Money outweighs quality journalism.
ESPN reiterated this message when the worldwide leader in sports was forced to lay off hundreds of employees last Wednesday, some of which had been there nearly 20 years.
It is not the actual layoffs that cause concern for aspiring sports journalists. After all, ESPN is a business whose intentions are making money, and layoffs are a necessary component of that. It is the reasons that ESPN was forced into this situation that make young journalists everywhere question their future.
As sports media adapts to the presence of digital involvement, outlets are forced to decide what makes them the most money. In ESPN’s case, that decision was simple: transition away from highlight-based shows and storytelling pieces and focus more on debate shows that feature personalities who can create arguments out of thin air. Outlets everywhere are adopting their own versions of these shows, taking after ESPN’s “First Take.” Their premise revolves around media personalities arguing about outlandish topics in hopes of creating a heated discussion. People who can yell coherent thoughts in an interesting manner are the journalists being valued the most in sports media.
Stephen A. Smith of ESPN is just one example of this phenomenon. The opinionated co-host of “First Take” makes more than $3 million per year in an industry where most reporters struggle to make a fraction of that. Skip Bayless, Smith’s former partner and current co-host of Fox Sports’ “Undisputed,” is another major player in sports talk shows. He makes more than $5 million per year.
The reason ESPN and Fox Sports can pay these personalities so much is because they satisfy what modern-day consumers want. That is a scary realization for incoming journalists.
Consumers would rather listen to two people argue over unimportant tidbits in the sports world than read pieces that tell stories worthy of being told. They want the drama, and personalities like Smith and Bayless provide plenty of it. They make claims knowing they will be heavily contested with the hopes of bringing attention to themselves and their respective employers. And it works.
It is vital to realize that Smith is very good at what he does. He, along with the many other sports talk show hosts, should not be criticized for recognizing their talents and turning them into a profession. But what they do is far from journalism. The shouting back and forth captivates the audience regardless of the topic being discussed, and it devalues integrity within the profession.
This change in consumer wants has created fluctuation in many outlets. One of the leading causes of the layoffs at ESPN was the increasing trend of people dropping cable services. ESPN’s viewership, subscribers and ratings have plummeted in the past year and the loss of cable viewers is one of the many reasons why. Because of this, longtime on-air personalities at ESPN suffered.
But for many journalists, the scariest part of the layoffs comes from those who make their living as reporters. Jayson Stark, a 17-year veteran at ESPN and one of the pioneers in turning the complicated world of baseball analytics into something fans can relate to, is gone. Jane McManus, a reporter who has gracefully tackled race and domestic violence issues in sports, was let go. The NBA duo of Marc Stein and Chad Ford saw their time come to an end in the middle of the NBA playoffs. Even Ed Werder, one of the most respected names in the business and longtime NFL reporter, got the call on the eve of the NFL Draft, signaling the end of his time with the company. These names serve as a harsh reminder that nobody is safe in the world of sports reporting.
As I previously said, the decision ESPN made to cut these reporters was based in business. For that, ESPN cannot be faulted. As a money-making company, this was a necessary approach to ensure the best for their company. But in doing so, they sent a clear message to journalists nationwide.
The industry has officially shifted its focus from hard-hitting, significant journalism driven by reporters who value integrity to those whose only aim is sparking debate.
That is where the money is, and there is little we can do about it.
Collegian sports editor Colin Barnard can be reached by email at email@example.com or Twitter @ColinBarnard_.