The longtime NFL reporter was among the casualties as ESPN laid off upwards of 100 staffers last week. Now, like many others in the business—or hoping to be—he ponders where sports journalism is headed
Tough one for Ed Werder last week. Tough two, actually. Laid off by ESPN last Wednesday. Had to put his 12-year-old golden retriever Austin down Friday. Man, that must have been the worst week of your life, someone said.
“Not close, actually,” Werder said.
“It really doesn’t compare to the time the doctor asks you come in during surgery to remove a tumor from your daughter’s brain, and the surgeon saying the computer-guided equipment you use in this operation on Christie had failed, and now they would have to do it the old-fashioned way—by touch and feel. And then, after surgery, the surgeon saying, ‘I’m not sure we got it all.’ And I asked him how often this happens. He said, ‘It never happens.’
“Or there was the week that Christie found out the man she’s going to marry was diagnosed with colon cancer.
“Or watching Trey pass while holding Christie’s hand.
“Those were harder.
“Those were harder.”
Ed Werder couldn’t talk for a while after that.
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It seems so harsh, and so unfeeling, to talk about journalism when discussing the Werder story. But for so many of the estimated 100 people at ESPN who got laid off last week, the upshot was that the untouchable had been touched. Shattered, maybe. As Werder said in my Monday Morning Quarterback column this week: “If I were in journalism school right now, I’d be seriously shaken by this. I would ask any kid majoring in journalism now: What’s your minor?”
“I saw that quote,” said Brendan Marks, a senior journalism student graduating from the University of North Carolina this spring. “That’s what they’ve been preaching to us in journalism school: No matter how much we prepare you for employment, we can’t guarantee you a job when you leave here.”
“When I heard about the ESPN [layoffs], my stomach dropped,” said Tom Piccolo, a grad student from Columbia about to enter the sports-media job market. “I thought, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ But it’s the new reality of the business. I remain hopeful.”
The Werder story resonates for many reasons.
• He was really good at his job. Most of the Brett Favre comeback/retirement stories several years ago were his, and he was consistently strong covering the Cowboys, routinely breaking stories small and large in Dallas. The Terrell Owens/team chemistry story comes to mind as a Werder news break, when Dallas cut Owens over locker-room issues despite taking a $10 million hit. Werder was the poster child for how to transition from newspaper beat man to television news reporter.
• Werder exemplifies many on the firing line—ESPN laid off scores of beat writers covering teams for their websites, reporters who made TV cameos when stories broke. So it’s not just the TV anchors who got laid off, though they were many of those too.
• Werder was let go with two years left on his contract, and ESPN intends to honor his contract through April 2019; many laid-off staffers have significant time left on their deals, which seems weird. Why not just allow them to serve out their time if you’re paying them anyway? As another ESPN victim said to me: “ESPN’s counting on these people who love to work to come to them and say, ‘Pay me 40 cents on the dollar for the rest of my contract, and I’ll walk away now.’ ” Maybe.
• So many people got to know Werder from his constant and competent hits covering the NFL. He had a little fire to him too. He once zinged Chris Berman good-naturedly on the Sunday pregame show, and it wasn’t his only time throwing a barb at a much higher-profile ESPNer.
• He is responsive and human on Twitter, allowing many to get to know him. After the twin gut punches last week, Werder tweeted: “I lost my job. I miss my dog.” And he changed his Twitter handle from “@edwerderespn” to “@edwerderRFA.” Get it? “Restricted Free Agent.”
Werder sat on the couch and watched the draft last week, trying to take it all in—the lost job, the lost dog. His wife, Jill, said to him at one point: “From the looks of it, I’ve traded in a dog for a husband.”
“The lesson here is that anybody can be let go,” Werder said from his home in Dallas. “I was told after the season that layoffs were coming, and quality of work would not be a consideration. I responded, ‘Quality of work should be the only consideration.’ ”
Werder said he thought having two years left on his contract would shield him from this round of cuts. It didn’t. He’s been humbled by the responses he's received from people around the league, including Roger Goodell, current and former players, an active referee, multiple head coaches, many media relations staffers and peers in the business. “Like eavesdropping on your own funeral,” Werder said. “Honestly, that part of it has been really gratifying.”
It seems from an outsider that as ESPN got so big, it paid very good to excellent people far beyond the market. When ESPN’s business began to turn down—because of cord-cutters, and people who didn’t view the ESPN TV product as indispensible anymore because there are now so many other options beyond “SportsCenter”—it made sense that cuts would have to happen. Some of the staffers who were laid off (a slew of NFL people like Trent Dilfer and Adam Caplan and Jarrett Bell are gone too, and many others) will be replaced; or ESPN will just cover for them using others.
“We’re trying to adapt on the fly, which is tough,” says one journalism student. “Because we don’t really know what we’re adapting to.”
The job market for Werder is something he wonders about, obviously. He doesn’t know his future. He knows he may have to negotiate it and try to find a gig elsewhere—best guess here would be NFL Network. For the NFL’s TV arm, it would be like the Ravens making Terrell Suggs a cap casualty, and the Steelers saying, Thank you very much. We’ll find a place in our lineup for him.
Finally, I asked Werder: “Who are you mad at?”
“I’m mad at the people who don’t value real reporting,” he said.
Join the club.
* * *
One more point from the UNC senior, Brendan Marks, who covered the North Carolina football team and the basketball team for the last two seasons for the Daily Tar Heel, the student paper:
“You grow up reading Frank Deford and Rick Reilly and Gary Smith,” he said. “And you think you can just be a sportswriter like they were and have that same kind of career. But now, you want to make yourself as multifaceted as possible. The more you can do, the more desirable you’ll be. We’re trying to adapt on the fly, which is tough. Because we don’t really know what we’re adapting to.”
For Werder and for hundreds in his peer group and others who one day hope to be, that’s the question the ESPN layoffs prompt—a question without an answer in a complicated field.
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