ESPN must prove commitment to journalism in wake of recent talent cuts

It’s been more than a month since ESPN eliminated approximately 100 staff positions, almost all of them public-facing reporters, columnists or on-air personalities. While rumors about the layoffs had been circulating for a few months, many were still surprised to see ESPN veterans such as Jayson Stark, Ed Werder and Andy Katz among the cuts.

Collectively, these layoffs dealt a painful blow to ESPN’s newsgathering capabilities. While the network still has plenty of talent to fall back on, no news organization gets better by losing 100 journalists.

"We did make some difficult decisions regarding talent in order for us to push into this content strategy we’re looking toward,” Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president of SportsCenter and news, told reporters after the network’s upfront presentation on May 16, according to the Sports Business Journal.

ESPN’s layoffs prompted a wave of media think pieces focusing on the underlying reasons for the cuts and how the network should deal with its challenges going forward. Most of those pieces focused on the obvious primary cause of ESPN’s financial issues: cable unbundling. Many readers on social media agreed. But some other public responses followed a Mad Libs formula of sorts: “The reason ESPN had to lay people off is because [insert your personal pet peeve here].” For some, it’s the network’s perceived political shift. For others, it’s the continued existence of noisy, controversial debate shows. For still others, the increased focus on cultural coverage is what led to the reckoning of April 26.

Of course, the world is drawn not in black and white but in gray. In fact, there are many reasons ESPN’s belt-tightening was necessary, but none is more central than the unbundling of cable television. I suggested as much on Twitter on the day of the layoffs.

While many concurred with that take -- and those of others who expressed similar thoughts -- some felt I was severely underplaying the role of politics and ESPN’s huge financial outlay for broadcast rights, especially to the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.

On the political front, I stand by my first tweet: Politics cannot credibly be viewed as the main reason for ESPN’s subscriber decline. Are there viewers who have either stopped watching or limited their viewing of ESPN because of politics or cultural coverage? Absolutely. But if you’re looking for the primary reason cable networks are losing subscribers these days, it’s unbundling. On May 31, Nielsen reported the median subscriber loss for cable networks in May was 2.9 percent. It’s not just ESPN. Every cable network is being affected by unbundling.

That said, I wrote in November about the internal and external challenges resulting from what many -- including me -- see as ESPN’s leftward political shift. It was an opinion based not merely on personal opinion but on conversations I had with many ESPN employees across the political spectrum. Interestingly, ESPN conducted its own research on the topic in early May, interviewing 1,423 people, including 867 ESPN viewers. Of those who said the network had a political bias, 63 percent said it was a liberal one and 30 percent said it was a conservative bias. But the research also found that just 30 percent of those interviewed felt ESPN had any political leaning at all, only a slight uptick from the 28 percent who said the same this past October.

Some research by Deep Root Analytics had shown a recent leftward shift in ESPN viewership in Cincinnati. The data is indeed interesting, and worth a look. But it’s data from one market, and even if that shift does apply nationally, it’s unknown whether that shift is unique to ESPN’s viewership or mirrors a larger national trend.

It’s also notable that, even though all cable networks are feeling the unbundling pinch, ESPN is feeling it more acutely. Nielsen reported a 3.8 percent subscriber drop for ESPN in May, a rate almost one-third higher than the median of 2.9 percent. Is that because of politics, or the specialized nature of sports, or some combination of those and other factors? It’s unclear, but there’s surely no shortage of people inside ESPN trying to answer that question.

All that said, there’s little to back up the claim that politics is the root cause of ESPN’s current troubles. As former Grantland writer Bryan Curtis put it on The Ringer:

“Is ESPN a liberal network?” is a legitimate and interesting question that deserves examination. But if you see someone saying ESPN got comeuppance for its “agenda,” they have, in nearly every case, just revealed their own.

Sports rights payments are a more complicated issue. It is true that rights are crucially important to ESPN, albeit exceedingly expensive. But I didn’t include them in my tweetstorm because, in my opinion, ESPN is clearly better off owning those rights than not, even if they are overpriced (a determination I’ll leave to others with more expertise). Cable unbundling is no such double-edged sword: There is no upside for ESPN when customers cut it from their cable bundle (though the network had regained some subscribers via smaller cable and over-the-top packages, so-called “skinny” bundles).

Sports rights also work as a bulwark against those who have walked away from ESPN because of culture coverage and politics. Whatever a fan thinks of ESPN writ large, most will likely tune in to the network when their team is playing on Monday Night Football or any other ESPN broadcast. That’s the beauty of owning sports rights: In a media world in which choice is almost endless, major televised sports events aggregate millions of viewers -- including live digital streams -- and advertisers pay a heavy premium to reach them.

Before diving into how April’s moves might affect ESPN journalistically, let’s start with the obvious: Layoffs are awful. I’ve been on both sides, and while it’s always worse to be receiving the news than delivering it, layoff days are dark ones at any company with a soul.

From a clinical standpoint, however, cuts do come with one benefit: While executives can talk about what’s important in news releases and at internal company events, layoffs generally speak clearest about what a company’s priorities are and what they are not.

So, in looking at ESPN’s moves, a few things stand out: The lack of layoffs relating to any of ESPN’s debate shows would seem to confirm their perceived value to the network, despite some carping from critics about the quality of said shows. Now that’s an easy decision to criticize, but at a time in which having a healthy business is important for ESPN, it’s hard to argue that the network should cut back on debate shows, which are relatively low cost and high margin.

Are these shows great journalism? Surely not. But those who understand the business of journalism understand that great journalism has rarely paid for itself. When newspapers had huge profit margins, it was display and classified advertising that paid the way, not journalism.

In the case of ESPN, ratings and the revenue that emanates from its debate shows help pay for the higher-quality investigative and enterprise journalism the network produces. To suggest ESPN should scale back debate shows is essentially asking it to create more financial problems for itself, something it’s highly unlikely shareholders of parent company Disney would embrace.

So, while, at some level, I understand the decision to protect the debate shows, it doesn’t minimize the major hit ESPN’s newsgathering capabilities took on April 26. The list of those who lost their jobs is full of names that helped build up that credibility.

On the news side, top-notch reporters such as Werder, Katz, Chad Ford, Marc Stein, Jane McManus, Ethan Sherwood Strauss and many more were let go. So were excellent writers such as Stark and Johnette Howard. On the investigative and enterprise side of the operation, longtime ESPN The Magazine staffer Shaun Assael, whose last piece was a terrific read about Maria Sharapova’s return to tennis, was laid off. So were strong Outside the Lines reporters Steve Delsohn and Tom Farrey. On May 31, it was reported that 23-year ESPN veteran John Clayton was also departing. The network’s NHL coverage took a particularly hard hit, which was notable as hockey is the only major sport for which ESPN owns no television rights.

It’s hard to predict what long-term journalistic impact these layoffs will have, outside of an obvious reduction of daily reporting firepower in some areas. It’s what happens in the coming months that will say a lot. If the network continues to produce the strong long-form and investigative journalism it’s consistently produced for years, if the revitalized E:60 continues to get the public support and backing it has received from ESPN in the face of the layoffs, if more excellent 30 for 30 documentaries hit the airwaves, if ESPN continues to generate high-quality investigative reporting in digital and ESPN The Magazine, and if ESPN makes an effort -- as best it can -- to plug the coverage holes the cuts created, then it’ll be hard to argue that its commitment to journalism has waned. And, in talking to dozens of senior execs at the company over the past 18 months, I do believe that commitment to journalism is real.

Many fans who have written me or posted on social media do not believe that commitment is real, and they point to these layoffs as proof. But cuts don’t automatically equate to a lack of commitment to journalism. After all, the list of news organizations that have laid off journalists in the past five years is, sadly, only slightly shorter than a list of news organizations. If a news organization shrinking its newsroom automatically means it’s not committed to journalism, then let me introduce you to a few other companies not committed to journalism: The New York Times, NPR, CNN, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and thousands of others.

As longtime ESPN host and journalist Bob Ley told the Hartford Courant:

"The narrative that [the layoff] affects our commitment to journalism just is not borne out by the facts. People who want to conflate the two, I don't buy it. There are challenges in the marketplace [cord-cutting, etc.,] and the company did what it felt it had to do. Fine. It hurt a lot of people. Professionally you move on from that. I don't believe that equates to some discussion that they're not committed to journalism."

That said, one commitment was lacking from ESPN during these layoffs: a willingness to cover its own bad news. ESPN.com published no news story about its own cuts. Yes, a handful of ESPN personalities made on-air statements supporting their departed colleagues. Sure, ESPN’s Front Row site -- maintained by the network’s public relations team -- posted ESPN President John Skipper’s memo to employees and a statement of the network’s going-forward content strategy. But neither did the job of honestly and openly communicating with the public.

It’s never a good look when a newsgathering organization looks the other way when news is breaking in its own house. ESPN should have put one of its own journalists on the story so ESPN executives could have been asked the same hard questions that would be asked of any other organization going through a similar process.

Skipper also raised some eyebrows by skipping his traditional meeting with the media after the network’s advertising upfront presentation in May. ESPN said he had to attend a board meeting. But, coming so soon after the network’s highly publicized layoffs, it wasn’t a good look. Transparency in the face of distress isn’t easy for any organization, but if journalism entities expect it from others, they should set the example.