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The ESPN layoffs and a new era of journalism

Ben Gartland

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Sports social media was a sad place on Wednesday as the names of ESPN reporters who had been laid off in a massive staff cut slowly trickled out.

Ed Werner

Jim Bowden

Dana O’Neil

Andy Katz

Doug McIntyre

The list goes on for about 100 more names of online, on-air and team reporters, many with a decade or more working for ESPN. It was very disheartening to see many of the names I’ve looked to for sports coverage for years suddenly be without a job.

And yet, Stephen A. Smith and his $3.5 million a year salary is still there. Skip Bayless, Jason Whitlock and Colin Cowherd are raking it in at their talking-head positions at Fox Sports. People tune in to watch the yelling and the controversy, not necessarily good reporting. I don’t blame ESPN for following the analytics and going with what is going to sustain their business.

To be honest I have not sat down and watched a non-game on ESPN in a very long time just because I do not like discussion shows, particularly the ones that ESPN provides. However, I’m not necessarily the type of fan that ESPN is trying to attract with their current model.

The people who will rabidly follow team pages, statistics, and read every single recap are in the minority, plus there are other outlets for that. Talking-head shows are perfect background television for bars, waiting rooms and lobbies, and they bring in ratings and Twitter-sized hot takes that engage the audience.

The middle is disappearing in terms of journalism overall. With ESPN they have to keep their big-name personalities who bring in the ratings by debating the controversial topics and following every move that LeBron James makes. They also have to keep the no-name writers and content aggregators to help staff the online pages to put up recaps, stats and maintain team pages. This new model that ESPN has to use leaves very little room for the established beat writers to survive.

It’s because the model has changed. SportsCenter is now sadly irrelevant because people don’t need to sit for half an hour to watch a highlights show when all the highlights are readily available within seconds on social media. There’s no need to pay for insider coverage when SB Nation, Bleacher Report and Fansided will provide similar, albeit oftentimes lower quality, content for free.

As I sit here about to graduate I don’t know what the answer is for young people looking to go into sports journalism. Good, solid reporting and analysis takes time and when sports news moves so fast and frequent, it’s hard to balance timeliness and quality. The jobs are disappearing in all forms of media, including print, television, and radio. Cord cutters are making it hard for a cable television station to be sustainable. ESPN is just trying to survive.

I want to wax nostalgic about ESPN of yesteryear but it’s pointless. I can sit here and be elitist about sports coverage and stick my nose up at what ESPN has become but fandom comes in all sorts of different ways. Some people do care about a discussion on Tony Romo, even when it comes on MLB Opening Day and the day after the NCAA men’s basketball championship.  As long as people are still interested in sports, that’s a good thing since I get to share my love for sports with more and more people.

I’m going to continue not watching ESPN because it does not appeal to my form of fandom. I’ll read the good reporting and analysis online and hope the reporters that were laid off land on their feet. Sports will still be there and how they are covered will continue to change. Where that leads I have no idea. I can only hope that people who have passions for sports and talents for reporting still have avenues to do what they do best. Otherwise, I’ll see you in the stands. 

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The ESPN layoffs and a new era of journalism