Commentary

Long live long-form

To succeed, the ambitious Grantland must emphasize great writing over great writers

Originally Published: June 17, 2011
By Kelly McBride | Poynter Review Project

Although Grantland.com has debuted to a mostly positive reception, the writers and editors on the site will have to sharpen their focus and develop some self-discipline if they want to keep the audience engaged in long(ish)-form literary journalism.

At its best, Grantland is clever and funny, for smart people who want to be intellectually challenged and entertained at the same time. At its worst, it is a bunch of hyperbole and aimless columns that lack a clear focus.

We like it, mostly because it's a stake in the ground for strong writing and thinking, two species that are failing to thrive in the modern media landscape. But the offerings are inconsistent at this point, and there's room for improvement -- specifically in how the editors and writers view the purpose of their work.

Grantland is crafted for the "too-school-for-cool" crowd, with a dream team of writers, including Bill Simmons (the site is his brainchild), Chuck Klosterman, Dave Eggers and Malcolm Gladwell.

It has a clean layout with clever footnotes running down the right rail of stories. It has a print extension -- every quarter, McSweeney's is going to reverse publish a best-of, actual dead-tree publication that you buy in bookstores.

It has swearing, too, and much has been made of the "F-bombs." Although that's far outside the regular fare at ESPN, which is owned by Disney, it's hardly shocking.

And it has that name, Grantland, which informs you that if you don't know that Grantland Rice was arguably the most brilliant sports writer in the first half of the 20th century, you're probably not cool enough to be part of the club -- but reading this site will help your cause.

If you love ESPN, especially the brainy stuff such as the "30 for 30" documentaries and ESPN The Magazine's fiction issue, you'll probably find something to love about Grantland. And if ESPN's excesses annoy you, then you've probably already found something about Grantland to hate.

But most of us neither love nor hate ESPN. We might not even really think about ESPN that much. Instead, we think about the content we need. And when it comes to sports, ESPN has a lot of content.

Now, thanks to Grantland, you can find a weekday dose of high-minded writing on sports and culture. Simmons, a star columnist for ESPN.com known as Page 2's Sports Guy, started talking about something more literary a few years ago. The idea began to take shape 18 months ago during Simmons' most recent contract negotiations.

Noting that much of today's sports coverage "is about quantity, not quality," Rob King, ESPN's senior vice president of editorial for print and digital media, sees Grantland as a differentiator: "It's a writer's site. We want to figure out how writers can explore the juxtaposition of sports and pop culture."

If the site has hard targets for audience, ESPN bosses aren't voicing them out loud. Instead, they keep talking about Grantland as the slow food movement of sports journalism, a place that will evolve into a fully mature site.

"I believe this site will find its audience," King said. "I know enough to not get excited about numbers in the first week. Let's see what it looks like in six months or even two years."

Grantland is much more like a weighty magazine than the bulk of ESPN's digital offerings. Although the writing is funnier and more accessible than that in The New Yorker, it still takes a concerted effort to finish a piece.

Most ESPN fans aren't going to spend the time and energy to sift through all of the offerings. But some will. On its opening day, King reported, the Grantland homepage generated 790,000 page views, with the site totaling more than 3.3 million.

Those numbers dropped slightly -- over the first week, the site averaged 1.8 million daily views. Roughly one-third of those come directly to the site, and the rest come from ESPN.com referrals.

Although the first week of content has been endlessly analyzed by blogs and other media, as the official reviewers of ESPN, the Poynter Review Project feels duty-bound to chime in. For help critiquing the site, we sought out Jacqui Banaszynski, a Pulitzer Prize winner who teaches writing and editing the world over, including at Poynter and the University of Missouri.

Banaszynski's initial reaction?

"Hallelujah that somebody's trying this," she said. "There's an argument to be made for creating a place for writers to stretch and get a little bit showy."

When readers approach long-form writing, they are more likely to be motivated to stay with it if they have a relationship with the story, the subject or the writer. Grantland is banking on its audience's relationship to the subjects and to the writers.

"They are relying on the transaction being between me the reader and them the writer, rather than me the reader and the story they are telling," Banaszynski said. "Everybody says that is one of the things that is changing about journalism on the Web. The storyteller becomes as important as the story."

But there's a line somewhere between spotlighting the voice of your storyteller and overindulging the writer's ego. Hopefully, Grantland will eventually land on the right side.

Free from the constraints of the day's sports results and news events -- those are covered on ESPN.com -- the Grantland writers can tackle whatever they find interesting. Simmons, also the site's editor-in-chief, is banking on that being enough to drag readers away from Facebook, YouTube and the highlight clips at ESPN.com.

"What motivates anyone to do anything on the Internet? We're all killing time, looking for things to read, looking for things to listen to or watch, or looking for things to print out," he wrote to us in an email. "The Internet is about procrastination. I have something like 450,000 downloads per podcast -- does that make any sense? I think we underestimate people's appetite to A) read quality things; B) waste time; and C) waste tons of time."

But that might be the site's biggest mistake. When people are looking to kill time, they don't want to work at it. Reading 3,000 words takes work. A certain portion of the audience will do it, but even those people have to be motivated to put in that effort. Some of what's already on Grantland provides enough of an incentive. Some does not.

Klosterman's story about a 1988 junior college basketball game in a tiny North Dakota town, where a mediocre five-man Indian team was reduced to a three-man team in the second half, is a fabulous narrative. (And it took a spectacular tag line of reporters: "Additional reporting by Jeff Kolpack, Eric Peterson, Don Engen, and Bill Klosterman Jr.")

But Chris Jones' reflection on returning to the baseball beat after falling out of love with the game is a meandering piece without a true reveal. He strings together a couple of awkward man moments -- he lost his virginity the day the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series; Jose Canseco accused Jones of looking at Canseco's man parts -- to explain his anxiety about returning to the beat writer's life.

If there is a problem with Grantland, you can see it in the juxtaposition of those pieces. They are almost exactly the same length. The North Dakota junior college basketball story could have been a book or a movie script. The returning-to-baseball column should have been, at best, a short blog note. Klosterman has a real story to tell and deserves the space to tell it; Jones just shares a bunch of personal anecdotes and deserves an editor to serve as his safety net.

Simmons' analysis going into Game 6 of the NBA Finals was prescient and compelling, even for non-basketball fans. But his welcome piece blathered on for more than 3,000 words, yet failed to articulate a vision for the site until the lower third. He could have summed up his overwhelming anxiety in a pithy tweet.

No wonder some critics revel in tearing down the new site and making fun of it.

(If we had clever sidenotes available to us, we would point out here that the Grantland writers occasionally do poke fun at themselves -- and sports. Marveling at the amount of minutes LeBron James has had to play this season, Simmons wrote, "Unlike me, who takes many nights off. In fact, after posting two columns in one day, you might not see me until 2019. Just warning you now.")

But it's not all dense prose. The Reality TV Fantasy League is a clever spin on a silly genre. Simmons, Connor Schell, Joe House, Lane Brown, David Jacoby and Jay Caspian Kang all got to draft a team of reality TV participants. Katie Gorman gets to be their commissioner, meaning she tallies up all the scores every week based on the inane behavior of the players.

Although Dan Fierman, deputy editor for Grantland, vehemently disagreed, we thought the initial offerings strongly tilted toward a male audience. There are only a handful of women on staff. And Deadspin's word analysis of the site's first 30 hours was revealing: he (155 instances); his (155); him (62); she (4); hers (0); her (8); I (420).

But not everyone has to like Grantland. ESPN gets a bazillion visitors a day. Grantland needs only a fraction of those. And if it's really successful, a substantial portion of Grantland's audience could be new to ESPN. Two primary advertising sponsors, Subway and Unilever, which owns Klondike, have backed the experiment.

Fierman is the guy who actually edits the site. ESPN recruited him away from GQ. He's optimistic that long-form magazine articles on the right topic -- in this case, sports and culture -- will thrive on the Web. He tells a GQ story to illustrate his point.

"I edited a piece that Mark Harris wrote that was 6,000 words long on death of Hollywood storytelling," Fierman said. "It was a densely argued intellectual piece. And it murdered everything else on the site. This is GQ.com, where half-naked ladies drive the traffic. And it was the best-read thing for over a week."

Will Grantland survive? Meaning, will it make enough money to keep paying all that high-priced talent while corporate gives it a long enough leash to let the content be truly different? Those involved -- including King, Fierman and John Walsh, ESPN's executive vice president and executive editor -- all said the early revenue exceeded expectations.

For the sake of ambitious journalism, we hope the money keeps flowing. If ESPN can make good long-form writing and storytelling profitable on the Internet, we all benefit.

ESPN is one of the few media companies thriving in this ever-changing ecosystem, and we're rooting for the company to set aside self-indulgence in the interest of the audience and make this new project a solid financial and literary triumph. That means emphasizing great writing over great writers and finding a way to connect the audience directly to the story, not just the storyteller.