Bill Simmons, who does a slew of things for ESPN, Grantland (founded 2011), The B.S. Report and TV. (Depending on how liberally you want to define the brotherhood, baseball writer Peter Gammons may also fit. He just launched Gammons Daily for TruMedia Networks.)

Nate Silver and a general theory of media exodus

Jack Shafer
Jul 22, 2013 21:44 UTC

The defection of statistics-wrangler Nate Silver from the status peaks of the New York Times for the flatlands of ESPN and ABC News puts a dent in the newspaper’s self-esteem and the orthodox view that for journalists, a Times position equals career success.

Instead of second-guessing Silver’s decision to leave the Valhalla of journalism, media writers are playing his move as a blow to the paper. Like LeBron James bolting Cleveland for Miami, writes Marc Tracy of the New Republic. “It’s a huge loss for the New York Times,” assesses USA Today’s Rem Rieder. ESPN and ABC “stole” Silver, as Politico‘s Mike Allen puts it, and in his new perch he’ll be allowed to expand beyond his FiveThirtyEight political stats-and-predictions blog to explore whole new realms of data journalism, including sports, education, economics, weather and Oscars predictions. “No way to sugarcoat this one: It’s a huge blow for the Times,” offers Forbes‘s Jeff Bercovici. “He’s outgrown the New York Times,” states Business Insider’s Walter Hickey.

Adding blood and broken bones to the psychic wounding others inflicted upon the Times was Adweek‘s headline, “Nate Silver Dumps New York Times for ESPN.”

Poynter chat: Should journalists support Trayvon Martin, Gov. Walker recall?

Mar 28, 2012 16:07 UTC

Reuters columnist Jack Shafer will discuss Gannett’s response to journalists who supported the Gov. Scott Walker recall in Wisconsin, as well as how ESPN handled the Trayvon Martin situation, specifically by dropping the ban that prevented its staff from publishing photos of themselves wearing hoodies.

The chat, hosted by Poynter, will feature feedback from Twitter users who submit their analysis and commentary by using the hashtag #poynterchats.

The chat begins at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Click here for more on this chat from Poynter.org

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