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ESPN's merged news structure focuses on quality and speed

David Kraft spent 2014 as a Sulzberger Fellow at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The subject he chose to research: creating a 21st-century newsroom. Part of the reason he chose that topic was because his employer, ESPN, was considering a restructuring of its newsroom. But little did he know then that he’d soon be co-leading that effort.

Soon after completing the leadership program, Kraft, ESPN’s executive editor of news operations, ended up co-managing a two-year effort to restructure the network’s news desks. That project, which resulted in new job descriptions for virtually all news desk employees, soft-launched in December and fully rolled out in January.

If you’re asking why an internal media company reorganization should matter to you, here’s why: Almost all of public chatter about ESPN concerns what populates its public-facing products -- SportsCenter, 30 for 30, ESPN.com, ESPN Radio, etc. How the network gathers and disseminates news largely determines the quality of those products. That’s why the creation of this new unit -- internally called the Universal News Group -- was crucial, if not sexy or even known by most people outside of ESPN.

Historically, ESPN has had two major news operations: the digital desk, which managed news distribution on ESPN’s websites, mobile products and social accounts, and its TV desk, which communicated with on-air reporters out in the field and supported SportsCenter and ESPN’s other television shows. Digital reporters filed to the digital desk, TV reporters to the TV desk. Although there was regular communication between the two desks, it was informal, not mandated.

Nonetheless, for many years, this loose arrangement worked fine. Though plenty of broadcast video was featured inside the company’s digital products, the two news operations were largely dealing with different audiences consuming on different platforms at different times.

In recent years, however, the rise of mobile and social media has largely erased the line between platforms. ESPN consumers now stream SportsCenter over their phones. Tweets are being fed on-screen onto ESPN’s broadcast shows. The network’s TV reporters tweet out stories mere minutes before going on the air to discuss them.

“It became really clear that fans don’t care whether they’re getting news on TV or an alert or on ESPN.com,” said Jill Frederickson, ESPN’s vice president of editorial operations. “Why should we be different? If people are consuming us platform-agnostically, we should go out that way.”

“Our structure worked well for a long time,” Kraft said. “But, in a five-year span, we grew to more than 100 team reporters in various sports, SportsCenter around the clock, digital platforms growing exponentially, a vast radio network with podcasts creating news, social media, live game telecasts and shows like College GameDay that we support.”

A good example of how communication has been improved by the merging of the news desks came this past Thursday, when UFC star Conor McGregor released a statement on social media denying he was stepping away from ultimate fighting after some indications to the contrary in previous days.

The information about McGregor’s statement came into the news desk via Brett Okamoto, ESPN.com’s MMA reporter, who sent in a quick paragraph at 10:52 a.m. ET. The news desk -- now simultaneously responsible for digital and TV -- then called the embedded show editor in the SportsCenter control room, which led to a quick on-air report just before 11 a.m. About that same time, Okamoto’s initial story was posted on ESPN.com. After filing several more paragraphs, Okamoto then did an on-air phone interview in the first half-hour of the 11 a.m. SportsCenter. He filed an updated story for ESPN.com, which was posted around 11:30 a.m.

According to Kraft, the McGregor story was able to make its way more seamlessly through ESPN for a few key reasons. It came into the newly centralized desk via an aliased email that didn’t require Okamoto to know which particular editor was in charge at the time. Only one editor was responsible for vetting and disseminating that information across all platforms. And there was a desk editor inside the SportsCenter control room, something that was uncommon before the launch of the Universal News Group.

Discussions about restructuring the news desks began in 2013, and, once there was consensus the project needed to move forward, Frederickson and Kraft -- who have a combined 33 years of experience at ESPN -- served as project co-leads. Although Kraft had been involved in early discussions about a potential reorganization and had been leading the digital news desk, it wasn’t until he completed the Sulzberger program that he found out he’d be applying his academic research in a real-life scenario.

“We had to create a new culture, a new way of looking at news,” said Kraft, who now manages the Universal News Group on a daily basis, reporting to Frederickson and indirectly to Chad Millman, who oversees domestic digital content for ESPN. “No longer was it all about one platform; it’s all about ESPN. … We needed one set of news standards and one voice to provide the best news content.”

Unlike the infamous 2012 Jeremy Lin headline incident that led to changes in how ESPN produced headlines for its mobile site, network executives say there was no one incident that prompted the restructuring decision -- just the march of time and constantly changing consumer behavior. The explosion of digital platforms in recent years had created an environment in which communication was suffering. Reporters in the field were often getting calls from editors on both the digital and the TV desks. The communication between the digital desk and ESPN’s shows was also showing cracks.

“The news operation was too separate from the shows,” said Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president of SportsCenter and news. “We’d have folks gathering info, and, when the show got close to air, the news desk stayed landlocked while the talent and producers went to the studio. We wanted to get the news desk more seamlessly integrated into shows.”

The Universal News Group -- comprising approximately 35 employees -- began a phased rollout in December. News desk staffers began performing their new roles but in limited partnership with SportsCenter. In early January, the UNG fully launched.

According to Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president of global digital content, all domestic reporters -- and an increasing number of international reporters -- now file news through the UNG, which verifies sources, addresses any conflicting reports and works to distribute that news across all devices. The goal, he said, is to be both right and first, with the emphasis on the former.

Those involved say the transition has gone more smoothly than anticipated.

“Six months in, we figured we’d be saying, ‘Why didn’t we do this earlier?’ We were saying it by Jan. 15,” said Frederickson, who oversees ESPN’s assignment desk and talent producers in addition to the UNG. “Getting people to think about all the platforms has just worked. It makes it feel like it was worth all that effort.”

“We’re much more efficient when news breaks,” Kraft said. “There’s one group charged with informing SportsCenter, producing the digital story, getting information to the BottomLine and social teams, informing our digital teams and studio shows for reaction. One way in and one way out, instead of two. Reporters talk to one person, and one message is communicated.

"On a daily basis, our editors embedded with shows provide assistance with questions, write scripts on the fly, aid the producers in making sure we’re up to date and accurate. We don’t make decisions for TV or for digital; we make decisions for ESPN. So it’s positive on a daily basis -- we’re more accurate, more timely, more balanced and more contextual because we’re speaking with one voice no matter where our audience interacts with us.”

That’s why this change holds promise for ESPN. Those who have been part of newsroom controversies as part of large media companies -- myself included -- know that poor internal communication is often a root cause. The merging of the digital and TV desks is intended to limit the path news can take through ESPN, which, if successful, will make it worth the two-year effort.

“What we report carries a lot of weight. Nobody should feel sorry for us; that’s the way it is,” King said. “Our ability to have a measured response and communication with one another is enhanced in this structure. … We are a much more integrated and diverse set of people in what is, essentially, our central nervous system.”

There is still more work ahead, however. ESPN’s international news desks remain separate, though Stiegman notes that some international soccer news, such as coverage of the English Premier League, is now handled by the news desk -- with bureaus based in Bristol, Los Angeles and the United Kingdom.

“We have a news editor from our international group working in the UNG, but we would certainly like to increase the formal relationships with our international colleagues,” Kraft said. “Our goal is to plan globally and cover news locally -- but that ‘local’ gets bigger by the day. There’s no reason we shouldn’t cover an Argentinian player in the English Premier League with our resources in the United Kingdom and Argentina working collaboratively, and making sure that news is available for fans globally.”

To paraphrase Rush -- the Canadian power trio, not the radio host -- changes aren’t permanent, but change is. So, even with this massive restructuring, Kraft knows staying nimble is key.

“We still have room to grow; the news environment isn’t static, and our company is evolving,” he said. “We’re assessing how we perform every day, but we have a team that, at its core, wants to be trusted by our audience, to be their first source when breaking news happens and to provide context you can’t get elsewhere. … We know we’ve been given a unique opportunity to reinvent how a major media company handles a rapidly changing news world.”