ESPN shut down Grantland, its boutique sports and pop culture site, on Friday. That's not terribly surprising, given that Grantland founder Bill Simmons left the company acrimoniously in recent months and recruited many of his top staffers to join him at HBO.
But it is disappointing. Why? Because Grantland represented an ambitious leap into the future of journalism on at least two fronts.
The first was that Grantland, at least as imagined by Simmons, focused zero time on the "what" of journalism. The site was unconcerned with writing about the score of the Golden State Warriors-Portland Trailblazers game, for example. It left all of that to ESPN and the roughly billion other people and sites trying to break news one millisecond before everyone else.
Instead, Simmons focused Grantland on the "so what" and the "now what" of sports, movies, TV and pop culture more broadly. Instead of writing about the score of the Warriors-Trailblazers game, Zach Lowe, Grantland's main NBA writer, would produce a detailed breakdown of why Steph Curry's movement without the ball was so valuable to his team. It would have reporting, analysis and personality in it. It told you why the game mattered. It told you what might come next — and why. Ditto Andy Greenwald on TV. Ditto Chris Ryan on, well, anything.
(Sidebar: I don't get credit for the idea of journalism as three buckets of "what," "so what" and "now what." That's Erik Rydholm, executive producer of "Pardon the Interruption" and a genius.)
The media complex, such as it is, is still VERY much focused on the "what." And, the "what" matters — a lot. Without it, you can't do the "so what" and the "now what." Reporting like Carol Leonnig's Pulitzer Prize-winning reports on the problems at the Secret Service is a fundamental building block of journalism. Without it, everything else collapses.
What I would argue is that the balance between the time (and money) spent on the "what" versus the "so what" and "now what" is wrongly calibrated. Consumers of information in this digital age can get the "what" in lots of different places. (There are exceptions, of course. Carol's unique reporting on the Secret Service is one.) How you distinguish yourself, as an individual journalist or as an organization, is to spend more time and more resources on people who readers trust to tell them why something matters and what it means for the future.
Yes, this is self-serving. In the past few years, I have pushed hard to move The Fix into the "so what" and "now what" space. But I also think that in an arena as crowded as politics (or sports or pop culture), developing unique voices who can tell you why events matter is coin-of-the-realm stuff. That was Grantland's organizing principle.
The second innovation Grantland made in journalism was that it hired smart, digital-minded people and let them roam across subject areas. So Chris Ryan could — and would — talk smartly with Simmons about the NBA and write smartly about "Game of Thrones." Yes, Grantland had beats or, maybe more accurately, areas of concentration, for its reporters, but it also started with a fundamentally radical thought: Interesting people are interesting across a wide variety of topics.
Chuck Klosterman, a regular contributor to Grantland, is a perfect example of this notion. Chuck can talk smartly about college football, comic books, television and a thousand other things. I'm not sure he's an "expert" on any one thing but he is interesting and analytical as hell on tons of stuff. Limiting Chuck or Chris Ryan to a single subject would be a waste of their talents — and a misread of how people consume information now.
I — and I think lots of other people — tend to look for thinkers, reporters and tweeters whose sensibility is original. Who they work for is less important to me than how they go about doing their jobs and what they produce. I love Justin Bank when he tweets about the future of digital journalism but I also love it when he tweets about pro wrestling. In fact, I love that he tweets about journalism and pro wrestling. Justin works for the New York Times. But if he worked for The Washington Post, which he once did, or at Vice or Mic or out of his basement on some startup, I wouldn't care. I like him. I like his sensibility. I want to read what he tweets on whatever subject.
But wait, you say! If Grantland was so innovative, why didn't it get more readers?
And you'd be right, to a certain extent. ESPN draws hundreds of millions of pageviews a month; Grantland was never anywhere close to that number.
I'd say three things in response.
1. Grantland — and sites like it — will never be the pageview behemoths that "what"-focused sites like ESPN will be. Simply listing the NFL scores every Sunday is a traffic hog for ESPN.
2. Tastes in content are evolving but are not evolved. Grantland may have been slightly — or more than slightly — ahead of its time.
3. Not everything Grantland did made sense. It started off as a long-form journalism site, which didn't work. So they changed it. Grantland was only in existence for five years. That's nothing in the life of a media organization. What it could have been is something we won't know.
The decision by ESPN to shutter Grantland might make business sense; ESPN executives suggested that the company wanted to get out of the pop culture space. That's fine.
But from a journalistic standpoint, Grantland's demise is a major loss. On the bright side, the sort of DNA that drove Grantland appears to be spreading widely and rapidly across journalism, with all sorts of startups and even established media entities moving to rebalance their "what," "so what" and "now what" calibrations.
I'll miss Grantland. But I'll remember it fondly as a site that got where journalism is headed and tried to help blaze the trail.