I want to talk about this GQ piece by Gabe Sherman that just came out about ESPN Local, but first I want to make a separate point:
In every market that ESPN has gone into with a local site, they have succeeded (if you judge your projects in absolute terms) or won (if you judge them in relative ones).
It isn't a question of whether or not ESPN can do well in local markets -- the evidence is as obvious as it is abundant: They are doing better than the newspaper incumbent.
Now, I'm not sure ESPN even cares whether it is "beating" the incumbent; I think they are focused -- appropriately -- on growing an audience and growing ad revenue.
I don't think we should distinguish between growing audience because they are getting newspaper users to switch or simply getting them to add ESPN to their rotation. Traffic is traffic.
(Newspaper editors, of course, better care about that. But, frankly, it is not ESPN's problem.)
New York presents a very different competitive landscape: In LA and Dallas, ESPN was competing on 1-paper towns. In Chicago and Boston, they entered 2-paper towns.
In New York, they will compete against 3 newspapers, a fairly aggressive sports-news cable network and at least one radio juggernaut.
Of course, the big question is: Who cares how many competitors there are? Avid fans will add ESPN to their rotation; casual fans may migrate from ESPN.com's portal to the local site. ESPN already has a radio station in New York, and they already have a huge NY-centric video library.
In other words: ESPN New York will be fine, just as they have been fine in every other market. Again: They don't need to out-traffic the Times' or Post's sports section. They don't need to poach readers. And they don't need to out-scoop anybody.
The focus of Gabriel Sherman's GQ piece was ostensibly about competition -- but I was left scratching my head. It's not sexy, but the traffic numbers speak for themselves.
(In their press release about their entry into NYC, ESPN revealed traffic numbers for their other local markets. You will NEVER hear a newspaper offer individual section traffic -- not just because the number is small compared to ESPN's, but because the number is small, period.)
I actually want to focus on another aspect of the so-called "competition" between newspaper reporters/editors and the ESPN Local reporters and editors who were hired from newspapers. Here was my takeaway from the article:
You can take the sportswriter out of newspapers but you can't take newspapers out of sportswriter.
In explaining why ESPN was making successful inroads into local online sports, Sherman unintentionally showcased why newspapers are failing:
I was baffled by the article's focus on scoops -- particularly scoops that I call "inevitable discovery." DeMarcus Ware's new contract will come out eventually.
The anecdotal focus on the ESPN editor catching up to a radio competitor who had "broken" a story explains, in very clear terms, what the problem is. They are focused on the wrong thing.
Scoops are the most overvalued asset in sports media. As fast as you can break something -- increasingly on Twitter -- I can have it. Everyone has it. Consumers have it.
ESPN's local sites -- and, for that matter, newspaper sites -- are not going to succeed or fail based on their volume of scoops -- particularly ones that everyone has within minutes anyway.
They will succeed based on creating a sense of engagement with their consumer: Analysis that tells you why the scoop matters. Depth of related things to look at -- ideally including video highlights. A reason to come back every day -- even, ideally, multiple times a day.
Despite details about the ESPN Local writers blogging and filing and updating and going "cross-platform," this is not some new-fangled workflow: THIS IS THE MINIMUM EFFORT.
What I saw was fairly relieved (or desperate) ex-newspaper people applying the same old newspaper thinking to an entirely new medium.
These newspaper folks aren't escaping newspapers' fundamental editorial problem -- they are simply taking it with them into a new medium, which can't be good for anyone.
Jason Fry pointed this out a few weeks ago: If newspapers are losing talent to ESPN, the solution is to innovate into the medium, not fight a scoop war that has been outdated for at least a decade.
And ESPN does itself no favors by telling the ex-newspaper folks to simply keep doing what they do best -- what they do best, in part, helped undermine the newspaper industry.
Obviously, there is room for breaking news that drives the news cycle and the traditional opinion column that puts it in perspective and -- yes -- even some added-value form of the classic "game story."
But ESPN has a ton of talent in-house that is unconstrained by calcified norms of newspaper sports reporting -- I hope it sends that talent out to help the ex-newspaper folks figure out a new way of thinking about how to serve consumers.
I'm not trying to indict all of ESPN Local's talent -- this was simply what Sherman portrayed in his story, and that's what I'm reacting to here. Much of ESPN Local's success is precisely because they approach coverage with ESPN.com as their framework, not LegacyNewspaper.com.
(I love a few of the things that ESPN New York is planning to do, like a fun tool that lets users create their own tabloid-style back-page headline. They should pick the 3 best submissions from users and let the other users vote, running the winner on the front of the site as the lead art.)
And I'm also not trying to indict all local newspaper coverage. Despite (or perhaps thanks to) the commitment it has to the print side, the New York Times has a terrific sports section -- and they are as forward-thinking online as any newspaper sports section in the country. And, obviously, the New York Post has a style that, in newspaper form, pioneered the compelling notion of "link-baiting" (before any of us knew what "link-baiting" was).
The point is this: Sherman's story was less about Newspaper vs. ESPN Local than it was an unintended expose that many of the same old ways and mindsets of covering teams in newspapers have migrated online, only with more job security.