Harsh reality of new media landscape takes its toll on ESPN and beyond

A massive round of layoffs in sports media highlights new demand for ‘versatility and value’, but whether its attainable is another question

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 May, 2017, 3:56pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 May, 2017, 6:48pm

I’m a song and dance man. Maybe not a particularly good one, but certainly a game one. How about you?

Well, if you can sing but you can’t dance, then you might be out of luck in this hard-charging new media world, where multi-tasking has become imperative.

There was a deathly chill running through that same media world last week that reverberated far beyond the corridors of ESPN, the erstwhile “Worldwide Leader in Sports”.

Revelations that 100 of their on-air personalities and writers had been fired cut deep to the bone. Suffice to say it was a ‘who’s who’ of talent that included stalwarts and industry leaders such as baseball writer Jayson Stark and college basketball guru Andy Katz.

No matter because the cuts were a necessary component of managing change, according to ESPN Inc president John Skipper.

“Dynamic change demands an increased focus on versatility and value,” Skipper said. “And as a result, we have been engaged in the challenging process of determining the talent – anchors, analysts, reporters, writers and those who handle play-by-play – necessary to meet those demands.”

Presumably, the 100 or so let go lacked the inherent dynamism needed to go “further and faster”.

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Maybe they could sing but they couldn’t dance and if that is the case then we, the viewers and readers, are also losers.

Just as conventional training for a specific job has made them casualties it may make those of us with conventional demands casualties as well. You don’t necessarily need to be an expert on corporate strategy to know that forcing someone to do a job they are clearly not qualified nor capable of is fool hearted at best.

Writers write, editors edit and broadcasters broadcast. This is what they have been trained for and while the shifting media paradigm may demand more, it does not mean we are going to get it.

A few days after the massive layoffs, ESPN.com ran a story about Boston Celtics star guard Isaiah Thomas, who was struggling to cope with the tragic loss of his younger sister in a car crash on the eve of the NBA play-offs.

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Thomas has been a gallant and spectacular lesson in courage, but even he has his limits, according to the ESPN story.

“He said reality sets in when he’s not playing and that’s when the reality sets in.” Now, someone was paid to write that sentence and someone, presumably, was also paid to edit it. But if you wrote a sentence like that in your grade eight book report, then you would likely never have made it to the ninth grade.

Eventually, one of the few adults remaining on the staff noticed the glaring error and changed it, thereby saving their job from the next massive round of layoffs by being versatile enough to excel at online editing in real time.

If people like ESPN want to compromise their quality because of the bottom line, it’s entirely up to them. But just because they want to play dumb, it doesn’t mean we have to as well.

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I don’t care if it is condescending or pious, there is no need to apologise about coming from a place and time where demanding proper grammar and syntax is not considered elitist.

The biggest problem it seems with ESPN though is that it’s not omnipresent anymore. And frankly I don’t know what non-social media channel or publication is.

This is the new media reality. The opinions of your cousin down the road and your long lost high school sweetheart are as big a part of your life now as anything on ESPN, Fox News, CNN or the New York Times.

All of the big boys, every single one of them, have sold their soul to page clicks which, if nothing else, has brought about a new era of accountability.

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It has also brought the sad reality that the networks want us to be the show, damnit. Why should they pay leagues like the NFL multi billions in broadcast rights when the majority will soon be watching online or in a local pub?

Better to have personality driven content where the personalities become loud and louder in a rancorous and obnoxious tone.

But just because there are way too many singers these days and not nearly enough dancers, it doesn’t mean you have to stop dancing.

On the contrary, it is the duty of us one and all to keep on moving, to keep on grooving and demanding a solid beat because through it all one simple fact will remain unchanged: writing and broadcasting are not a craft, good writing and good broadcasting are.

And on that note, I hope I have been good – and at times great – over the past 17 years. It’s now time for me to dance to a different tune.