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.

News never made money, and is unlikely to

Jack Shafer
Aug 15, 2013 19:26 UTC

Sometime in the mid-1990s, the Web began to peel from the daily American newspaper bundle its most commercial elements, essentially the editorial sections against which advertisements could be reliably sold. Coverage of sports, business and market news, entertainment and culture, gossip, shopping, and travel still ran in daily newspapers, but the audience steadily shifted to Web sources for this sort of news. Broadcasters had dented newspaper hegemony decades ago, absconding with breaking news and weather coverage, and inventing new audience pleasers, such as traffic reports and talk. But it was the Web that completed the disintegration of the newspaper bundle that dominated the news media market for more than a century. In addition to pinching the most commercial coverage from newspapers, the Web has also made off with the institution’s lucrative classified ads market, simultaneously reducing its status as the premier venue for content and advertising.

This isn’t to say newspapers deserted the commercial news categories. Newspapers have maintained their presence in the sports-weather-business-entertainment-culture departments to attract readers who attract advertisers. Even so, circulation has eroded and ad revenues have fallen to below 1950 levels in real dollars. The units of the newspaper bundle not yet ransacked by the Web — international, national, state, local, and political coverage – have (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) little-to-no commercial potential. Traditionally, newspapers have struggled selling space to advertisers by invoking these news varieties unless the news is absolutely spectacular or sensationalized. As the bundle fragments, it becomes more difficult for publishers to support non-commercial news.

Outlets such as Politico (a child of the Web) and the Bureau of National Affairs (a pre-Web entity, now owned by Bloomberg), which were designed to commercialize news about politics, the federal government, regulatory affairs, political campaigns, law, and lobbying, have succeeded in targeting an elite Washington, D.C., audience with this kind of news. But those successes don’t subtract from the fact that Washington news is a loss leader for most mainstream newspapers. The same is largely true of international and national news. No mass audience is willing to directly pay for such news outside of the one already served by the New York Times (combined daily print and digital circulation, 1,865,318). Even At the Times, subscribers now contribute more revenues than advertisers, indicating that they value its mission more than Madison Avenue does.

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