At any rate, that seems to be the prevailing concern, with nearly all of the staff at Sports on Earth, the two-year-old sports journalism site, getting let go last week. (Full disclosure: me included.) It's been a rough week, seeing so many of my friends, people I respect both personally and professionally, lose a significant chunk (or all) of their income, and a place to write to boot.
I've spent a fair amount of time taking stock of what this means for the landscape, though, and not just because I have a professional need to figure out precisely where I'll be working from now on. (Spoiler alert: here, for example!)
Let's get one thing established up top: Sports on Earth, which was run by Larry Burke, Steve Madden,* and Emma Span, didn't try to force people to read what they didn't want to read. We spent plenty of time trying to determine not only which stories would be well written and expertly reported, but which of those stories would be of interest to readers. The staff of Sports on Earth wasn't sitting around smoking pipes and looking at the world through a collective monocle. We wanted to tell great stories. And we wanted people to read them.
What does good longform storytelling need? To my mind, the following:
1. A writer or writers with the time and ability to tell the story.
2. Thus, also, the kind of budget that allows a writer to spend enough time on that story.
3.In a perfect world, that big-budgeted outlet has a big enough profile that the people a writer needs to speak to for that story will do so.
4. Editors capable of both recognizing quality and shepherding writers through the process of writing such a piece, and knowing when to encourage experimentation in ideas and forms.
What allowed Sports on Earth to publish work from writers like Patrick Hruby, Jonathan Bernhardt, Jessica Luther, Tomas Rios, Aaron Gordon, Wendy Thurm, Chuck Culpepper, Gwen Knapp and so, so many others was a healthy combination of these four attributes. Burke and Span seemed to find every writer I'd enjoyed somewhere else and give that writer new life, and a proper platform, writing for SoE. I also know doors opened to me when I called as a contributor for SoE looking for an interview, as opposed to some other outlets I'd represented.
And when the story was in Pittsburgh, or St. Louis, or Baltimore, so was I. The budget allowed for such things.
Ah, about that budget. That link I posted up top is to a story, by Eric Goldschein of Sportsgrid.com, that asserted the following:
As most people who read sports articles on the internet will tell you, Sports on Earth wasn't the site for hot takes for the sake of hot takes. It wasn't about publishing pictures of athlete dicks, or athlete boobs, or athlete pursed lips. It wasn't like most sports blogs out there—it was a bastion of smart, well-thought-out analysis and profiles. That probably played a role in its downfall... Where were the tits? Where were the asses? Where was the scandal? Because our biggest hits are invariably posts that involve at least one, and hopefully all three, of those themes.
Response to this article itself seemed to fall in two categories: Either Eric was a monster for asserting what he did, or Eric was a brave truth-teller pointing out an essential fact about Sports on Earth's demise and the larger sports media world.
Let's take a moral component out of it for a moment, though, and address the underlying idea, which is pretty silly.
No one is arguing that pictures or videos designed to objectify women don't do well on the internet. Absolutely, if the idea is to go get clicks, one way to do so in 2014 is by showing scantily-clad women on any pretext you can drum up, or no pretext at all. And many sports sites do just that.
Interestingly, though hardcore pornography seems to do rather well on the internet, generally media sites don't rely on it. The idea of some natural connection between sportswriting and upskirt pictures is a fiction. And there are other ways to drive web traffic, ways that don't objectify women, that other media sites have come to rely on. An entire industry has sprouted up around the various ways BuzzFeed and other sites do this, with varying levels of success. An entire second industry has sprouted up around just to parody these sorts of places.
Realistically, though, everybody is still trying to experiment and adjust to being at the mercy of a new metric. Suddenly, how a publication is judged from the money side can be measured not by sales of an issue or overall subscriber base, but rather on the granular level: This story drew that many pageviews and had an engagement time of such-and-such. Every published piece now carries with it a very specific monetary value, and the wall between advertising and editorial is a little harder to maintain.
Quality work, thanks to the democratization of the internet, is more accessible, and plentiful, than ever before.
What is heartening, and has me entirely unconvinced that good storytelling is on the decline, is how many outlets are trying to do more of it. Look at SBNation's longform section. Look at what Medium is trying. I mean, look at BuzzFeed, which gets so much criticism. As far as I'm concerned, the best political reporter on the planet is Ruby Cramer, who spends days or sometimes weeks embedded with the people she writes about. Those listicles you make fun of pay her salary, and those of many of her colleagues who do similarly great work, like Adrian Carrasquillo and Evan McMorris-Santoro. Look at the expansion of Talking Points Memo in recent years.
Nor is this limited to politics. Grantland, by any measure, has been a critical and popular success. My goodness, Howler Magazine, a longform quarterly print publication about soccer—seriously, reread that sentence—is thriving, as is The Blizzard, another longform quarterly print publication about soccer. Neither one has put Paulina Gretzky on the cover yet.
Even the oldest sort of publication is flourishing by some measures. The list of millionaires buying newspapers, from Jeff Bezos (Washington Post) to the late Lewis Katz and Gerry Lenfest (Philadelphia Inquirer) keeps growing. The cynical view is that these are dilettantes looking for a platform, but too many smart people are spending too much money on these experiments for it to be simple vanity.
Quality work, thanks to the democratization of the internet, is more accessible, and plentiful, than ever before. The idea that monetizing it is still a work in progress only seems problematic if you subscribe to the idea that the print era was a golden age of excellent journalism, like pretending 1950s TV was all Sid Caesar and no Mr. Ed. That kind of great television was supposed to be dead, Playhouse 90 and Twilight Zone gone forever. And yet, here we are in 2014, with Mad Men and Breaking Bad and reruns of Seinfeld and The Simpsons essentially around the clock.
Magazines and newspapers have been failing for all sorts of reasons since there have been newspapers and magazines. And most outlets, whether they exist on dead trees or server farms, churn out a lot of material that is instantly forgotten, high traffic numbers or no. Excellence stands out because it's exceptional. Rare and precious metals are precious because they're rare.
I will miss working with my colleagues at Sports on Earth, whose work always made me feel like I needed to push myself harder to try and keep up. But I believe, too, that they will find new outlets for their work, and that the marketplace will figure out a way to pay for good work, just as Sports Illustrated was wise enough to snap up Emma Span. But let's not pretend SoE was somehow the only site on the internet on which quality matters. I have entirely too many friends at numerous other outlets, both print and online, doing great work: David Roth still exists at SB Nation and the Classical. Erik Malinowski still exists at FOX Sports. Lee Jenkins still exists at Sports Illustrated.
Trying to put money and good storytelling together is a tricky problem, one that editors, writers, and publications have been trying to crack for decades—but when they solve it, even briefly, the reward is work that lives on for years and is worthy of saving and rereading. People stay on sites that publish great pieces for a long time, they come back to those sites, they remember them long after they've disappeared into the ether where mastheads go when they die. Who says that about a sideboob slideshow?
*Update 8/13: Post has been edited to include Steve Madden, a cofounder of Sports on Earth, on the list of people primarily responsible for the site.
Howard Megdal is Writer-at-Large for Capital New York, working on a book about the St. Louis Cardinals, and can be found on Twitter.