ESPN's evolution: Snapchat, esports and attribution guidelines

One of the things that has always stood out about ESPN is its willingness to experiment on the digital front. While far too many legacy media companies still look for reasons not to try new things, ESPN has always seemed game to experiment.

Snapchat is one of the areas in which that experimentation has borne fruit, thanks to a large team at ESPN committed to it, the network’s willingness to continue to adapt its approach and a strong partnership with the social media company. The latest big shift was the network’s November decision to replace its previous magazine-like Snapchat Discover approach with a mini-SportsCenter Snapchat “show” that runs twice every weekday and once on weekends.

ESPN and Snap Inc. -- the name of the company that operates Snapchat -- signed a two-year contract for the new show, and the companies will split the ad revenue that comes from it. This is clearly an attempt to attract younger consumers as part of ESPN’s push into an unbundled, multiplatform world.

The Snapchat SportsCenter debuted Nov. 13, and it features a tone that’s a little lighter and less structured than the broadcast version, featuring a brisk pace and fast-twitch editing used to pack as much information as possible into its short run time.

A recent edition from December featured anchor Treavor Scales running through NBA highlights from the night before, discussing NBA social media trash talk and making a few dad jokes about some of the odder college football bowl names. The latter segment featured cut-ins of Alabama football coach Nick Saban expressing various news conference emotions that ESPN felt reflected the quality of the individual dad jokes. And all in 7 minutes and 4 seconds.

Overall, it’s a nice, breezy product, though certainly not one that would satisfy the obsessive needs of a devoted sports fan on a daily basis. But that’s not the point of the Snapchat SportsCenter offering. It’s designed for a content grazer with a short attention span, and, to that end, the product meets the consumer need.

According to Nate Ravitz, ESPN’s vice president of audience development, one of the reasons the Snapchat relationship has been successful is because both sides have been fully engaged since the partnership began.

“Snapchat has been an exceptional partner in working on this project together,” he said. “They created a totally custom CMS, improved it over time, and have been receptive to feedback. ... It’s night and day from three years ago to what we have today. They’ve been terrific.”

The Snapchat SportsCenter show is getting more than 2 million unique visitors per day, and, according to ESPN, 75 percent of viewers are between the ages of 13 and 24.

When ESPN launched on Snapchat Discover in January 2015, it was limited to using static images, but that soon changed.

“It went from static images to the Ken Burns effect [the panning in and out of static images] to these images that can move,” Ravitz said. “We had questions about whether we could do video or not, or whether we could use audio or run something with sound behind it. That all started to happen in the fall [of 2015].”

The integration of video and sound changed the way Ravitz viewed the project, and he says, “I didn’t really get it until the segments that had movement in it. It kind of turned from a quaint side project into something that could be transformative.”

The relationship continued to develop, and new features -- such as allowing readers into the channel via multiple entry points -- were added. This meant that if, on one visit, a viewer watched the first three snaps, he or she would start at the fourth snap upon return, eliminating the need to rewatch the first three segments.

The Snapchat experiment has also helped ESPN envision how to function in an increasingly mobile world, with Ravitz saying, “We’ve seen the transition from print to digital, and desktop to mobile. Snapchat was the first thing that was mobile only.

“I came to feel very strongly that only producing for a phone and a vertical screen with a forced deadline required a different level of creativity.”

Policy change seemingly reducing attribution battles

Of the myriad issues ESPN has to deal with in the 24/7 news cycle, attribution of scoops has been one of the thorniest. The intersection where desire for journalistic credit and intense professional rivalries meet is frequently contentious.

ESPN has received a fair amount of criticism around its attribution policies, and there were plenty of cases in which it was well-deserved. For many years, when another media outlet reported something first, that organization would be credited only for as long as it took ESPN to confirm that report -- even when it was clear ESPN wouldn’t have been working to confirm had the original report not been published.

At other times, the much-maligned phrase “media reports” would be used as attribution on ESPN platforms. This occurred in cases where multiple outlets had confirmed a story, even if there was one organization that clearly had the information first.

Intentional or not, these attribution policies led to many public battles over the years, and gave the impression that ESPN was reluctant to give credit to other journalistic organizations. Previous ESPN ombudsmen have also written about these struggles with attribution.

Of course, attribution isn’t just an ESPN issue; plenty of reporters and executives at ESPN feel the same tactics have been used against the network when it broke stories.

When you’re the biggest player in the space, though, it’s up to you to set the rules of proper behavior. If you won’t lead, you can’t ask others to follow.

So it’s to ESPN’s credit that, in mid-2016, the company rewrote its attribution guidelines. After watching them in action for 18 months, they seem to have made a positive impact. That’s not to say there aren’t still squabbles about credit snatching or labeling, but the volume of complaints seems to have receded, at least the ones within public view.

The source of previous attribution controversies centered on two questions:

  1. How did ESPN handle stories that had been broken by someone else but that ESPN had not yet confirmed?

  2. What did ESPN do once it had confirmed a story broken by another organization?

On No. 1, the first decision was whether to run the story, which depended on the reputation of the news organization and/or reporter who broke the news and the subject matter of the story. For example, a report about a trade rumor or an injury update was more likely to be run than one involving a more serious off-the-field issue -- for which the risk of running without independent confirmation was much greater.

Assuming the story was one ESPN was comfortable running, the question then became how to source the information. Historically, the network would have used “media reports” or similar phrasing. But the new guidelines require the network to reference the original source of the information, which is a big step in the right direction. Even better, it requires use of the phrase “first reported by,” which is clearer and more transparent than “according to.” This means that, if a story is broken by another news organization, that fact is referenced as long as ESPN is reporting that story. This is good, and proper.

In the past, once the credited story was published, ESPN would go to work on independently confirming it. Assuming it did, ESPN would then substitute its confirmation in place of the organization that had originally broken the story. This meant it was possible for someone to break a story and have ESPN only briefly -- and, in some cases, never -- mention the originating organization’s name.

But the new guidelines mandate that, even after ESPN’s independent confirmation, any graphic shown on the air should continue to carry the “first reported by” language, assuring the originating organization the credit it deserves. In the online version of that story, using Fox Sports as an example, ESPN would use the language “first reported by Fox Sports and confirmed by ESPN.” This is appropriate.

David Kraft, ESPN’s executive editor of news operations, said the new guidelines have been successful: “it’s more easily understood and implemented, and we think it’s been equitable to all concerned. Like any set of guidelines, it’s sometimes open to interpretation and some discussion, but we think we’re fair, straightforward and transparent, which has always been the goal of our attribution policies.”

Said Seth Markman, ESPN’s senior NFL coordinating producer: “I think getting rid of ‘media reports’ is good. It’s OK to say Fox Sports or NFL.com was the first to report something. I think there was some reluctance in the past. It was too easy for us to say a bunch of networks had it.”

The term “multiple reports” isn’t totally dead. It’s still used in cases in which multiple outlets break a story within a few minutes of each other, often in cases in which a player, agent or front-office executive is passing the word of some development to multiple reporters.

The new guidelines seem to have reduced the noise over how ESPN handles attribution, at least based on the reduced number of Twitter flare-ups and stories written off of those public squabbles.

“I have not heard very much on this, which tells me it is working,” said Adam Schefter, an ESPN senior NFL writer who lives most of his days at the epicenter of the get-it-first battles. “It’s like playing offensive line in the NFL: the less you hear, the better you are faring.”

Schefter also thinks ESPN has historically done a better job on attribution than it has gotten credit for.

“ESPN has always done a better job of crediting people with stories than others,” he said. “The policy in the past was not perfect. The new policy was meant to make improvements, to get them the credit, as we should. Before, I thought ESPN was doing a good job, and now I think we’re doing a better job at that. In fact, I think it does a better job than anyone else.”

Everyone I talked to at ESPN about this issue made it clear that there are no perfect attribution policies and that missteps will happen. That’s true. But committing to naming the originating news organization reduces that margin of error, as painful as it might be to an ESPN reporter who gets beat. Then again, that same reporter would expect other news organizations to show the same consideration were the situations reversed.

Markman said he likes the new policy and wishes some of the network’s competitors would follow suit.

“If Jay Glazer had a story and Adam or Mort [Chris Mortensen] confirmed that, we would put ‘ESPN and Fox Sports,’” he said. “I never thought that was perfect, giving credit but putting yourself first. Now, we say ‘first reported by Fox Sports.’ But I don’t see ‘first reported by ESPN [on other networks].’”

One thing you can count on when discussing attribution is that, whatever the policy and however closely an organization adheres to it, the trash-talking will never stop. And what else would you expect from ultracompetitive journalists?

ESPN still grappling with wrestling, but flying with esports

I’ve previously written about ESPN’s decisions to roll out dedicated sections for esports and WWE. While I was fully in support of the esports launch, I was dubious about the viability of WWE coverage because of its awkward fit into the hard news side of ESPN’s operation.

As my term nears its end, I decided to check in with Dan Kaufman, the ESPN senior deputy editor who oversees both verticals. After talking to him and reviewing the content and coverage of both verticals, I stand by my earlier conclusions. Esports has continued to grow dramatically as an industry; ESPN’s coverage has been lauded by outsiders, even winning a prestigious coverage award; and traffic continues to grow at a slow-but-steady pace. Meanwhile, according to Kaufman, ESPN’s WWE traffic has remained flat, and the challenges of coverage were highlighted by its coverage -- or lack thereof -- of a bullying scandal that hit WWE earlier this year.

“Wrestling has been more of a challenge than esports,” Kaufman put it succinctly.

Much of the focus of my 2016 WWE column concerned the difficulty of taking professional wrestling -- with much of the action scripted -- and inserting it into an operation that covers unscripted sports. But that hasn’t been the problem Kaufman has experienced. The real challenge?

“We’re never going to be the place for the hard-core wrestling fan,” he said.

Part of the reason for that is that there are still many inside ESPN who aren’t sure how much the network should be committing to this effort.

“It’s fair to say that, right from the start, there were execs who were conflicted about [covering WWE],” Kaufman said. “It doesn’t feel like, to a lot of them, something we should be doing.”

Many of those skeptics reside on the news side of ESPN’s operation, which, as I noted in my piece, is a handicap for the WWE vertical, since traffic growth for any section relies on the high-profile promotion that ESPN.com’s news pages can provide. And the policy about cautiously treating WWE as “news” means that most of the promotion wrestling has gotten in the news space has come when a well-known wrestler has died.

“I think the audience has been steady, and the big things we’ve done have hit well,” Kaufman said. “The baseline [on traffic] really hasn’t moved that much, but we’re providing content for an audience we know is there.”

But, back in April, there was one story that wasn’t covered on the WWE page that got many in the wrestling community fired up. That was when then-SmackDown Live host John Bradshaw Layfield was accused of being a serial bully over his 20 years at WWE.

The controversy was triggered when Layfield criticized colleague Mauro Ranallo for missing a broadcast. Ranallo, as it turns out, had missed the broadcast because he was suffering from bipolar disorder, which Ranallo said had been partially triggered by Rayfield’s bullying. While the news was the talk of professional wrestling media for a few weeks, ESPN’s WWE vertical didn’t report on it, and then-ESPN personality Jonathan Coachman -- who had previously worked for WWE for nine years -- downplayed the story via social media. The fact the story wasn’t being covered and was even downplayed bothered others who cover professional wrestling, and readers such as Henk Mulder, who wrote:

ESPN is reporting on WWE, which is something that I applauded. But, the stories on the ESPN.com website are pretty much storyline based and real news on WWE is ignored. A well-respected organization like ESPN should either bring all the WWE news or no news at all. The JBL-Mauro Ranallo situation being just one of [those stories], a very real story with a guy quitting his dream job because of the bully culture in WWE… This just shows money and being good with WWE is more important to ESPN than telling a very real and impactful story about WWE.

One of the few mentions of the scandal on an ESPN platform came when WWE’s Pete Rosenberg, host of ESPN’s Cheap Heat podcast, referenced it. And even that small bit of coverage generated controversy, as detailed by the Dayton Daily News’ B.J. Bethel at the time:

Pete Rosenberg hosts ESPN’s Cheap Heat podcast on its WWE page, and hosts a show on WWE’s streaming service with frequent guest John Layfield, the central figure in the Ranallo controversy. It was Rosenberg’s show where Layfield tore into Ranallo for acknowledging a Wrestling Observer award he won, among the many times he ripped Ranallo. So to this point of the scandal, ESPN’s only serious acknowledgment of the incident is by someone with no credibility and plenty of conflict of interest because he works for the company they allegedly cover.

That controversy isn’t the only sign that covering WWE isn’t a major priority for ESPN. This spring, SportsCenter stopped running the weekly WWE segment once done by Coachman. Then, in November, Coachman -- a high-profile WWE supporter -- left the company. In a tweet, he suggested ESPN ended the segment because it was too popular.

Kaufman declined comment on the bullying controversy, as much of it occurred on platforms outside of his purview. That said, the fact the WWE vertical didn’t cover the story was notable, and not in a good way.

All this would seem to augur an unpredictable future for ESPN’s WWE coverage. To me, it remains an uncomfortable fit inside a news organization, especially if the coverage isn’t helping ESPN find a new audience.

The network’s esports coverage hasn’t seen the same challenges, and Kaufman says he’s proud of the work his team has done there.

“We wanted to find the right people, the right writers and bring ESPN-style reporting to the space, and I think we’ve done that,” he said. “We’re less than two years in at a nonendemic media company, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. ... The support from the company has been outstanding.”

In November, ESPN’s esports vertical was named Coverage Website of the Year at the Annual Esports Industry Awards. On Nov. 28 and 29, ESPN and Twitch partnered for a 24-hour live streaming broadcast to support the Jimmy V Foundation. And Kaufman now has six full-time staffers working on esports.

ESPN’s success here is more notable because, despite the popularity of esports, it hasn’t been a great few months for sites that cover it: Yahoo closed its esports site in June, and Slingshot shut down in October.

The integration into ESPN’s more traditional news products isn’t a challenge for esports. While it’s certainly not a staple on SportsCenter or the network’s talk shows, when there’s a reason to cover esports, there are no ethical challenges in doing so. ESPN’s Arash Markazi did a SportsCenter report in October while covering the League of Legends World Championship in Shanghai. (Markazi’s presence in Shanghai also allowed him to shift gears when three UCLA men’s basketball players were arrested on shoplifting charges).

It’s clear to anyone who studies esports that it’s a revenue and audience opportunity for ESPN, even if it’ll always face critics who claim it’s not really a sport. But based on some of the unbundling challenges the network faces, it’s hard to argue against ESPN chasing new audiences and subject areas. This one looks like one of the most promising.