Work Unrewarded: Grantland's death and the state of online journalism
“Writer, huh?” sneers some four-gin suit at an old friend’s wedding. “What’s the industry like these days?”
Even if you've never written a word on deadline in your life, we've all been there, in that conversation. That feeling—standing on a scale you scarcely knew was there, let alone realized you failed to tip—is somehow still familiar. It’s an intergenerational swipe on the one hand (and a deftly clever one at that); on the other, an eons-old jibe made new:
You creative types, you artists. What do you know of work?
We know enough. Enough to have more bosses in a month than he's had since graduation. Enough to know “office hours” are routinely between 4 a.m. and whenever-the-final-turn-of-the-draft-is-actually-final. Enough that any given week is feast or Ramen depending on how full my editor's inbox is. Enough to appreciate how lucky you are to be teeing off with an afternoon foursome or cashing in a sick-leave week, while we’re sending third follow-ups for interviews.
“What’s the industry like these days?” Testy, loutish, and short.
I wrote three pieces for Grantland, and only worked with one (very excellent) editor. I didn’t know any of the staffers personally. But I’ve read and heard and watched enough these past four years to see keenly how much effort went into every piece. These content creators and producers clearly cared—not about bylines or cultural credentials, but storylines and creative destruction, the tireless grind towards something at once menacing and meaningful. Something important, in ways that only get their proper nods years down the line.
On Friday, word broke that, following a protracted spar between ESPN and recently ousted Grantland founder Bill Simmons, the network had decided to end the site immediately. (Separately, ESPN laid off around 300 other employees.)
Effective immediately we are suspending the publication of Grantland. After careful consideration, we have decided to direct our time and energy going forward to projects that we believe will have a broader and more significant impact across our enterprise.
Grantland distinguished itself with quality writing, smart ideas, original thinking and fun. We are grateful to those who made it so. Bill Simmons was passionately committed to the site and proved to be an outstanding editor with a real eye for talent ...
... Despite this change, the legacy of smart long-form sports story-telling and innovative short form video content will continue, finding a home on many of our other ESPN platforms.
The release was drenched in passive-aggressiveness. It was also not the least bit surprising; ESPN didn’t create a multi-billion dollar media leviathan by being a charity incubator for alt-media verticals. For ESPN, the only #content risks worth taking are ones that can be watched. The reason coin-operated bile-belchers like Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless remain on Disney’s dole—despite the lies; despite the recycled rage—isn’t because they’re smarter or more insightful. And it sure as heck ain’t about the coins themselves. It’s because the spot-lit seats are easier to see, and thus more tractable.
But even panopticons harbor their shadows. Whatever omniscience The Mothership had, Grantland was always the cell that used the tower’s light to throw playful puppets on the walls. While the click-counting guards rapped the bars with nightsticks and threatened in phlegmy whispers, Simmons rabble of incorrigible scribes kept chipping away at the cold-thick stone, and writing tunnels to the other side.
Eventually, the inmates became either too expensive or too expressive to keep around, and with one quick flip of the PR switch, away Grantland went, Twitter-smoke curling up from the publication's ashes the lone-lingering trace of a life lived in quiet defiance.
Well that's the first time I've ever found out I was laid off via Twitter— Michael Baumann (@MJ_Baumann) October 30, 2015
NEVER A DULL MOMENT— Molly Lambert (@mollylambert) October 30, 2015
NOT GREAT, BOB— PAPPADEMAS (@PAPPADEMAS) October 30, 2015
As both a writer and reader there, Grantland was magic— Spike Friedman (@SpikeFriedman) October 30, 2015
/turns phone off— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) October 30, 2015
This was my dream job.— Danny Chau (@dannychau) October 30, 2015
Some will say the decision to kill Grantland was purely economic. Others will posit that Skipper didn’t want Sports Guy loyalists poisoning the well. Still others: that by quietly peeling off a sizable chunk of editorial talent, it was Simmons himself who wound up sabotaging his own cause célèbre. Whatever the impetus, one fact alone seems steel-tight: If a company valued at north of $50 billion wants to fund a site worth thousands-fold less, it will.
But it didn’t, so it won’t.
Why? That’s the $49.98-billion-dollar-question, of course. Even if Grantland was always doomed to lose money, the value added—visionary spins on long-stale tropes, voices that cut as deeply as they cared and sung as high as they soared—surely should have been enough to offset the negative balance sheet impact. By supporting Grantland, ESPN might have convinced a slice of its target audience—young, educated, acutely wary of the network's evermore corporate-cynical slouch—to stick around and keep its flagship flotsam afloat.
“Prior to Grantland's closing, we'd take the good with the bad—if you view ESPN as a wide-ranging mothership, one could see a fine balance being achieved,” wrote the Huffington Post’s Justin Block. “That's over.”
Knowing this, it’s instructive to try and tease to the network’s press release, piece by patronizing piece.
After careful consideration, we have decided to direct our time and energy going forward to projects that we believe will have a broader and more significant impact across our enterprise.
Translation: You were weird and different and didn’t turn a sufficient profit. Rather than working with you to figure out a more sustainable business model (or helping you promote the site), we’ve decided to double down on what, beyond live sports, draws eyes to ESPN in the first place: Golden-haired eye candy, squirrels on skateboards, and vitriol-spewing carnival clowns.
Grantland distinguished itself with quality writing, smart ideas, original thinking and fun. We are grateful to those who made it so.
Translation: If your goal is to create McSweeney’s Sports, it’s probably best you do it with someone else's money. Thanks for wasting our time. (Side note: The Oxford-comma-free “and fun” might be the sneaky-evilest piece of the whole note.)
Despite this change, the legacy of smart long-form sports story-telling and innovative short form video content will continue, finding a home on many of our other ESPN platforms.
Translation: We have no intention of learning from anything you achieved, let alone incorporating it. Moreover, we intend to continue overpaying for immediately forgettable, pyramid-style stories.
So “what’s the industry like these days?” Splendid, if you lust for #hottakes and half-baked thoughts; enjoy your coverage surface-level and your human-interest stories saccharine-rote. There are, of course, exceptions aplenty up and down the Bristol masthead. That, thank Athena, will likely never change. No matter how homogenous Skipper and Co. try and keep the content, that Grantlandian cream—creative, incisive (and fun)—will never be kept below for long.
As The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza recently wrote, part of Grantland's aesthetic lay in its writers’ dynamism, their stylistic sensibility and topical approach(es):
Chuck Klosterman, a regular contributor to Grantland, is a perfect example of this notion. Klosterman can talk smartly about college football, comic books, television and a thousand other things. I'm not sure he's an "expert" on any one thing but he is interesting and analytical on many topics. Limiting Klosterman or Chris Ryan to a single subject would be a waste of their talents—and a misread of how people consume information now.
Less than a collection of talent (though it was indisputably that), Grantland championed an endangered, and increasingly dangerous, media ethos: to make everything they did, whether sparse and sarcastic or hour-long and harrowing, as good as it could possibly be. To read an Andy Greenwald synopsis or Brian Philips opus, it’s tempting to believe that it all must come so easily, these sublime lines and perspective-quaking points. That one must be acutely blessed to be Molly-Lambert clever or Amos-Barshad in-the-know. That it’s Luck, and her foremost, which made those stories sing.
Truth is, luck is merely the bloom plucked from what the real work reaped, what it sewed and made grow well enough to watch flower. There were few outlets anywhere—whether in pixels or pulp—that worked harder than Grantland worked. That cared more about the craft or knew the rules well enough to vaporize them. That thought longer or harder on what they wanted to say and how, whom they wanted to hear, and why they should hear it. That could make someone shoot coffee snot on their screen and drip tears into their keyboard within a click and 10 minutes. That made us remember that sports and pop culture—human endeavors both, and thus imbued with humanity—can really, truly matter. So long as we have help parsing the substance from the sheen, and the meaning from the noise.
Grantland busted its a-- to dust and made it look easy as a wave. And for that—being too good at a job some would just as soon reduce to algorithms—they took the blade. A single swing and not so much as a warning paid. They are gone because too many were willing to do worse work for more money; because ESPN would rather ride the voices that ratings wrongly suggest people want to hear than on those who proved were actually worthy of it. Because nobody there cared how much these writers cared, or wanted to work as hard as those writers did to make it work.
So “what’s the industry like these days?” Inside-out, upside-down, backwards, where different is a detriment and thoughts beyond the box are doomed to die on unseen vines. In other words, much as the writ-large world: Exactly what we deserve.