Public Editor: ESPN not 'monolithic' but still deserving of scrutiny

When I was named ESPN’s public editor on Nov. 6, I got an interesting reaction from friends and professional colleagues: “Are you crazy?” At first, I thought the reaction was based on my already having a full-time job, or my making the return to writing columns after many years crafting thrilling management memos.

In reality, though, those critiques of my sanity were based on something wholly different: the sense that ESPN is too complex for anyone to do this job well and that ESPN simply has too many properties and platforms for anyone to be able to effectively perform the role of an independent critic. But it’s exactly that complexity that made this such an interesting opportunity for me -- and, I assume, for the five others who previously held the ombudsman position.

If there are media companies on Earth more complex than ESPN, they are on a very short list. The company pays billions of dollars annually for the rights to broadcast sporting events but has journalists covering those same leagues, often critically. It has to deal with an ever-expanding list of devices and platforms through which to deliver content and programming. It has to fend off a wide range of competitors who are focused on knocking ESPN off the top of the hill or at least stealing some lower-altitude real estate.

Internally, it has to deal with its own vast array of properties that have different voices, audiences and purposes. What was once solely the ESPN TV channel now includes eight U.S. cable networks, syndicated radio in 11 countries, ESPN The Magazine, dozens of global digital sites and mobile apps, multiple social media feeds and much more. If you look merely at its digital platforms, ESPN operates ESPN.com, FiveThirtyEight, espnW, ESPN Deportes, ESPN FC, ESPNCricInfo and many others, and that doesn’t even include the recently shut-down Grantland (which I’ll write about in an upcoming column).

With this vast range of properties and platforms, it’s obvious that there’s one thing ESPN cannot be: monolithic. Those who don’t like ESPN seem to believe there’s a white-cat-stroking James Bond villain in a secret lair somewhere in Connecticut handing down dictates to the staff and expecting them to be hammered home consistently across all ESPN products. This is, of course, impossible, as anyone who’s ever worked at a large media company knows. ESPN is made up of more than 7,000 human beings with different strengths, weaknesses, personalities and responsibilities.

That’s why ESPN has had an ombudsman -- now titled public editor -- since 2005. It understands its own complexities. That doesn’t mean ESPN staffers or management have always agreed with the conclusions of the ombudsmen. They have not. And there surely will be times they will not agree with my conclusions or recommendations. Either way, though, ESPN is surely due a tip of the cap for keeping this position when many other media entities have long since abandoned it -- or never had one in the first place.

Before I get into how I view my role, a little bit about me: My first journalism job came during college, in 1987, when I was hired as a part-time sports writer at The Washington Post. In 1995, I moved to the Post’s digital operation to become sports editor of what was soon to become washingtonpost.com. After serving in a variety of roles at America Online from 1999 to 2003 -- including overseeing its news and sports operations -- I returned to washingtonpost.com as its executive editor from 2004 until 2009. I also was editor-in-chief of Digital First Media from 2010 to 2014. Now, after many years in senior executive roles, I’ve finally learned how to make it to CEO: Start your own company and name yourself CEO. I did that when I formed Spirited Media, which runs the Philadelphia news site Billy Penn.

On the personal side, I was born and raised on Long Island, and -- as you may have heard -- I am a long-suffering Jets fan, as if there were any other kind. I also am a slightly more successful lifelong Mets and Knicks fan. Growing up, I watched a lot of Iona College men’s basketball, since it’s my father’s alma mater and, at the time, the Gaels were terrific thanks to Jim Valvano and Jeff Ruland. I still watch and root for Iona, as well as my own alma mater, American University.

I also have some connections to previous holders of ESPN’s ombudsman position. The guy who hired me at the Post in 1987 was George Solomon, who later became ESPN’s first ombudsman. I also serve on the national advisory board for the Poynter Institute, whose Kelly McBride and Jason Fry handled this role from 2011 to 2013. I share the claim to fame of having invited ESPN fantasy guru Eric Karabell to his first roto baseball league in 1989, back when we were both attending American. We are both still in that league -- which, by the way, I won this past season. And I bought Tony Kornheiser his first iPod back in 2005, though he recently admitted on his radio show that he didn’t know what to do with the thing for the better part of a decade.

A decade is also how long it’s been since ESPN hired its first ombudsman. In this era of permanent disruption, that’s a long time. That’s why the title of this position is changing to public editor. To be clear, the internal critic portion of the job is still very real and very important. The change in title reflects a greater orientation toward ESPN’s consumers. While those of us in media have long talked about the importance of satisfying our audience, I don’t believe media have done a particularly good job. On many news sites, message boards go unmanaged and complaints unheard. Many of those same sites are also overloaded with disruptive ads, code and third-party widgets that create long load times and a lousy user experience. Still, when consumers use ad blockers, media companies get ticked without acknowledging their own culpability in that use.

I’m stating the obvious here, but it still needs to be said: If you don’t have consumers, you don’t have a business. And, in a world in which there are infinitely more ways to spend your time every day, the power is shifting to the consumer. Thus, the pressure to keep your own consumers happy is tremendous. So I wanted to shift more of the focus of this column toward representing the public’s views, perceptions and questions about ESPN and its products.

To simplify the exchange between the public editor and ESPN consumers, we’ve set up dedicated ESPN Public Editor accounts for Twitter and Facebook. The goal here is for you to flag anything you believe warrants compliments, criticism, investigation or explanation. This could include comments about the coverage you see on any ESPN platform, the design or usability of any of those platforms, internal decisions you think need explanation or whatever else is on your mind. If you’d prefer not to post publicly, you can send email to Publiceditor@espn.com.

A few quick rules of the road for whichever communication platform you choose:

  • I won’t be able to respond to everything, so don’t take it personally. But everything posted or emailed will be read.

  • The best kind of feedback comes when there are details. Broad complaints are the hardest to report and address.

  • It’s a free country; you can say whatever you’d like. But if you are one of those people who gains courage only when in the glare of a computer or phone screen, and you choose childish obscenities and rants rather than constructive feedback, I’ll exercise my own right to ignore you.

I will also use both social feeds to let you know what I’m working on, but I won’t be using them to make snap judgments without facts. My job is to do reporting to get the full story, not react off the cuff.

I’m sure there will be shifts and tweaks along the way in terms of how this all works, but thanks for reading this first post, and I look forward to digging in more specifically in my next column.