ESPN punctuating its 'capital-J' journalism

Although ESPN’s subscriber challenges -- and the recent layoffs related to them -- have been rightfully well-documented, the network has been having a memorable year on the journalism front.

In February, ESPN The Magazine won a National Magazine Award for general excellence in the news, sports, and entertainment category. Three weeks later, Ezra Edelman’s documentary, “O.J.: Made in America” won the Academy Award for best documentary feature. A few months earlier, the O.J. epic -- which ran an engrossing-but-unusually-long 467 minutes -- won a prestigious Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award.

While these recent journalism honors are far from ESPN’s first, they were notable for their prestige and range. Winning major awards for producing a magazine and a more-than-feature-length film reflects the network’s desire to find new ways to tell stories using the opportunities provided by new platforms.

“I’ve always felt like this was a place where we get an incredible amount of rope to try and best bring life to what we set out to bring life,” said Connor Schell, who was recently named ESPN’s executive vice president of content and, among other things, has run ESPN Films and the network’s 30 for 30 franchise. “It’s pretty amazing that ... we’ve crossed out of the traditional box that sports gets put into. That idea that, as a sports-first entity, the Columbia Journalism School or the National Board of Review would even look at Ezra out of everything that’s out there, is something we’re proud of.”

The investigative, enterprise and feature work ESPN is producing -- often referred to inside the media industry as “capital-J journalism” -- is something employees I talked to for this story are appropriately proud of. That’s partially because, for many years, the company has dealt with criticism that it doesn’t produce enough of it, and, as the charge goes, instead opts for the empty calories of highlights and high-decibel debate shows.

Sure, some of those critics would still criticize ESPN even if it produced the sports version of the Pentagon Papers. But many consumers I’ve heard from truly don’t seem to realize that ESPN houses one of the largest investigative reporting teams in the country, broadcasts a show every weekday -- Outside the Lines -- that’s loaded with high-quality journalism, recently launched a rebooted weekend version of its E:60 magazine show and employs some of the finest long-form writers in the country.

“No one does more investigative or enterprise journalism in sports than ESPN,” said ESPN President John Skipper. “We have an unprecedented number of distinguished reporters, writers, and editors who work with complete freedom and significant resources. We have the daily news show of record in [Outside the Lines] and the finest sports magazine show in E:60, as well as commitments on SportsCenter, ESPN The Magazine, all editions of ESPN.com, espnW, The Undefeated and FiveThirtyEight.”

It’s hard to argue with Skipper’s point. In fact, if I’d argue with any part, it’s that ESPN’s staffing in these areas is actually on par with almost any journalistic entity, not just ones working in sports.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges in this area for ESPN to tackle. To me, the largest is visibility. It’s clear to me that many ESPN consumers never see much of this work. It’s not that ESPN doesn’t promote its enterprise and investigative content -- in fact, it does an amazing job promoting its most impactful projects -- but it can be easy for it to get lost in the 24/7 flow of information that emanates from ESPN’s myriad properties.

ESPN is an odd combination of convenience store and high-end boutique. Closest to the front door -- the lead stories on SportsCenter or the top block on ESPN.com -- the network focuses on immediate needs: news, scores, highlights, analysis, debates, fantasy advice, etc. But, behind those front shelves lies a body of meaningful work, and figuring out how to get those consumers who want a soda and a snack to venture to the back of the store remains a challenge.

Before pressing forward, one disclosure: I did much of the reporting for this piece before ESPN announced its talent layoffs in April. As I wrote in my post-layoffs piece, I thought the months following those reductions would be important in showing whether ESPN would stick to its commitment to quality journalism. At this point, it seems safe to say it has done so.

The charge that ESPN didn’t do enough serious journalism, especially on television, once had merit. Although OTL has provided a strong journalistic core since its 1990 debut, for most of the network’s history, the heavy majority of ESPN’s on-air programming was focused on the highlight-and-analysis-centric SportsCenter or live sports broadcasts.

But the explosion of new platforms opened new opportunities for ESPN. The advent of the web brought about the first real shape-shifter of a medium: It could be a newspaper, a TV, a movie screen or a radio. ESPN.com went live in 1995, and three years later, ESPN The Magazine was born. ESPN Films was formed in 2001.

Throughout this time, ESPN was expanding its TV footprint with ESPN2 and other networks, giving it more hours in the day to host more journalistic efforts. The result of this activity was that stories could now be told in many more ways using many more distribution points. And that expansion of storytelling options opened the door to journalists once outside the reach of a pure broadcast entity.

In the mid-2000s, ESPN began hiring reporters known for their investigative and enterprise chops. There are many examples, but notably, Mike Fish joined from CNN/SI in 2005. Two years later, Mark Fainaru-Wada came over from the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2008, Paula Lavigne joined from the Des Moines Register. In 2012, the network added two more prestigious names, hiring Don Van Natta away from The New York Times, where he’d been part of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams, and Steve Fainaru, a Pulitzer Prize winner for international reporting while at The Washington Post. This past November, Tisha Thompson -- a 22-time Emmy winner -- joined OTL.

ESPN reporter Seth Wickersham marvels at the depth and strength of his fellow reporting lineup, saying the company has “emphasized this type of work for a while. In the past 6-7 years, [ESPN editors and producers] have put together a lineup that resembles the Yankees, and let them chase stories without the pressure of time, space or travel budgets.”

But while the explosion of platforms did open up new storytelling options, there was still one piece missing: getting those platforms to work together on the same stories. So, even after the reporting depth increased, their work was still sometimes orphaned on a single platform, or lost in a sea of links on ESPN.com.

Over the past few years, however, the communication and coordination between ESPN’s multiple investigative and enterprise teams have improved greatly, and the result has been more cohesive rollouts of major investigative and enterprise priorities.

One of the strongest examples of this -- and a model that has been used for every major ESPN story launch since -- was the rollout of the network’s September 2015 epic on the NFL’s handling of the Spygate and Deflategate controversies involving the New England Patriots. Authored by Van Natta and Wickersham, the 10,718-word piece detailed how the league’s handling of Spygate -- and the perception from NFL owners of a too-light penalty -- led to a possible over-compensation when it came to punishing the Patriots for Deflategate.

The story itself was incredibly deep and revealing; Van Natta and Wickersham interviewed more than 90 league officials, owners, team executives and coaches, current and former Patriots coaches, staffers and players. Given the attention devoted to Deflategate -- not to mention ESPN’s role in it, which I wrote about in 2016 -- the network didn’t need much help getting huge buzz for the story.

But ESPN didn’t take any chances. It decided to blanket its properties with coverage of the story and, where it could, with Van Natta and Wickersham.

On launch day, the story went live on ESPN.com at 9 a.m. ET, accompanied by a video piece that had been produced for OTL. Also at 9 a.m., Van Natta appeared on SportsCenter alongside OTL host Bob Ley to talk about the story. Meanwhile, Wickersham went on the radio to discuss the piece on Mike & Mike. That day also featured an OTL segment focused solely on the story. Early the next week, ESPN The Magazine hit the stands, and the piece consumed most of the first third of the issue. Add to that constant mentions on SportsCenter, ESPN’s talk shows and radio shows, and the story was impossible to miss.

“It was as coordinated an effort as I can remember,” Ley said.

To organize the rollout, ESPN produced an internal logistics and fact sheet to ensure the piece got the widest exposure but also to ensure that the main points were communicated consistently across platforms, an important process when dealing with a complicated story in which very minute details matter. This fact sheet included launch plans, contacts for key reporters and editors, direction on branding -- the Spygate piece was a co-branded operation between the Magazine and OTL -- and story findings and points of interest.

On ESPN’s digital properties, the Spygate/Deflategate opus received nearly 5 million page views and 2.5 million unique visitors and readers spent a total of nearly 12 million minutes reading the story. (It should also be noted that the numbers would have been much, much higher if ESPN.com unnecessarily paginated its article pages, which, to the network’s credit, it doesn’t). The related digital video had more than 1.5 million video starts and 800,000 unique visitors. Specific readers for the magazine piece are harder to pin down, but ESPN estimates that 14.4 million people read that specific issue.

The Spygate/Deflategate story wasn’t the first multiplatform rollout effort attempted by ESPN, but, according to Chris Buckle, ESPN’s senior deputy editor for investigations for digital and print media, it showed how far internal collaboration had improved.

"When I joined ESPN [in 2010], a good working relationship between the TV, Digital and Magazine platforms existed,” he said. “But we didn’t consistently make use of our scale and resources jointly to chase and push out impactful stories in as big a way as possible. ... There’s no reason why we can’t move that brand and that kind of storytelling out there in all properties.”

A more recent example was Tisha Thompson and Andy Lockett’s disturbing June piece about a college football player who, along with a friend, was abducted and tortured for 40 hours. The story was accompanied by a short video teaser for a full-length E:60 feature, and a promotion for an E:60 podcast about the abduction.

Part of the reason the blitz model has worked has been the recognition of the different needs of different platforms. Turning a long, written piece into a SportsCenter or OTL broadcast segment or a Snapchat promotion is something the network views as an essential part of any significant story rollout.

“Almost everything we do, we turn into TV,” said Dwayne Bray, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer for the enterprise reporting unit. “That wasn’t always the case.”

But the fact that ESPN has far more investigative and enterprise journalists than it once did and many more platforms to promote their work hasn’t stopped the complaints from some that ESPN isn’t journalistic enough. Those critics include former ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, who wrote in The Nation in 2016.

Perhaps it’s simply naive to expect a network that actually owns bowl games, has entire channels devoted to major college sports conferences, and runs a revolving door for sports figures who want to try their voice at broadcasting also maintain a reliable journalistic presence.

Now without Grantland, ESPN is left with a modern version of its namesake’s four horsemen—cliché, scuttlebutt, squawk radio, and conflict of interest.

After some post-publication blowback, Lipsyte offered a qualified amendment:

Update: Re-reading my piece, I realized that not everyone has read all the praise I’ve heaped in other places on the ESPN program Outside the Lines or the investigative unit, especially the work of the Fainaru brothers and Don Van Natta. They shouldn’t feel slighted. They, too, are beacons in a sludge field.

I don’t think anyone -- and certainly not me -- would make the argument that everything ESPN publishes or airs is compelling. And there’s no shortage of examples where its reporting or editorial decisions or processes have legitimately been called into question. But that’s a different argument than ESPN not producing good journalism.

“I do hear that charge, and it always perplexes me,” Van Natta said. “ESPN makes an enormous investment in journalism. We’re doing groundbreaking work in many areas of sports. Maybe it’s not up front enough for some and they only react to what they see on First Take.”

Ley believes that complaint has waned, saying “I don’t hear it a lot. I spend 50-60 hours a week doing nothing but proving that incorrect, anyway.”

The accusation that ESPN doesn’t produce good journalism is usually in conjunction with another complaint: that the network is beholden to the business partners it covers, such as the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, the SEC and many others. Skipper firmly denies that, saying “Any charge that our business relationships affect our work is inaccurate.”

Some critics of ESPN will roll their eyes at that statement. But here’s a fact those of us in journalism know: Investigative reporters don’t stick around places where they’re told there are curtains they cannot look behind. And, beyond some unfortunate losses in the April layoffs and a few reporters who have not had contracts renewed, ESPN’s investigative teams have been remarkably stable -- and even growing, with the likes of Thompson and Sam Borden, who joined ESPN from The New York Times earlier this year.

“These people wouldn’t work here if that was the case,” Wickersham said. “As John Skipper has said, ‘The only person with a conflict of interest here is me.’ And that’s how it works.”

When Van Natta was considering his offer from ESPN, he also had his doubts. “I was concerned about [interference] and had lengthy conversations about it,” he said. “I had assurances there was a Chinese wall between business partnerships and the journalism. And there’s not been one moment where someone said, ‘Hit the brakes.’”

Buckle had similar concerns when he was deciding whether to leave USA Today to join.

“We’re in bed with all these business partners, and you wonder whether you can cover them in any meaningful way,” he said, recalling his concerns. “But there are just so many examples -- especially with the NFL -- where we’ve been really hard on them.”

That said, those of us who keep a close eye on ESPN are right to keep a vigilant eye trained on the complicated relationships between ESPN and the entities it covers, as there are sometimes decisions that require scrutiny. Many recall that, in August 2013, ESPN pulled out of a long-planned partnership with PBS’s “Frontline” to co-brand a two-part series on NFL brain injuries. ESPN came under heavy fire for the decision, much of it appropriately focused on whether the NFL might have pressured the network into the decision.

At the time, ESPN claimed the decision was made because it was uncomfortable with its branding being associated with a journalistic process it didn’t control. In a column by Lipsyte, ESPN’s ombudsman at the time, Bray said, “This issue is about branding, not about journalism. We will still get to do the stories, and no one will interfere with that.”

That same year, ESPN won a Peabody Award for its “NFL at a Crossroads series” that ran on Outside the Lines, and it’s hard to argue that the network has pulled any punches on its coverage of concussions. Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada have continued their relentless coverage of the issue. In May 2016, the brothers reported that the league has continually tried to impede an investigation by pressuring the National Institutes of Health to kill a $16 million project about the connection between football and brain disease. They had previously reported that the league had pulled out of the BU study altogether. They have also reported that NFL donations to brain research favored league-connected doctors.

In 2014, Van Natta and Kevin Van Valkenburg detailed how the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL mismanaged the controversy that followed the arrest of then-Ravens running back Ray Rice after he punched his then-fiancée in a casino elevator in Atlantic City. And anyone who read the Spygate/Deflategate saga can’t possibly come away from it thinking well of the NFL’s handling of those controversies.

And the NFL isn’t the only key partner ESPN has covered rigorously.

Back in late 2013, Fish revealed how Major League Baseball had impeded an investigation into Biogenesis founder Tony Bosch. Van Natta also investigated the implosion of the daily fantasy sports business, not long after ESPN had entered into a lucrative financial partnership with daily fantasy company DraftKings. On the international sports scene, Bonnie Ford has done much excellent reporting on doping.

On the college front, Mark Schlabach and Lavigne did terrific reporting on the Baylor football scandal, including revelations that former coach Art Briles and his assistants covered up player misbehavior. In fact, the pair turned that into a book that will be released this month. And a few weeks ago, Schlabach revealed how a Mississippi State fan discovered the information that led to the resignation of Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze.

Sometimes the conflicts ESPN’s investigative teams encounter exist inside their own corporate structure. One example came in February 2016 with a detailed tick-tock on the battle to bring football back to Los Angeles. That story -- also reported by Van Natta and Wickersham -- was notable because one of the main players in the story was Bob Iger, CEO of the Walt Disney Company, ESPN’s parent company. Iger was a key player in the ultimately unsuccessful effort to get the NFL to approve building a stadium in Carson, California.

Van Natta interviewed Iger at the January 2016 NFL owners meetings in Houston, with following phone calls. Iger’s role in the eventual story -- as in reality -- was significant.

“[Iger’s involvement] happened; that’s why it was included in the story,” Wickersham said. “That’s how it works.”

As I previously wrote, ESPN’s layoffs didn’t cut deeply into the enterprise and investigative teams, which speaks well of its standing inside the company, as layoffs tend to reveal an organization’s true priorities. But that doesn’t mean these teams didn’t take a hit. Among those who left was longtime investigative reporter Shaun Assael, who did strong work for ESPN on doping, on steroids and on how the U.S. government took down FIFA. OTL staffers Tom Farrey and Steve Delsohn were also let go, as was Jane McManus, who appeared frequently on OTL. Delsohn was part of an ESPN team that won that 2013 Peabody Award.

Though Delsohn, Farrey and McManus were tough losses for OTL, the show continues to produce excellent work. Around the time of the layoffs, ESPN also made a strong commitment to its E:60 magazine show, giving it a consistent time slot -- 10 years after its debut. Hosted by Ley and Jeremy Schaap, the show now airs every Sunday at 9 a.m. ET.

On its digital platforms, ESPN continues to take advantage of space, allowing longer stories to run at lengths appropriate to their complexities. Van Natta, for one, revels in being able to stretch out. He cited his 12,000-word story on Jerry Jones and Wright Thompson’s 11,000-word piece on Tiger Woods. “That space is rare anywhere,” Van Natta said.

Speaking of Thompson, it should be noted that not all “capital-J” journalism falls into the category of investigative or enterprise. Thompson is Exhibit A in the power of feature writing, whether it’s the Woods story, the piece on post-Katrina New Orleans or the one on the long career of Pat Riley. He’s on that short list of writers one should read regardless of topic.

“I’ve always said that, as an editor, I’m not as concerned about ‘word count’ as the words that count,” said Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president and editorial director of global digital content. “Our approach is to write a story for what it’s worth. Some stories should be shorter, and shouldn't just take advantage of the infinite bits and bytes of the internet because fans don’t have infinite interest or patience. But we want to tell stories that matter and tell them the right way. Stories that are worthy of a longer run -- such as a one-story issue of the Mag, like Wright on Katrina -- that’s something we embrace.”

Thompson is far from alone on the feature writing side. Tom Junod wrote about Muhammad Ali’s final return to Louisville, Wickersham did a deep dive into dissension in the Seattle Seahawks’ locker room and Fainaru wrote about how the Syrian national soccer team is being used as a pawn in the country’s civil war.

Borden made his E:60 debut with an emotional, cross-platform piece on Brazil’s Chapecoense soccer team, whose plane crashed last fall, killing 71 of 77 people on board, including nearly all the team’s players. The story had global distribution for ESPN -- not only was the written piece translated into Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin to post on all of the company’s global digital editions but the E:60 component aired on ESPN’s linear networks across all of Latin America and Brazil, as well as Australia, India, Africa and the UK. It also ran in the Magazine and included an audio read by Borden. The package generated more than 4 million page views, 3 million video starts and 2 million social shares globally.

“Few media companies, let alone sports media companies, are willing to invest in and distribute such compelling content across the entire globe,” said Stiegman, noting that Borden’s reporting was in conjunction with ESPN Brazil. “It’s a testament to our passion for stories, commitment to impact journalism, our ability to harness all of our reporting assets and desire to reach fans on the best screen available, wherever they are in the world.”

But, as anyone who works in media these days knows, producing good work isn’t always enough. People need to be able to find it. And because ESPN is that 7-Eleven/Gucci hybrid, the promotional challenges are tough.

“It’s a function of volume,” Ley said. “You can pick up The New York Times every day, and there are lingerie ads, want ads, movie reviews, and other stuff, too. In a 24-hour broadcast day, you cannot reasonably expect there to always be something hard-hitting. It’s fatuous to say that.”

Said Van Natta: “I think the promotion is good. To be blunt about it, that was one of the concerns I had [coming to ESPN]. I wanted to make sure that work would get enough of a rollout online and on TV. ... But unlike The New York Times, where the story could be at the top of the page and disappear within a few hours, ESPN has so many ways to get the story out.”

But here’s the issue: Few consumers navigate via categories as broad as “investigative” or “enterprise.” It’s why, when I was editor of washingtonpost.com, I removed “Multimedia” and “Community” from our site navigation. It wasn’t because those weren’t important initiatives for us, it was that they only worked in context. Not many consumers choose to watch just video; they prefer it to be associated with something they care about. The same goes here. There were surely people deeply engaged with the Spygate story who couldn’t care less about the Syrian national soccer team, and vice versa.

ESPN tried to tackle this challenge in June 2016, when it launched Doubletruck, featuring much of the network’s deeper reporting. It’s a solid digital effort -- though, ironically, using a name lifted from newspaper parlance -- and includes interesting “behind the scenes” color from the reporters. But it’s clear by the lack of design complexity -- the page’s title is in simple text, for example -- that it doesn’t expect this to turn into a destination page for most. And that’s the right call. While OTL can package up strong journalistic efforts in one broadcast show, that kind of focused product is hard to make work on digital platforms.

Promotion aside, Ley said what’s most important is the continued ability to do the kind of reporting and writing that the network is doing. And he’s quite confident he’ll be able to do that. “They’re never taking away our NFL hunting license,” he said. “It’s important that we aggressively and fearlessly cover the leagues. ... [For ESPN], covering the NFL is like covering the Pentagon or the White House.”

None of the success ESPN has had on the investigative, enterprise or feature writing front should be taken for granted. Scrutiny of ESPN’s willingness to chase stories its key partners wish it wouldn’t should always be maintained. As should ESPN’s ability to hold on to its investigative and enterprise reporters.

The network recently had some good news on that front, signing Van Natta to a five-year extension in May to remain at ESPN. He says he’s not at all worried about the network’s appetite for investigative journalism. In fact, he says, investigative reporters at other organizations often inquire as to whether there are job opportunities for them at ESPN.

“They don’t have to do this,” Van Natta said of the investment in enterprise journalism. “ESPN doesn’t have to have investigative reporters with Pulitzer Prizes on their résumés digging into its partners’ dirty laundry. They do it because they value this kind of work.”