To some, the change in title of this position from ombudsman to public editor was nothing more than cosmetic. To others, it was a sign that holding ESPN journalistically accountable was no longer a priority.
In truth, the primary reason for the title change was to reflect the fact that the relationship between ESPN and its consumers has been profoundly changed by technology. As I wrote in my initial column, the explosion of devices and platforms has shifted the balance of marketplace power toward the consumer.
Because of that shift, I wanted to make sure readers were active participants in the discussion around ESPN, its journalism and its future -- hence the creation of an ESPN public editor Twitter feed, Facebook page and new email address. You deserve more than insight into how ESPN produces journalism -- though the role of internal critic still rightfully stands. If you doubt that, stay tuned for upcoming pieces on Grantland and Deflategate.
Last month, many were upset by Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds dropping off ESPN’s Heisman Watch poll page despite leading the voting. The resulting piece was written only because of the hundreds of tweets, posts and emails I received about it. Although not everyone was satisfied with that explanation, many readers wrote to express appreciation at being heard. In fact, ESPN’s consumers have a lot of good questions that deserve a response. So, each month, I will address a handful of those questions. Each of the questions below has been posed in various forms by multiple readers.
How does ESPN choose which ideas to turn into 30 for 30 films?
Generally, there are three ways a 30 for 30 film gets commissioned, according to Connor Schell, senior vice president and executive producer for ESPN Films and original content. “Occasionally, something comes over the transom, a filmmaker has a great idea and we say ‘That’s amazing, go do that,’” he said. An example of this approach was “The Two Escobars,” when Jeff Zimbalist pitched a story Schell didn’t know much about coming in but was quickly sold on. And if you’ve seen the finished product, you’ll see why. It’s not just one of the finest 30 for 30 films but stands among the best documentary films of any kind.
The second path to air comes when ESPN has an idea for a story and seeks out a filmmaker with whom to collaborate. An example of this was “June 17, 1994.” ESPN had already conceived the idea of a film about the now-iconic O.J. Simpson slow-speed chase, but it was via a partnership with filmmaker Brett Morgen that it expanded into a chronological look at a surprisingly long list of other notable sports events of that day.
The third path is the most organic -- and most common. “We’ll identify a documentarian or filmmaker with an interesting voice or a unique style, and talk about stories you’d love to tell and look for places where the interest intersects,” Schell said. “In the development process, a dialogue starts, and we get to a place where we say, ‘Damn, this will be really good. We should go make this.’ … We have tons and tons of topics, but it’s when we get together with a filmmaker that makes it work.” One of the other keys to the success of 30 for 30 is range. Says Schell: “We’ve always built this around telling a slate of stories and trying to balance it to make sure we’re diverse in style and subjects, so we’re not always doing ’90s basketball, for example.”
The range of 30 for 30 is indeed impressive. If you have not yet seen any of the films, here are a few I’d highly recommend as starters: the previously mentioned “The Two Escobars,” about the lives and deaths of two Colombians, drug lord Pablo Escobar and national soccer star Andres Escobar; “The Best That Never Was,” Jonathan Hock’s story about onetime college football phenom Marcus Dupree; “The U,” Billy Corben’s account of the rise and (temporary) fall of the University of Miami football team; and “Catching Hell,” Alex Gibney’s film on Cubs fan Steve Bartman, and on being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
How does ESPN decide which anchors appear on certain shows and how they are paired with each other?
According to Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president of SportsCenter and news, the anchor pairings are largely driven by air time. “We look at when the show is and what the available audience needs,” King said. “The 11 p.m. show has always been about sports fandom. The games have just ended, there are a lot of balls in the air. We need seasoned, nimble, clever folks who can roll with the punches ... . It’s a showcase for the most enthusiastic people wrapped in a fan’s body."
At midnight ET, ESPN's Scott Van Pelt goes solo in a show that debuted in September. “At midnight, we think folks up at that time are making a decision about who they want to hang out with," King said. "Whether it’s Trevor Noah, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel or [Stephen] Colbert. And we realized all of those shows had changed hosts recently. So we really approached it as ‘Who do fans want to have a relationship with?’ Scott really has the ability to connect with the audience at that time.”
And that, too, is no accident. “The overnight show needs hosts willing to take risks and have a little fun," King said. "You need a good sense of partnership between the folks. Neil and Stan have created that environment, with Kenny [Mayne] adding it when he fills in."
The morning SportsCenter -- hosted most frequently by Hannah Storm, Kevin Negandhi and Jaymee Sire -- requires something different. Says King: “In the morning, you need folks who are never going to have a bad day. Mornings are about setting the table and making sure people leave with something they can carry through the day.”
As the day rolls on, the SportsCenter approach shifts away from news and more to analysis. “By [6 p.m.], the audience knows everything that’s happened, but they don’t necessarily know the how or why," King said. "So it’s about setting an open table to find out what we can from our smartest folks.”
The weekend shows -- which King said are among SportsCenter's highest rated -- require yet another approach, as much of the production is setting up two days' worth of events for idle fans. “Matt Barrie and Sara Walsh are a great pairing," King said. "They’re fun and adventurous and really are a good team.”
Does ESPN have a policy on its reporters blocking people on Twitter?
“We don’t have a specific policy regarding blocking on Twitter or the equivalent on other social sites,” said Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editorial director of ESPN digital and print media. “However, our social networking guidelines remind talent that at all times, they are representing ESPN, and at all times, they should ‘exercise discretion, thoughtfulness and respect for colleagues, business associates and fans.’"
It’s hard to argue ESPN should have a rule that prohibits any employee from blocking any Twitter or Facebook follower. Check out the mentions of almost any ESPN personality and you'll see comments that are nothing short of vile. Telling ESPN employees they cannot block those trolls makes no sense. That said, respectful disagreement should not be a reason to block anyone. But what constitutes the line between respectful disagreement and the unacceptable? I’m not sure even Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity -- “I know it when I see it” -- would work here. So, in my view, letting employees use their best judgment probably makes the most sense.
Why does ESPN.com require a Facebook account to comment?
“We switched to Facebook comments three years ago,” Stiegman said. “in part because of the overlap of users who already had Facebook accounts, in part to increase visibility of ESPN content beyond our own digital walls and, most important, to emphasize quality over quantity in comments.” “There is value in a healthy disruption and lively discussion, and we want the conversation section of our stories to be a marketplace of ideas -- candid, active engagement and thorough debate. But we want to foster that discussion without anonymity,” he said.
His last point warrants consideration. The role of message boards on news sites has been decreasing for many years, partially because of the tone and partially because much of the commentary around news has relocated to social media. ESPN’s move to Facebook reflects that, as does its desire to remove anonymity.
“Users should agree or disagree with our content and each other, but do so in a way that is as productive and civil as possible.” Stiegman said. “While there are certainly exceptions, we have consistently found that people tend to be more respectful when they attach their own names to their comments.”
I have ESPN Insider, but I have no interest in ESPN The Magazine. I would like to be able to subscribe only to Insider without it being a bundled deal. Can I do that?
“We sell ESPN Insider and ESPN Magazine as one package,” said Damon Phillips, who recently started as ESPN’s vice president of direct-to-consumer services. “We believe it provides the best value for fans. That said, we’re taking a fresh look at ESPN Insider… One of my main focuses is enhancing ESPN Insider.”
Why can someone only cancel ESPN Insider by phone?
“We like to talk to fans to explain all of the benefits of ESPN Insider,” Phillips said. “We want to reinforce the value and keep them as subscribers. It’s better to do this over the phone instead of online. However, we respect their decision if they do decide to cancel.” If readers have specific questions on either of the questions relating to ESPN Insider, please email them to me, and I can pass them on to Phillips.