Questions remain after ESPN shut down popular sports, pop–culture site Grantland. Departing editor-in-chief Chris Connelly tries to answer some of them in a rare interview.
After ESPN opted to part ways with Bill Simmons last May, the company appointed Chris Connelly to serve as Grantland’s top editor on an interim basis. Connelly is a longtime figure in entertainment journalism (Rolling Stone, MTV News, Premiere Magazine) and has worked for ESPN since 2001 in a variety of roles, including working on SportsCenter and E:60.
During his five-month stint at Grantland, he opted not to do any interviews with any media (for reasons he states below). With Grantland’s site being shuttered last week by ESPN management, Connelly agreed to talk to Sports Illustrated on Sunday afternoon. He answered every question I posed to him and I thought it most fair for all parties to run the conversation as a straight Q&A.
Richard Deitsch: I probably requested you 12 times or so through ESPN PR. So my first question is: Why are you talking to me today?
Chris Connelly: Word was out on the request (laughs) and I am grateful at last to talk to you. At the time, I guess there was a number of factors that made me feel that it was inappropriate to talk. I didn’t have any interest in engaging in what I felt was the narrative of that moment. I also wanted the site to speak for itself in the wake of all the controversy that surrounded it. I thought that the site itself could speak to what it was in an engaging and intelligent way because the quality of the writing and editing was so high.
I also didn’t think the staff would much like me talking in a broad and fatuous way about all the stuff I thought they should be doing that they were not doing now. I thought I should listen to them and hear what they had been doing, and to respect the wonderful job they had been doing long before I ever turned up. I had a learning curve. The last time I had ever done anything like this I was working on a monthly [Premiere Magazine, where he was editor-in-chief] about the movies. Just finding out how the site worked and appreciating the level of work that the people there had was something I really had to learn a lot about, especially the velocity of the work they did which was really impressive to me. Yet the quality was as high as any monthly or bi-weekly I had ever worked on before. I guess that is why I kept my counsel for lo those many weeks.
RD: How frustrating was it not to talk?
CC: I felt the site spoke for itself. I think you and I have a disagreement on it. I didn’t think the site needed a road map to be appreciated. People like Tina Brown or (Hugh) Hefner or Helen Gurley Brown, they talked about their magazine a lot and that was a cool thing. But it didn’t inherently make them better editors than Adam Moss or William Shawn or someone like that. I thought the site should speak for itself because I thought the site was really good. I thought the writing and editing was of really high quality. I don’t think it needed me to be yelling over the top of it and appearing to disrespect the work of the people who were doing it every day.
RD: Why did you take the Grantland job?
CC: They asked.
RD: Simple as that?
CC: Yes, they asked. I have known [ESPN president] John [Skipper] for 30 years and I have known [ESPN executive vice president, global strategy and original content] Marie [Donoghue] for close to a decade and they asked. Here I was in California with a background in print journalism and ostensible knowledge in sports and pop culture and they asked. So I said yes.
RD: Why did the site ultimately shut down?
CC: Well some of that is not really my determination. I think ESPN has addressed the definitive thoughts on that. My feeling is, for what it is worth, we found ourselves up against new economic realities that maybe had not been foreseen when I took the job. When you are doing a site that you understand is not making money, you kind of understand when times get challenging or there is a new economic climate, you will be scrutinized very closely. I think the site continued to do fantastic editorial, for which I want to be sure not to take credit. That was the product of the editors and writers who were there every day of the week. But in this economic climate you will be very closely scrutinized if you are not a money-making operation.
RD: The staff was fiercely loyal to Bill Simmons. How did that impact your job?
CC: You had to be respectful of that. What kind of people would they be if they were not loyal to him? I said that on the first day. I said I worked with Bill and really enjoyed working with Bill. There is no reason people should not have strong feelings for Bill. What kind of people would they be if they did not have strong affection and feelings for him? He and [former editorial director] Dan Fierman had taken many of them from relative obscurity and given them fantastic opportunities and they blossomed while at Grantland. So you have to go in and respect that. And I tried to do so. To the degree that they felt loyalty to him was a testament of their character. If someone gives you an opportunity like that, of course you will feel loyal.
SI: You were contributing to Grantland prior to becoming interim editor-in-chief and you had been friendly with Bill Simmons. Then you go in and take the title he held. How would you classify your current relationship with Simmons?
CC: Well that is between me and Bill. Bill in the past has always been good to me. I will just say that I had a situation where I left a magazine I felt very strongly about in 1996, when I left Premiere, and a very nice guy came in and took over for me. I can’t say I was love-bombing him on an ongoing basis. I wasn’t throwing flowers his way. Bill gets all the credit in the world for creating this site and finding these people, and gets it along with Dan and everybody else there. For a great website or magazine, you can kind of tell what magazine it is just by reading a story there. I hope they said that about Premiere or Rolling Stone when I was there. And I think you could really say that about Grantland. Anybody connected to Grantland has the right to have very strong feelings about what has gone on. Even if I don’t want to engage with those feelings, I have to respect that.
CC: Not knowing from whom that came, I guess I could not comment.
RD: Did your vision of the site match the vision of the staffers you inherited?
CC: I thought they were doing a great job and one of the first things I said was, “Continue to do a great job.” I certainly was not brought in to tell them they were not doing a good job. Nobody put me in the game and said change everything, or even change a lot or even change essential things. It was a really good site, and it was a really good site while I was there, and not because I was there. I would hope you would hear me when I say that if anybody liked anything about Grantland during the five months I was there, I am not credited for that. It was the people who were there who made that happen. Great writers being edited by wonderful editors. So that was the key thing.
There were things I mentioned during the course of the time I was there, little tweaks I was interested in doing. I would say on the sports side I wanted more heart and steel in some of the stuff that we did. Now, it was outstanding, the stuff we did. But I wanted a little of that. On the culture side, maybe a little more [of] how culture is made. On the feature side I wanted there to be a lot at risk, a lot at stake every time we did a feature. The overall value I did talk a lot about was reporting. I really did think reporting was the key to doing even better stuff than we were doing. So to the limited degree I could, or just enhancing what was already there, I tried to suggest that this was something that was a value we should encourage in our writers.
RD: How would you classify management support of Grantland after ESPN parted ways with Simmons?
CC: Well, I can’t speak to anything until I got there. Personally, I found Marie and Skipper to be super supportive on every level, with lots of encouragement all the way down the line. We were in a challenging economic climate, obviously, and in particular when we lost all those editors. I, of course, was eager to replenish and get that going. It was clear by then we were being closely scrutinized in the wake of economic challenges that were taking place across ESPN.
RD: Was the site making money during your tenure?
CC: That’s not really my department, so I could not say one way or another. I think there is probably data that you could find out in terms of that situation.
RD: How badly was the site hurt with the loss of the staffers who left in October?
CC: They were all great people and really talented editors and contributed an enormous amount to the site, every single one of them. Because some of our departures were a little more controversial, it was important to me that they be respected and honored for their choices even as they went on to their next things. I wanted to make sure that we showed, to the degree I had any influence, that we showed our appreciation and we wished them well as they went to their next step. It placed an enormous burden on the staff that remained and it was really something to see the staff that remained pull together and redeploy and commit to 18-hour editing days so there would not be any reduction in the amount of content that went up on the site. Again, I had nothing to do with it. It was an inspiring thing to watch, and I felt the moment that happened that it was incumbent on me to advocate to my superiors what an amazing job was being done here by the people who remained. Enormous pressure was placed on those people and they really came through, which is why it was especially disappointing to have to tell them we were closing the site. I knew so many of the sacrifices they had made.
RD: How did you find out the site was closing?
CC: John Skipper was kind enough to tell me in person. He was extremely gracious, and I was very pleased that he mentioned not just me but the people who were working hard on the site. I was pleased he mentioned the people who had worked so hard and were still editing our writers. It was gratifying to me that he knew their names and acknowledged their contributions. I know it was a tough decision. Many vigorous attempts were made to suggest that we could continue on, and we proposed ways to go forward and said we had editors ready to go who could step in for the people who were leaving. But they had a tough decision to make.
RD: Did you try to convince ESPN management not to close the site?
CC: Sure, yeah. I felt that was my job. I needed to represent for my staff. I saw how hard they were working. I felt if we were given an opportunity, we could continue to do great work. We had the NBA coming up. When you are under pressure economically and you understand that, the way you want to fight out of it is to just say how hard people are working and you have really great editorial coming up. I thought that was true in both instances.
RD: So Skipper flew out to California to tell you in person?
CC: I don’t know that’s why he flew out, but he was there, and I appreciated it. I began my career as the switchboard operator at Rolling Stone. I would often get calls in 1980 from people who were not receiving their magazine. “The Tom Petty magazine has not come.” So my job was to get them to the 1-800 number because that was where subscriptions were handled. If they absolutely refused to call the 800 number, I had to transfer them on my dimension switchboard to extension 290 to the new guy in subscriptions. That was John Skipper.
RD: Deadspin had a source tell it that regarding the four editors who left Grantland to work with Simmons, as a condition of their employment, they could not warn anyone at ESPN or Grantland they were leaving. What can you clarify there?
CC: They gave us two weeks notice, as they should have done. I don’t know anything about that report, but these are classy people, Mallory Rubin, Sean Fennessey, Juliet Litman and Chris Ryan.They are all good people who did amazing work at Grantland. I was very sad to lose them and the site was sad to lose them. I thought all along it was important that we acknowledge the great work they did.
RD: Jim Miller of Vanity Fair also reported that Sean Fennessey was offered your job. Were you aware of that, and if so, was that insulting to you?
CC: I wasn’t a party to the negotiations but I had given myself the interim title. I assumed that my corporate betters would choose someone for me to throw the car keys to and I would get back to my knitting. I wasn’t party to those negotiations but that seems entirely appropriate.
RD: Published reports had Grantland anywhere from 42 staffers to 55. How would you characterize the level of staffing?
CC: If I gave you a number, I would get it wrong. We had fulltime people and part-time. We tried to treat them all the same as we bid them goodbye, with the greatest respect. We also had all of our writers and I spent my Friday talking to all of them. Many of them said this was the greatest job they ever had and they would always be grateful. They were super classy, all of them, on what I know was a very tough day for them.
RD: How many staffers would you infer anticipated this decision versus being shell shocked?
CC: I don’t know. One of the things I would emphasize is I did not necessarily know people on the staff so well. We didn’t have four years of shared experience, we were not like close friends. I hope that gives my account of how hard they worked and how well they worked more credence because I am not speaking just because we were pals. I saw them do all of that. I saw the work they did, people like Mark Lisanti and Rafe Bartholomew, Dave Schilling, Ryan O’Hanlon, Megan Creydt in copy. Everybody just pulled together and worked like crazy because they believed in Grantland. I was certainly telling them that I was advocating as hard as I could for the site and that I was eager to fill the slots vacated by our departing editors. They are not an unintuitive bunch. I’m sure they noticed that the cavalry did not seem to be coming as I hoped.
RD: Grantland had its own unique culture and part of that culture, I think it’s fair to say, was an “us versus them” with them being ESPN in Bristol. When you took over, from your estimation, how much of that culture became an us (Bill Simmons loyalists) versus them (Chris Connelly people)
CC: I can’t say that people opposed me personally. Perhaps they did. But they were very gracious in terms of how they interacted with me. They listened to what I was saying even if they regarded it with skepticism. I was able to express my thoughts and have them heard, and when people wanted to push back, they would do that. You have to have come respecting that people had worked for Bill for a long time and worked without Bill for an extended time. I tried to not be a jerk and I can’t say I ever felt people were specifically nasty to me or did not want to hear me out.
RD: There is no doubt some Grantland staffers felt they were caught between how Bill felt about ESPN management and how ESPN felt about Simmons after he left. Were you able to give that thought from your position?
CC: My thought was that you don’t have to choose sides in this. That’s why I said on my first day, that I understand you must have strong feelings about Bill. Like I previously said, what kind of people would you be if you didn’t? I think that had to be taken into account. I don’t think you could stamp that out like the thought police.
RD: Is there anything you could have done in the last five months to turn the tide and prevent ESPN management from ending the site?
CC: I’m sure I will be many nights wondering like a manager who wonders whether he should have put in his closer earlier. I’m sure I will be thinking a lot about that kind of thing and playing those scenarios in my head because it was just so great to see how much these men and women enjoyed working together, right up until the last few days. I would like to have gotten them a win and I’m sure I will wonder what it would have taken to get them that.
RD: How many writers and editors will continue working at ESPN?
CC: I don’t actually know that and in a way that is unknowable. The writers’ contracts will be honored along with the exclusivity portion and it will be up to ESPN Magazine and dot-com and other places. I know there is a lot of great editorial these guys were about to produce and a number of extraordinarily talented beat writers.
RD: If I asked you today: Would you have taken the job five months ago knowing what you know now, would you have taken it.
CC: Yes, I would have.
RD: Why is that?
CC: Because my friends asked me. Marie and John asked me
RD: How concerned are you, if at all, that your reputation in the public marketplace is tied to being the guy who replaced Bill Simmons at Grantland?
CC: As it happens I do a lot of things and in some of the work that I have done correspondents do not get in the way of the story, and in some cases we do not appear in the story. We try to serve the story so whether in E:60 or the Features unit, we get out of the way so you get to hear the stories of the people we are telling. So I doubt it will have an impact because it’s all about the people whose stories we are telling.
RD: What has Twitter been like for you the last couple of weeks because you are no doubt hearing from some people who believe you are somehow responsible for this?
CC: One can always choose not to engage. That is the first step. The second thing is whatever someone like me goes through—and you know this—it is nothing compared to what the average woman in our business goes through every single day on social media. So I stand on that.
RD: On the subject of the Bill Barnwell/Robert Mays NFL podcast. I don’t want to mischaracterize you here but from my understanding: Your thought process based on what ESPN said was that you liked the notion the podcasters were thanking their departing colleagues but you did not want the podcast division to become a place for that. Clearly, Barnwell and Mays appeared ticked off by the editing of that part of their podcast. From where you sit, can you give me a sense of how you saw them thanking their departing colleagues on their podcast.
CC: Everything they said was entirely appropriate. They did not do anything wrong. The things that they said were incredibly warm and generous and none of them were mean-spirited. What they said about their departing colleagues would make you think better of the guys who said it. It was a really classy thing. I thought the thoughts were wonderful and very much in keeping in what I said in our morning meeting in terms of honoring those people. We needed to honor those people. They had given four years of heart and soul to the place. I just didn’t want it going out on a Grantland platform … The important thing to remember is Bill Barnwell is a giant in the history of Grantland and he is a really classy guy. I talked to him before this, during this and after this and he is a top-notch individual. He gave everything for Grantland and I respect Bill Barnwell from here to the moon.
RD: You are someone who had been part of the nexus of sports and pop culture as much as anyone of your generation. Do you believe a place such as ESPN or one with similar scale would ever go down the road again with a sports and pop culture website?
CC: I would not rule it out. They have held onto the name Grantland for a reason. I think it is a brand that has meaning and I think there may need to be more integration between the pop culture and sports to give it another shot. Or maybe the pop culture needs to be treated the way sports is treated.
RD: You will be doing E:60 heading forward. Will you be doing anything digitally for ESPN?
CC: As requested. If you ask me to do something, as you probably have heard, I try to find a way to say yes. That is the ESPN ethic.
RD: Is it important for you at some point down the road to go out and have a drink or a conversation with Bill Simmons about everything that went down?
CC: My line and door is always open to Bill. I have enormous affection for Bill Simmons and not just in an abstract way but a very specific way.
RD: In your heart of hearts, do you believe John Skipper wanted Grantland to succeed?
CC: Absolutely. Because he was the guy who paid for it in the first place. When we thank everyone who is responsible for Grantland, we thank the people who made it, who staffed it, the guy who thought it up, but you also have to thank the people willing to pay for it. And that was John and Marie.
RD: Any regrets on your end how the staff found out about the site’s end? At least one person found out about it on Twitter.
CC: If that is true, then I am very upset about that. It was important to try to get as many people as possible. If that is true, I certainly regret it. It had been something that had come up in the past, including with regard to my arrival. You felt bad enough about what was happening so you wanted everyone to know at the same time. As soon as we finished with our [in-house] meeting [and conference call], I was on the phone with writers the rest of the day so they heard from someone.
RD: Was there ever anything from ESPN management prior to Friday’s announcement to the extent of “Listen, we are thinking if things don’t turn around in a couple of months, that’s it.”
CC: Never anything like that. Obviously when everyone left and we were eager to get people in, there was a lot of, “Well, how about if we try this …” I was eager to advocate for us once that happened. They knew if we were going to go forward, we would need people. Now remember, our guys somehow managed to get 40,000 words on the site per day with half the number of editors. So what happens then is they don’t have the time to be creative and think, “What should we be doing?” But everyone knew that if we were going to continue, you would need to replenish.
RD: I don’t generally ask Qs about me in a Q&A but I will here: Did you think I was an a------ for repeatedly mentioning that you had not done an interview since taking over Grantland?
CC: You are entitled to your feelings about that kind of stuff. But I would go back to what I said before: The point I disagreed with you on was the experience of Grantland was somehow lessened by me not talking. That I disagreed with.
RD: Is there anything you want to add that you were not asked?
CC: I was able to express my appreciation to the staff and to the writers. The site was their achievement and people loved it because they put in all the time and all the energy, and they should be proud of their remarkable achievement in sustaining the site as they did, especially in the wake of all the chaos and upheaval. I appreciate our readers as well, who understood what these incredibly talented people were doing. They supported our editors and writers by reading and in social media. I’m sorry to our readers we could not do more to keep Grantland up and running.