Monday, June 05, 2006

ESPN: TMI?

Bryan Curtis wrote a good story about information and opinion overload at ESPN.com in The New York Times sports magazine, Play, this weekend:
Enthusiastic nerds on sports! It could be ESPN.com's motto. If the site has a guiding mission, it's to raise the admission standards of sports fandom. The excessively literary types like Halberstam departed the site, leaving a core of unashamed fanatics who can be counted on to produce thousands of words about utter minutiae. As a result, ESPN.com has nudged sportswriting toward a level of insiderdom once reserved for titles like Baseball America and Pro Football Weekly. John Walsh's revelation was that there was no need to accommodate the nonsporting masses; he was looking for hard-core fans who could keep up. Since ESPN.com's creation, we sports fans have begun to demand a greater level of — this may be a generous word — sophistication in our sportswriting. I'm not alone in saying that I love it. Sports Illustrated and its Web site may be better written, but these days when the serious sports nut demands a continuous stream of opinion and inside dope, S.I. can feel hopelessly well adjusted.

When fanaticism is the organizing principle of the site, Curtis wonders, what happens if there's a glut of information:
If there's a nagging concern about ESPN.com, it's that the site has grown too big for its gigabytes. Every time it adds another prominent writer — Marc Stein from The Dallas Morning News or Ivan Maisel from Sports Illustrated — it raises the question: what are they going to do with him? They're going to throw him up there on the home page and let him jockey for space with everyone else. ESPN.com's philosophy seems to be to hire everyone, print everything and leave it to the bewildered fan to try to make sense of it all. There's a certain glory in this, I suppose, if you like sheer volume. But as you wade through the millions of words on ESPN.com, you wonder if anyone is curating what reaches the screen. (In reality, the company says, it employs 85 Web editors.)

On the day of college basketball's national championship, I clicked over to see if the site's writers had anything to say about the big game. Boy, did they! One columnist offered 20 reasons why the University of Florida would win; another offered 20 reasons why U.C.L.A. would win. The analyst Andy Katz assured us, in separate columns, that both teams and both coaches were deserving of playing in the final. A columnist named Scoop Jackson — more on him below — wrote of a trip to the Westwood campus, where he had to decide whether or not to buy a Bruins cap. It didn't end there. Doug Gottlieb weighed in on whether U.C.L.A. would be vexed by Florida's shooting ability; an ESPN TV analyst talked about the teams' give-and-go plays; Skip Bayless, another columnist, wondered whether his earlier prediction of a Bruins victory would hold up — and on and on, thousands of words spilled in pursuit of ... what, exactly? The game that night was a miserable blowout, remembered only by Florida Gators fans and gamblers, and yet the gang reappeared the next morning with a similar set of takes. One or two good columns would have sufficed.

I see Curtis's point about opinion overload on the site, but I think he's writing around an interesting argument: what if ESPN.com's readers want quantity rather than quality? Maybe not every piece of writing has to stand the test of time. For example, ESPN devotes a lot of coverage to the NBA and NFL drafts, but the prognostication is only relevant for a short period of time, after which writers then depend on reactions to previous coverage, more forecasts, and "here's why I was right (or wrong) in 3,000 words" pieces. To outsiders, it seems like a system based on indulging reactionary blowhards, but that self-reflexive system turns out to work very well.

ESPN has tried to brook some of the repetitive commentary by creating features like the NBA Daily Dime, which contains short pieces by several people on the staff.

I'd be interested to see an article about how phenomenally successful ESPN.com has been about taking advantage of reader feedback systems. The very features that may signal content overload on the site--endless rankings and polls, transcriptions of endless chats (Bill Simmons gets 20,000 questions for his chats), columnists' reevaluations to their own previous work, compilations of reader responses like Simmons' mailbag--generate huge amounts of content. Curtis's point is that not all of this is interesting content, but isn't there a place for disposable media? The editors have found a way to transfer the sports fan's need to boast, respond, react, argue, and nit-pick onto an online forum that keeps readers coming back to the site. If readers were tired of all of the opinion-making on the site, wouldn't they stop sending in their own responses? Are there other web sites that have such large responses to online polls about minutia?

With regard to reader responses, I'm assuming that the future of quantity-quality issues will become clear if people stop writing in. But what about external regulations? Curtis points out flaws in the quantity-over-quality system:
In April 2005, Peter Gammons plagiarized several paragraphs from a Los Angeles Times story about the Dodgers. (Gammons apologized the next day. ESPN won't discuss whether he was punished.) Later that month, the writer Ric Bucher published what appeared to be a juicy scoop: Phil Jackson, who had been wandering the wilds of Montana, was set to meet with Kobe Bryant — a possible first step toward Jackson rejoining the Lakers. The story had two problems. One, it was false. Two, Bucher told The Los Angeles Times that he hadn't written it, even though it appeared under his byline. (ESPN attributes the mix-up to reporting Bucher did on television and, again, refuses to discuss personnel matters.) Last July, ESPN hired George Solomon, a sainted former Washington Post sports editor, to be its networkwide ombudsman. Given ESPN's well-documented conflicts of interest — e.g., how do you hype games for network telecast while reporting on them at the same time? — Solomon is like a man given a wheelbarrow full of concrete and told to maintain Manhattan's sidewalks for one year.

Some of my questions: Is there a saturation point? Why does ESPN.com not have competition? Do writers get burned out on such a punishing publication schedule? How did ESPN deal with issues of professional misconduct and what can we learn from them?
Blogger Ben on Tue Jun 06, 02:13:00 AM:
Maybe a by-product of internet journalism and blogging will be that plagiarism and other high crimes of traditional journalism won't be so career-ending. After all, couldn't Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass et al. find success right now as bloggers? For ESPN, lowering its standards of journalistic integrity seems like a sensible business move.

The freewheeling approach ESPN takes with the number of different kinds of article seem to be a necessary form of experiment if they are to stumble on such successful techniques as Simmons' mailbag and his various lists, which seem to serve as a sort of style guide for other ESPN columnists, some of whom ape him closely.
 
Anonymous Katy on Thu Jun 08, 03:50:00 PM:
You know what bugs me about ESPN? So much of the content is subscription-only, and I just don't feel like shelling out for it. I read the public content that looks interesting, but it's a bit limited, and some of it is rehash from other places (I can read Sean McAdam saying the same stuff in the Providence Journal if I want). There are some good sports blogs out there, and if anything is going to supplant ESPN or even come close to competing with it, I think it would be something in that vein.
 
Blogger Mike on Fri Jun 09, 11:45:00 AM:
The answer on the saturation point is No. And I say thank goodness for that. Once you have a 24-hour sports network that makes money, you learn that there are enough people want sports all of the time to make this a profitable venture.

What's interesting to me is that ESPN fails miserably every time it tries to extend into culture beyond sports. Also even though ESPN.com is oversaturated, it remains eminently more readable than ESPN TV is watchable. Ever since Craig Kilborn was hired by Comedy Central, every anchor narrates highlights like he is cutting an audition tape.