Grantland Closing is Not the Death of Journalism

By Ty Duffy
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ESPN shuttered Grantland. That development did not surprise, given Bill Simmons’ departure and ESPN’s broader budgetary trouble. Though, the sudden reality jarred the sportswriting world.

Writers appreciate talent. Like other soccer players discussing Steven Gerrard, there is an awe for people who make the craft look easy. No one likes seeing people lose jobs, especially friends and respected colleagues. Grantland, the ultimate writer’s website offering time, money, and autonomy, staying afloat is better for writing.

Grantland, consequently, appeared to have more eulogists than readers. Some drove a mawkish ATV into hyperbolic territory.

"To watch sports at a bar in 2015—especially a bar populated by educated, relatively well-off, younger people—is to hear Grantland articles endlessly parroted back to you, with or without attribution. These were people who may have been watching a game on a Wednesday night anyway, but Grantland undoubtedly made them more passionate."

If that metaphorical bar exists (in Cobble Hill? Williamsburg?), don’t drink there. It sounds horrible.

Attributing Grantland’s passing to callous budgeting and short-sighted management who don’t understand culture (of the pop variety) gratifies. But, that does not get at the ultimate question: what was ESPN supposed to do? Many will find it upsetting, but shedding Grantland seemed inevitable.

Grantland did not pay for itself. That’s a factor. Creating ambitious work in any field requires patronage. ESPN did not create Grantland expecting a substantial return on investment. But, patronage must accrue value moving forward.

ESPN created Grantland to keep Bill Simmons. There was little coherent vision beyond hiring “smart, talented writers” at the onset. For whatever reason, the site never developed a coherent brand or identity independent of him. There was an immediate lame duck element when he left.

Simmons leaving engendered obvious questions. It was not hard to follow the logic from the answers. Why is ESPN running a pop culture site? No real reason. Okay, if Grantland is just doing sports, what value does the “Grantland” brand have versus repurposing that content for ESPN.com? Not much. Down comes the guillotine.

Another clue for Grantand’s demise resides in ESPN’s statement.

"Grantland distinguished itself with quality writing, smart ideas, original thinking and fun."

Absent are the terms “journalism” and “reporting.” Grantland writers performed some longform journalism. But, much of the content was longform blogging. Windy first person narratives. Ideas from within instead of stories from without. Standard Bill Simmons fare.

Blogging is not necessarily a bad thing. Some lament the unearned influence of the blogosphere, not entirely without merit. The counterpoint is sports analysis and discussion operates at a higher standard than it did 20-30 years ago. Grantland writers have contributed to that.

That said, blogging, however smart and talented, is still writing. It’s not journalism. Journalism is presenting someone else’s story with empathy. Blogging can only add humanity through self-exposure. Journalism can reveal truth. Blogging can only infer it.

Before shuttering Grantland, ESPN brought in print alum Chris Connelly who wanted to push Grantland down a more journalistic path. Note that, as ESPN is dismembering Grantland, it is spending heavily to launch (or resurrect) the Undefeated, bringing in an experienced Washington Post editor.

We’ve all read about Jason Whitlock’s editing difficulties – vision and execution are different skill-sets – but the Undefeated has/had a coherent mission from its inception: address serious racial issues directly with in-depth, quality reporting. The first piece, while long, did offer a novel, thoroughly reported perspective on a well-digested topic: Charles Barkley.

While Grantland had writers critical of sports leagues, Outside the Lines and ESPN The Magazine still have journalists doing strong, critical reporting about them.

Great writing entertains. Great journalism breaks ground, builds prestige, drives discussion, and effects change. Grantland closing will not be the death of the latter, at ESPN or elsewhere.

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