It’s no secret that the national media is in a state of flux. Print newspapers are increasingly cutting back, news websites are adding paywalls and the pockets of media organizations are leaner than in years past.
This holds true even in the wide world of sports, where industry behemoth ESPN recently laid off hundreds of employees in the wake of rising TV fees and falling TV subscription numbers. In addition, beloved ESPN offshoot Grantland, which was started by since-departed (read: fired) Bill Simmons, was shut down in October despite numerous accolades and a list of contributors that reads like a Who’s Who of talented writers.
Locally, the New Haven Register recently let a number of copy and sports staffers go, including the reporter who I have had the pleasure of working alongside while covering Yale football and basketball in my time on campus. The struggling paper, whose national owner filed for bankruptcy in both 2009 and 2012 and which was almost sold this past summer to a private equity firm, failed to recap the Yale men’s basketball game against Lehigh. In addition, the Elis’ contests against SMU and defending national champion Duke were only included through AP wire stories rather than original pieces by Register staff members.
Meanwhile, if we take a 50-minute drive north to Bristol, Connecticut, home of ESPN, we can find one stark example of sports media that continues to succeed despite the grim landscape: First Take, a TV show that airs on weekday mornings.
Headlined by Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith, First Take purports to debate the day’s hottest topics in sports. But rather than a nuanced, informative debate actually designed to make people think, Bayless and Smith take stances designed to inflame opinions and generate attention.
Of course, Bayless makes no bones about being an unbiased journalist — he repeatedly refers to his beloved Cowboys and other rooting allegiances. Smith, however, reached his national status as a reporter and will occasionally use his connections to pass information on to readers and followers. Yet this works against him, as showcased when he engaged Kevin Durant in a nasty public feud in early October and even told domestic abuse victims that they should make sure not to do “anything to provoke wrong actions” in the summer of 2014.
Smith has since apologized for those remarks, and his role, along with Bayless’, on ESPN is unquestionably someone who is supposed to have opinions. Additionally, ESPN has every right to “embrace debate,” in its own words, through shows like First Take.
But as someone who is interested in entering the field of sports journalism, I am scared.
I’m scared that outlets like print newspapers and Grantland are being reduced or eliminated while talking heads are embraced and emboldened.
I’m scared that my potential job could be in jeopardy just months after I sign on while Bayless is paid millions of dollars — his contract expires this upcoming summer, and estimates for his next deal range from $3.5 to $4 million.
I’m scared that shows like Outside the Lines, an Emmy Award-winning program on ESPN that has aired for over 25 years, are being shunted between ESPN and ESPN2, with inconsistent time slots that reduce viewership.
I’m not saying that ESPN, or any other sports media company, should solely devote its resources to money-losing ventures purely in the name of true journalism. At the end of the day, it is a business and ESPN does have a number of great outlets for quality storytelling. But any so-called Worldwide Leader in Sports must set an example by prioritizing good writing, good television and, most of all, good people.
Whereas media giants such as ESPN have more flexibility, newspapers are faced with little choice but to adapt on the fly, and yes, that sometimes can mean workforce reductions. But we must continue to believe that readers want the best coverage possible, and that outlets that produce such content will be rewarded.
In my time as an editor at the News, I strove to produce high-quality content and to go above and beyond what was expected. Sure, as a full-time college student, that didn’t always happen. But thanks to amazingly talented reporters and dedicated staffers throughout the production process, there are many accomplishments that I can point to as great examples of quality journalism. And those examples were justly lauded by fellow editors and readers alike.
The national outpouring of support for Grantland after the announcement of its demise was truly inspiring. I remember feeling blown away by the positive messages, the statements of devotion and the incredible web of people across the country who loved consuming everything the site had to offer. That is what journalism can be. That is what sports media can produce. That is what I want to be a part of.
I just hope that those opportunities still exist.
GRANT BRONSDON is a senior in Ezra Stiles College and a former Sports Editor for the News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .