Sports Journalism Institute

Helping women and minorities get into newsrooms since 1993

Media Roundtable

The media landscape has changed dramatically in the past year with the rise of The Athletic, transitions and a leadership change at ESPN and a quickly evolving future in the industry. The Bulletin invited three sports media analysts to discuss the industry’s most pressing concerns. They are: Neil Best of Newsday, Chad Finn of the Boston Globe and Jimmy Trania of Sports Illustrated. The discussion was compiled by SJI 2018 participant Chancellor Johnson.

Chancellor Johnson: The sports media landscape has changed so much over the year, whether it’s issues ESPN has been dealing with, or the rise of new media outlets. What are some changes that have stuck out to you the most over the past year?

Neil Best: Well it’s all part of an ongoing process, and it’s a constantly, evolving environment. Everybody’s dealing with it. The interesting thing is how, for decades, obviously, print newspapers were at the forefront of dealing with change. Everybody is dealing with the same thing now. How do you deal with this new environment where television itself is no longer dominant. I’m 57 now. Most of my life we assumed television was the most important thing. Well, now I got a 23-year-old and a 20-year-old, and I know they don’t watch television; so everybody’s having to deal with a new world. Even looking at ESPN; first of all, they’re on Sling TV, which is not part of a cable bundle, which for them was a radical departure. Now they have ESPN+, which is digital programming, which again has nothing to do with the cable bundle. They’re adapting because they have to; everybody has to.

Chad Finn: There’s so much. The media business is practically constant chaos at this point, whether you’re talking about print/online –The Athletic’s emergence as a destination for well-established journalists is a huge story with a lot of mystery to it — or electronic/digital. Watching ESPN trying to counter the barrage of cord-cutters with its ESPN-plus App has been fascinating, and of course there has been practically never-ending drama there over the past year.

Jimmy Trania: There was some concern this past season with the NFL that their ratings were down across the board all season. They took a hit, no doubt about it, yet when the contract for Thursday night football came up, FOX ended up paying an exorbitant amount for 11 TNF games. I think maybe the people expecting the NFL to come down a peg and not be the business machine that it is, clearly went out the window with Fox signing that monster deal.

Johnson: It seems to be a real call to more diversity in newsrooms across the country. Why has there been such a spark as of lately?

Best: Newspapers have been striving for that since I started 30-plus years ago. If our job is to reflect things to society and explain things to people and reflect certain points of view, it’s obvious that diversity is paramount. I’m not in the hiring business, but I would like to think that everybody would be trying to achieve that to varying degrees of success. I think that should always be a goal. Journalism by definition is supposed to reflect the society that it’s chronicling, so how can you do that without people from different points of view? We don’t always succeed as much as we should, but at least we’re trying.

Finn: Maybe it’s because I was a colleague at the Globe of Greg Lee, one of the truly great people in the business, when he was the NABJ president, but it seems like it is something that has been at the front of the consciousness of people I work with for a long time now. I’m unaware of a specific spike in diversity in newsrooms, but I am glad to hear that is seen as the case. The reasons for it are obvious to me. Everyone deserves an equal chance at a job. And diversity is absolutely crucial in the newsroom’s quest to connect with and represent the people in their readership, no matter their demographics. A staff that is overwhelmingly one race or gender is going to miss out on so much.

Trania: Seems like there is a spark for everything. There is the “Me Too” movement going on. Women are fighting back against inequality in the workplace. Maybe the Colin Kaepernick situation has something to do with it. We’ve seen it in the NFL with players protesting for equal rights, police brutality, and fair treatment. It’s not just a football thing. I think people are aware of what needs to be done. You need all different voices in any job whether it’s in media or anywhere else, and I think it’s especially important in media to have diverse voices…

Johnson: We’ve seen a lot of things going on at ESPN over the past year, including the (ESPN) President, major layoffs and new programs. Do you expect to see more stability, and where does ESPN go from here?

Best: I met the new boss for the first time yesterday and we were bonding over our shared Cornell backgrounds. He’s sort of in the middle of the continuum of George Bodenheimer and John Skipper. He comes off a very confident, corporate kind of guy. If I was a worker there I suppose I would feel confident in him. I do feel like there is a sort of stability that he will bring to a place that has had a lot of things going on. The most important thing for ESPN that they have going for them, is that it is still an incredible powerful brand — regardless of whatever problems they’ve had — compared to the rest of the sports world. ESPN is still such a big brand, and they still have so much going for them than most outlets do. They just have to navigate whether they’re still going to pay two billion to have Monday night football and that kind of stuff. I think the days of them throwing money around like it was endless are over, but that being said, they still have plenty of money and plenty of power.

Finn: I touched on this one a little in a previous answer, but it does seem more stable with Jimmy Pitaro in charge as the new president. He is well-regarded at Disney, and he’s not going to be touched by some of the B-movie melodrama that engulfed John Skipper in the end. So management should be stable. But everything is still pretty volatile. How do they solve their SportsCenter dilemma — the personality-driven shows have had modest success at best compared to what the SportsCenter brand used to be and what ESPN still seems at times to expect it to be. That world has changed, with fans getting their highlights pretty much a split-second after the play happened live. I’m curious to see how they try to remedy that now. It will also be interesting to see how ESPN treats the NFL. Skipper did not have a good relationship with Goodell and his minions at the end. Pitaro is expected to prioritize fixing that.

Trania: I definitely think you’ll see a little bit more stability in that because they just made some changes. They just made changes in their 6pm SportsCenter; they launched a new morning show and it’s not doing well. I can’t really tell if there will be any stability there. I think with the NFL the narrative that ESPN was dying, that ESPN was falling off a cliff, was completely overblown. They have the NBA playoffs going on right now; they’re airing the eastern conference finals, Monday Night Football and Major League Baseball. As long as they air that stuff, ESPN will be 100% perfectly fine. What they do with their daytime programming, their hot take shows, with their SportsCenter, that’s a different story, but that’s all gravy to me. As long as they air live sports, ESPN is going to be fine.

Johnson: What are your thoughts on the rise of The Athletic, and how have they been able to be so successful so far?

Best: I think it remains to be seen how successful it is. I mean, they’ve been extremely successful attracting some major talent. It’s kind of amazing the amount of people they’ve gotten over there. I’m rooting for them to succeed because, you know, that’s more jobs and more money. They’re throwing around a lot of money. As a sports writer it would be stupid for me to root for them not to succeed, because that’s just great for everyone. Now whether they will or not I don’t know; that remains to be seen because there’s a lot of resistance to paying subscription fees, and there are a lot of other options. One of the interesting cases to me is the (New York) Islanders beat. Which seems kind of obscure, but the interesting thing about the Islanders is, prior to The Athletic, there was one outlet, which was Newsday. They hired our writer, Arthur Staple; we hired someone to replace him, so now if you’re an Islanders fan, you can double the amount of context you have if you subscribe to Tthe Athletic. Now if you’re a Yankees fans, there are 8 different papers covering. Is there enough incentive to subscribe to that to get one more source of information while you’re getting 7 others? That’s why I’m kind of curious to see whether if you’re an avid Islanders fan there’s more appeal to it than there is if you’re an avid Yankees fan. The whole thing is fascinating to me. I don’t understand the economics of it honestly; I don’t understand exactly how it’s going to work, but I’m definitely rooting for it to work.

Finn: I’m all for more well-paying jobs for sports journalists, and they’ve hired quality reporters and writers in bulk, so that’s terrific. I still have questions about its long-term sustainability and whether its founders are in it to build a great product over the long term or to sell it off for a profit after a short period of success. In terms of the product they are putting out now, though, it is a very good one. The site looks great, is user-friendly and has hired talent that I believe fans will pay to read.

Trania: Do we know they’re successful? We know that they’ve hired a lot of people, I’m not for sure how many subscriptions they have, how many subscriptions they’ve brought in. I’ll be 100% honest I don’t know how to judge The Athletic because I don’t know how many subscriptions; They’re going to be judged by subscriptions , I don’t think those numbers are out there publicly. They’ve definitely built a very good stable of writers — whether that translates to subscriptions I don’t know.

Johnson: Are there any things as a journalist that you’re concerned about regarding things that could affect the industry within the near future?

Best: There’s business concerns and journalistic concerns, but one of the things that worries me, maybe because I’m an old fart, is the pressure to post things very quickly. Now it’s so important to post on the internet faster than you have been able to do a complete job on it like we would have in the past is a concern. Tweeting stuff out, just to get it out, just to beat somebody by 10 seconds. It’s not that we publish things journalistically irresponsible, and obviously we wouldn’t publish something that we wouldn’t think was accurate, but I would be lying to say there aren’t times that we don’t throw things up on the internet that is not as fully complete, as like in the old days, when we had a day to do it. That’s my concern — that everybody is just rushing everything, and we do it too.

Finn: Of course. I work for a print publication that, like every other print publication, is making the shift to digital. The advertising revenue online isn’t close to what it is for print, so that causes a multitude of dilemmas. On a bigger scale, the trust in journalists has eroded, in large part, because of a presidency that deliberately demonizes those seeking truth. Being a journalist, especially in sports, is the best job in the world. But it’s a scary time.

Trania: Things change very fast in this business; it’s hard to keep up with the way everything changes. For instance, Snapchat’s game…Snapchat’s dead. Facebook changes what they do every five seconds, Twitter is big for what we do, but not necessarily big outside of this, you have to keep up with a lot of changing things. It’s a lot of components, a lot of things changed. It’s hard to make money in this business. So it’s a tough thing to keep up with and stay on top of, and it’s hard to give consumers and advertisers what they want; that’s always the concern.