Let's start with the thesis: Things may happen in online news that feel seismic, but it turns out sports has paced the way in online news innovation since "online news" was a conception -- say, 1995-ish.
There was a story last week about how, within newspapers, sports has tended to lead online innovation. Later, on Twitter, there were a couple of great points made about why that was: Pace, distance between news and consumer, attitude. (Mark Coddington has a really smart and comprehensive exploration of the discussion.)
I would argue that it starts with that hypothesis that sports was at the core of online news innovation from the start. Self-servingly, I would argue it started at a company called Starwave in 1995 and 1996, when the company created and produced ESPN.com (what was then "ESPNet.SportsZone.com"). I was an editor there during that formative moment.
But since then, there have been plenty of milestones. Among the most important, Jamie Mottram's essential role -- launching Fanhouse at AOL (a model that AOL later embraced as the key component of its content strategy), then a few years later expanding the model at Yahoo (again, creating the model that Yahoo later applied to its wider content strategy). Again: Sports paces innovation in online news. But let's bring it to today's discussion, specifically:
There was a thought-provoking column by David Carr in the New York Times today, at least partially pegged on this idea that Howard Kurtz leaving the Washington Post for the Daily Beast or Howard Fineman leaving Newsweek for Huffington Post signaled a tipping point in the power between news-media incumbents and online-news insurgents.
But, once again, I would argue that sports was way ahead of the game. By itself, ESPN revolutionized the transfer of old-media talent into new media:
A decade ago, ESPN -- specifically for the dot-com side -- was signing industry-leading newspaper talents like Andy Katz (Fresno Bee), Ivan Maisel (Birmingham News), Buster Olney (NYT), Jayson Stark (Philly Inq) and Marc Stein (Dallas MN).
More new-school moves have included poaching JA Adande (LA Times), Jemele Hill (Orlando Sentinel), Mark Schlabach (Atlanta J-C), and the 1-2 punch of Wright Thompson (KC Star) and Jeff MacGregor (Sports Illustrated), arguably two of the Top 5 writers working in sports today.
Last month, when the site needed an ace reporter to cover LeBron James and the Miami Heat, it signed Brian Windhorst from the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, arguably the biggest LeBron expert in sports media.
And that doesn't even begin to cover the biggest move of all: Signing Rick Reilly from Sports Illustrated -- perhaps the biggest name in sports media over the last 20 years -- who ostensibly began as a magazine-to-magazine hire, but quickly turned into a magazine-to-online hire, at $3 million a year.
(As far as I can tell, there has yet been no analogue to the Reilly deal in news media; the closest I could think of was when Albritton gave the Washington Post's John Harris and Jim VandeHei the funding necessary to start Politico, a milestone in modern media history with exponentially more impact than the Kurtz and Fineman deals.)
This doesn't even count ESPN's original strategy -- 20 years ago, via John Walsh -- to go get newspaper folks to work on TV, a legacy which stretches from Chris Mortenson 2o years ago to Adam Schefter at the turn of the decade.
ESPN is hardly alone: Ascendant online-first (or online-ONLY) sites have been snaring top newspaper talent for years. Dan Wetzel at Yahoo begat Jeff Passan and Kevin Kaduk (two more KC Star alums) and Adrian Wojnarowski (Newark Star-Ledger). SI.com went outside their print-magazine-side ranks to dip into newspapers to hire Don Banks, Andy Staples and others.
AOL's Fanhouse went on a newspaper ex-pat hiring spree over the past 18 months, most notably including Kevin Blackistone (DMN), Lisa Olson (NY Daily News) and, most recently, Jay Mariotti (Chicago Sun-Times), plus a slew of lesser-known newspaper folks (but people also very prominent in their local markets).
The point is this: Innovation in online news -- on the "news" side -- has almost always been comprehensively foreshadowed, tested and proven on the sports side first.
I'm not arguing these print-to-online moves (and let's not discount the role that Kurtz and Fineman's TV gigs had on their new employers' decision-making) weren't inevitable; I'm just saying that if you have been following sports media the last 15 years, you knew this was coming.
That is why -- as I founded and built my own start-up online-media company, launching its initial version in the next few weeks -- I knew both from personal experience and domain expertise that sports was the ideal category in which to start my company, if I ultimately foresee building it across any category.
(More on that coming soon.)