ESPN's decision to suspend Bill Simmons, one of its most prominent employees, for his derogatory comments about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell -- he called him a "liar" -- might seem like a sports story. But, really it's a journalism story -- a telling example of not only how the balance of power is shifting between big, faceless corporate media organizations and the increasingly high-profile individual brands they employ but also of how the definition of what constitutes reporting and journalism is undergoing a huge change.
Simmons is a prime example of the journalist-as-brand, a relatively new construct in the media world. (Worth noting before I go any further: I have met Simmons in person once and we share a mutual friend. I have regularly expressed -- in this space and on Twitter -- my admiration for his work and how he does it.) Known for the early part of his career as the "Sports Guy", he was hired by ESPN and quickly became a name brand for them thanks to his willingness to offer "regular guy" takes on sports and the people who cover it. (More on that later.)
Simmons grew so big that ESPN was willing to fund an entirely separate site -- Grantland -- as a way to make him happy and keep him tied to their larger brand. His quasi-departure from the company that had "made" him presaged other moves like it. Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg broke from the Wall Street Journal to start Re/code, a tech site. David Pogue, a popular tech columnist at the New York Times, left to start a larger brand of his own under the Yahoo umbrella. Ezra Klein, a star policy writer here at WaPo, left to run a broader site for Vox Media. And Nate Silver, who made his name as an election modeler for the Times, jumped to ESPN -- drawn by the model Simmons had created with Grantland.
All of those moves indicate just how much more power individual content creators have than they did even a decade ago. And, naturally, they set off something of a backlash as major media companies argued that, ultimately, no one was -- or could be -- bigger than the main brand. As Cindy Boren writes in Early Lead, ESPN's suspension of Simmons was aimed, primarily, at sending the message that "it's the boss."
And, that's true. ESPN is bigger than Simmons in sheer volume. And it's not close. And yet, when it comes to loyalty of viewership/readership and the depth of engagement -- two keys to any form of journalism in this digital pay-as-you-go world -- it's a much more interesting conversation. Take Twitter. ESPN has 11.4 million followers. Simmons has 2.91 million. But, the Simmons followers are drawn to him -- and his brand of journalism -- specifically. They want to know what he thinks about, well, everything. That's a very different -- and, I would argue, more valuable -- following than the larger ESPN horde that is mostly interested in score and injury updates.
Then there is the matter of Simmons' "opinions" as being somehow inconsistent with ESPN's journalism. Here's the relevant lines from the statement: “Every employee must be accountable to ESPN and those engaged in our editorial operations must also operate within ESPN’s journalistic standards....Bill Simmons did not meet those obligations in a recent podcast, and as a result we have suspended him for three weeks.”
Then there was this tweet from John Harwood of the New York Times and CNBC regarding the outrage of the online world directed at ESPN's decision:
on Simmons/Goodell/ESPN, hold on everybody - calling somebody a liar with a bunch of curse words may be entertaining but isn't journalism
— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) September 25, 2014
All of this speaks to the changing definition of what constitutes a journalist nowadays. Is Simmons the sort of traditional reporter who calls sources on the phone and then writes straight news stories about what they tell him? No. Not even close. Is he someone who, particularly when it comes to basketball but also in relation to other sports, talks to people in front offices and positions of power? Yes. So, he is not someone simply sitting at a bar tossing out uninformed opinions. His life is spent in a constant running conversation about sports and culture with practitioners of both -- and his readers. (That latter conversation is what makes Simmons so powerful, by the way.) That, too, is a form of journalism. (I have spent a lot of time ruminating on the subject of what a "real" reporter means. I spent much of my 20s as a very traditional political reporter but have morphed in the last decade into an analyst who also reports.)
As for Simmons' "outspokenness", that is, of course, part of who he is, which of course is the reason ESPN usually likes him so much. Make no mistake: There are a million and one "traditional" reporters who would kill for the chance to work at ESPN. The reason Simmons has emerged from that pack is because the form of journalism he practices is simply different. The same could -- and should -- be said for the appeal of Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon -- both of whom regularly offer pointed opinions on another one of ESPN most valued franchises: "Pardon the Interruption".
ESPN is one of the most successful media companies in the world. But, their decision on Simmons suggests they may not be fully cognizant of the brave new journalism world in which all exist.