When I was in high school, I mismanaged my time by spending free periods in the computer lab reading Bill Simmons articles on ESPN.com. The articles were long enough, engaging enough, funny enough, and clever enough that they didn’t feel like critical pieces of writing. They had an informal voice that belonged to a fan who wrote about something he loved and managed to catch enough attention that people were allowing him to do it as a profession. His unapologetic homerism and passion for both sport and pop culture leapt off the page, grabbed you, and pulled you down a rabbit hole of references and information that kept you reading, kept you laughing, and kept you caring about sports.
That same spirit of passion, irreverence, freedom, and creativity was the foundation on which Grantland.com was built. The pioneering website that opened its doors in 2011 had four goals, which Simmons laid out in his first post as Editor in Chief.
We had four goals for this site. The first was to find writers we liked and let them do their thing. The second was to find sponsors we liked and integrate them within the site — so readers didn’t have to pay for content, and also, so we didn’t have to gravitate toward quantity over quality just to chase page views. The third was to take advantage of a little extra creative leeway for the right reasons and not the wrong ones. And the fourth was to hire the right blend of people — mostly young, mostly up-and-comers, all good people with good ideas who aren’t afraid to share them.
Just shy of four and a half years after Simmons wrote those words, Grantland has been shut down by ESPN. Twitter has exploded with stories from Mark Titus, Shane Ryan, and Robert Mays who all shared their stories of how Simmons saw something he liked and gave them the “creative leeway” to “do their thing.” Even in dark times, like with the Dr. V debacle, Simmons stood by his writers and defended them to the bitter end. In the spring, Grantland’s tide began to turn when Simmons was informed he would not be brought back to ESPN/Grantland. This fall, several departures from the site – some with Simmons to HBO, others to outlets otherwise – signaled that perhaps the end was nigh. Today, that end came and with it came a haymaker to the jaw of good writing.
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The best thing that happened to me in college – besides meeting my wonderful girlfriend – was that I found a true passion for writing. We are all fortunate enough to be living in a world where you can be published on the internet for all to see after 20 minutes of setting up a WordPress or Blogspot site where you can write for all of the world or just yourself.
Writing is cathartic. Writing allows one to think deeply and explore how a particular topic sits inside one’s head. At it’s best, writing paints a picture that you cannot see with your eyes or hear with your ears. Writing is both the most important skill we will ever learn and the most under-utilized skill we have at our disposal. Without writing, the world becomes a detached and darker place.
It is for all of those reasons that ESPN’s shuttering of Grantland is so troubling. Grantland was a place where creativity met critical thought on the topics of music, movies, tv, art, and sports. Its pieces were not limited by word counts or column inches, but were instead only confined to the space needed for the author to tell their story and make their point. Some of the best sports writers of our day plied their trade for Simmons and will now, instead, be deployed throughout the ESPN empire in whatever way the Disney giant deigns necessary. Zach Lowe, Michael L. Goodman, Bill Barnwell, Robert Mays, Holly Anderson, Jonah Keri, Mark Titus. They deserve better than the hand they have been dealt, but such is the reality of modern journalism.
I urge those of you who have made it this point in the article to visit the SBNation (for whom I occasionally write), Bleacher Report , and The Sporting News home pages and count the number of lists, “viral content” posts, video posts, and social-media driven stories that inhabit their respective landing pages. Then, see how far you have to dive to find a well-reported story about a person or a team that races past the 500-word mark and dares you to think deeply. This is not a condemnation of those sites – I admire most of their work and many of the people who work for them – but it is a condemnation of the state of modern journalism where “clickable content” and “viral” stories rule the roost. “Check out this crazy cheerleader fail!” takes precedent on the editorial checklist ahead of the analytical piece about the Clippers’ offense or the profile of Jabari Parker’s injury-riddled rookie year.
To borrow a concept from HBO’s Entourage; for every three stories, writers need to do one article for themselves and two for the bottom line. Search-friendly headlines and keyword-loaded first paragraphs bring in the clicks that fuel an online advertising revenue stream that pales in comparison to its print predecessor. Good writing is expensive and expensive never lasts.
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When I set out to be a sports writer, I wanted to be just like Bill Simmons. I wanted my stories to feel personal and speak directly to the reader in a way that conveyed my passion for the subject and invited them to jump into it along side me. I did the normal journalism thing – the one-note recaps, “three things we learned” stories, viral content, and aggregation – but saw all of it as a way of getting to an end that let me wax poetic about my teams and my sport in the way I saw fit. This is not the world I graduated into, so I left.
There is more to the story about why sports writing faded into a hobby before settling into its current state as a vestigial organ on my current professional skill set. But what I have learned in my two-plus years away from it is that you cannot get away from the feeling good writing brings you. Grantland allowed me to open up my web browser every day of the week and learn something from someone who understands the power of great writing. Another website will likely crop up and attempt to fill its shoes, but if Grantland was cut off after four years how long can its successor possibly last?
“Enjoy the site. We worked hard on it. We believe in it. And that’s all I know.” ~ Bill Simmons