Monday, November 16, 2009

Missed Lesson From Bill Simmons' Success

Lot of talk this morning about the New York Times profile of Bill Simmons in today's Business section. First of all, I love that it led with a nod to Bill's origins on AOL Digital Cities back in 1998, which is where I first read him.

That was kind of the point: Bill had a non-traditional background, which he extended into a non-traditional style. Unencumbered -- even defiant -- of old (and, in the context of online, archaic) standards, Bill developed his own style. That new style -- combined with ESPN.com's platform -- has proven to be incredibly popular.

Here's where I felt the analysis fell short: It dabbles with the idea that Bill popularized -- and made mainstream -- a new template for mainstream sportswriting.

But that's not quite true. In fact, it's not true at all.

Oh, Bill found success -- he is, I would argue, the most successful, popular and influential sports columnist of all time. And he did it in a style fit for the moment, one that traditional sports media people had trouble understanding. My argument isn't with Simmons' bonafides.

My argument is with the idea that he created a new template for mainstream sportswriting.

Because a template implies that others followed him through into the mainstream universe -- in fact, few have: When the mainstream Web sites hire new columnists, they almost entirely pull from newspaper columnists and reporters, not non-traditional sources where you find talents like Bill Simmons.

Look at ESPN.com: Despite Bill's success, they mainly have limited their op-ed hiring to newspaper columnists. I'm not saying those folks aren't talented; I don't think anyone would call them non-traditional. They are very solid, very safe bets -- almost by definition, they won't be massive successes like Bill.

Fanhouse has earned a ton of publicity -- even credit -- for its mass hiring of former newspaper folks: It started with Mariotti, but it includes Olsen, Blackistone, Gay, Whitley and more. I'm not saying those folks aren't talented; they are what they are -- newspaper columnists published online. (Fanhouse has a second tier of bloggers who fill out its editorial pipeline.)

CBSSports.com, FoxSports.com -- both have made their biggest columnist hires from newspapers, not online. CBSSports's best columnist ever was Clay Travis, who epitomizes non-traditional background for a sportswriter -- their featured voices now are ex-newspaper columnists like Mike Freeman and Gregg Doyel, writing the same old 800-word columns.

What is the most pound-for-pound successful site in sports media? Yahoo Sports. Why? Because among their successful strategies included hiring the No. 1 or 2 blogger in every major sport to be the lead voice in each sport. Traditional backgrounds? Barely -- their approach is entirely different from that of a newspaper columnist, and I would argue it is a huge reason for Yahoo's success.

That's not to say that ESPN.com hasn't gone outside the box beyond Bill. Rob Neyer was one of the first hires at ESPN.com, and he has been going strong for nearly 15 years -- is it a coincidence that he doesn't come from a traditional newspaper background?

Their most successful NBA writer is... TrueHoop blogger Henry Abbott, whose site was so good, not only did they acquire it, but they used it as a hub for a blog network, then took all their NBA writers and gave them a home there. (Henry will want to remind me that his journalism background is a big reason that he found success with TH; point taken, but he developed his most important chops online -- the journalism background was a nice foundation.)

(But it's interesting to see the contrast: When they needed to fill out their division-by-division and conference-by-conference bloggers, they went entirely with ex-newspaper reporters. I understand why -- and they are all solid talents. A few years in, we are seeing some shoots of innovative writing from a few of them.)

Let's not overlook: I was a huge beneficiary of ESPN.com's willingness to experiment with non-traditional backgrounds. Like Bill, I spent my entire writing career online -- like Bill, I started out in the AOL universe (I helped launch an AOL sports site in 1996.)

Like Bill, I wanted as large a platform for my writing as possible. I started with Page 2 a few months after it launched, doing non-traditional stuff like those old "What's Hot, What's Not" lists. While I was in B-school, I came up with this totally new idea for a column that would run every morning, covering anything I though fans would want to talk about.

ESPN bought into my idea and I wrote the Daily Quickie every weekday morning for nearly 4 years. Both on traffic and brand metrics, it was one of the most successful pieces of original programming the site ever launched. It couldn't have been further away from your traditional 700-word column -- or columnist. (Remember the old spin-off "Danimation" cartoon and the daily morning chat? OK: I'll end my reverie of self-involvement here.)

So it's not that I don't recognize that, indeed, it HAS been done -- I'd like to think I was a good case study for why there should be more.

Here is where I caveat everything: Many of the ex-newspaper folks are thriving; many of these sites HAVE dipped into the non-traditional talent pool. I'm just saying that given the biggest success in sports media -- Simmons -- came from a non-traditional background, you'd think you'd see more.

It's funny: You are actually seeing newspapers, magazines and, increasingly, local-TV and cable online sites dip into the non-traditional world (mainly sports blogs) for new talent -- not a ton, but considering where they started, it's progress. I think the biggest area for upside is local, where the war for talent feels like it's on.

Here is the upshot: Despite Simmons' success, you have to wonder if mainstream sports media has learned the biggest lesson of Simmons: Talent from non-traditional backgrounds can work out really really well for them.

That was something palpable I sensed in Las Vegas: As a group, bloggers are doing some really interesting work -- most feel frustrated that they can't "break through" with the benefit of distribution that ex-newspaper columnists get when they jump to online sites. I would argue that mainstream sports media sites haven't done enough to use the (free) talent-development pipeline of the last 5 years to staff their sites. We are seeing much of the same playbook we saw in 1996, 1997, 1998 and into the new decade: Online editors hiring newspaper folks -- it even feels like it is accelerating, now that so many newspapers and magazines are faltering, putting old-media talent on the new-media market.

Again, I am not knocking the newspaper ex-pats -- the best of them have adapted for the new medium and the new audience: They write for the format; they adapt new social-media tools; they get out of their 800-word-column comfort zone, because they understand that the 800-word column is not (quite) dead, but (nearly) irrelevant.

It's thrilling that Simmons found success for himself. It remains unfortunate that he didn't seem to smash a class ceiling that exists between traditional and non-traditional sports writers.

The next Bill Simmons probably couldn't get their big break today -- not because there isn't another supremely talented and ambitious young writer out there... and not even because there aren't tons of new platforms on which to self-publish the talent.

But because he probably couldn't get the big sites to hire him.

-- D.S.

3 comments:

Seth Doria said...

Spot on. A few months ago, CBS Sportsline announced a partnership with Bleacherreport.com for it's Rapid Reports program. The sell was CBS was going to tap the non-traditional market in order to bolster it's team-by-team NFL coverage. In the end, though, they ended up going with nearly all former print guys who were unexpectedly on the market (and really cheap). You can't blame CBS for playing it safe, but it proves your point that, when push comes to shove, corporate media will always trend toward corporate media.

Seven Seconds! said...

Great article.

I still miss the Daily Quickie to this day by the way. Loved to start my day with that.

Steve Sprague said...

Great points but I think you are being unfair to ESPN. ESPN has hired writers from non-traditional sources since Simmons. As you mentioned you were given 4 years of a prime morning column for them. DJ Gallo founded his own website and contributes to the Onion. Now he is the new Simmons of Page 2. He is the funniest writer, and get's the job of making sarcastic insights about everything while Simmons focuses on podcasts.

In addition to True Hoop there is also John Hollinger. He is the type of new background Malcom Gladwell was talking about when he mentioned that aspiring journalists should focus on Statistics as opposed to Journalism in schoool.

The biggest problem bloggers have I think is that readers often times want the column format. 800 words should be enough to make your point on most things and the reader can read the column in a few minutes at their desk. Many bloggers that I have read tend to ramble on a little too long.