When Bob Ley joined ESPN just three days after the network first went on the air, no one had heady designs on accountability journalism, challenging the sports world’s power brokers or reporting on human rights abuses. The goal then was simple: scores and highlights.
“We just wanted to make sure the paychecks cleared and that they would finish installing the plumbing,” Ley said last week.
Thirty-eight years later, ESPN has evolved into a news-gathering leviathan of such consequence that the announcement two weeks ago of 100 or so layoffs made national headlines. The network still employs some 900 people who chase, report and analyze news and information about the games Americans love to play and watch, but the decision to part ways with one-tenth of its news-gathering operation in the wake of cable subscription losses prompted many to question the channel’s priorities and the future of the journalism at ESPN.
The website AwfulAnnouncing.com, which covers sports media, wrote that “ESPN sent a loud statement that quality reporting isn’t its top priority.” Deadspin wrote that the company faces “a fundamental shift in programming” and that personality will be valued more. Journalist Jeff Pearlman called it “a shedding of quality” and “an assault on the profession.”
“Our zest for a well-reported story has been overtaken by our zest for the mindless carnival barkings of hacks like Stephen A. [Smith] and Skip Bayless,” Pearlman said on his site.
ESPN executives say its journalistic ambitions have not changed. They point to some initiatives they believe will bolster ESPN’s commitment to investigative reporting and storytelling. Starting May 14, the news magazine program “E:60,” hosted by Jeremy Schaap, will become a weekly staple, replacing “The Sports Reporters” on Sunday mornings. It will share a new set with “Outside the Lines,” which will relaunch the next day with a new look and feel.
“We have a unique opportunity here because our strength of resources, depth of reporters and diversity of voices allows us to tell a broad range of stories that no one else can,” said Craig Bengtson, ESPN’s vice president and director of news. “And if we aren’t doing it, I’m not sure it’s getting done. It’s certainly not getting done at the level of quality and quantity that we can provide.”
While the cuts surely will have a big impact on the company’s day-to-day coverage of colleges, the NBA, baseball and the NHL, ESPN also parted with journalists who were eager to delve into complicated and often controversial issues. Tom Farrey was a longtime “OTL” reporter, and many of his reports focused on safety in youth sports. Steve Delsohn delved into corruption in college athletics. Shaun Assael was an original staffer at ESPN the Magazine and a longtime member of ESPN’s investigative team whose work on doping was especially impactful. And Jane McManus was a versatile reporter whose work appeared across nearly every ESPN platform.
Veteran journalist Robert Lipsyte served as ESPN ombudsman in 2013 and 2014 and said while it’s too early to gauge the exact impact the recent cuts might have on the company’s journalism, many of the people who were laid off were “transactional” journalists, those who cover the granular machinations of teams and leagues but not necessarily the ones who regularly tackle complex issues that transcend sports.
“What would be a real tip-off is if they start getting rid of some of their high-priced talent,” Lipsyte said. “Believe me, there’s some very serious journalists at that place.”
Largely spared during the recent cuts were some of ESPN’s most ambitious news-gathering units: the magazine, the political vertical FiveThirtyEight.com and the Undefeated, a site focused on the cross-section of sports and race. And just five days after the cuts, the company announced it had extended Don Van Natta Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and news leaked that it also had lured Yahoo’s NBA whiz, Adrian Wojnarowski .
Lipsyte was at the company when it began investing heavily in debate programming. He said it didn’t necessarily lessen ESPN’s journalistic approach then, and he never noticed any sort of warring ideologies at the company’s Bristol, Conn., campus.
“ESPN is very fragmented in what it does,” he said. “There’s a kind of understanding. Sometimes very good investigative reporting is paid for — in those days — by Stephen A. and Skip Bayless screaming at each other. It’s not hard to excuse the screaming because it was helping pay the bills.”
The network’s two main factions — those who ask the questions and those who purport to have the answers — can coexist, as along as ratings suggest that each has an audience willing to tune in.
“Look, it’s a big tent. There’s room for everybody,” Ley said. “Folks who want to watch ‘First Take’ with Stephen A., Michael [Smith] and Jemele [Hill] at 6 or Scott Van Pelt at midnight. I’m not worried about that. There might have been a time in my life where I said, ‘Oh jeez, we’re not getting enough credit.’ But I know we do a lot of good work.”
The aim of programs like “E:60” and “OTL” is to inform and entertain. When E:60 launches its weekly program, it will include a human-interest feature on Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott but also a deep-dive piece on the Syrian national soccer team.
Since it launched 10 years ago, “E:60” has not had an anchored time slot — “a nomad wandering the desert of the ESPN programming schedule,” as Ley said. It will produce nearly three times as many episodes a year, its reporter and producers effectively charged with turning in nearly three times as many stories. That was the plan before the cuts, and it hasn’t changed. Bengtson said they have added some staff and will utilize talent from other ESPN units, such as espnW, the magazine or the Undefeated.
“I know everybody at ESPN understands how delivering the news — breaking news, telling stories, human interest, social justice human rights issues, all that stuff — is essential to what we do,” Schaap said. “It’s not ancillary. It’s not a sideshow. It is the show to a large degree. It always has been. I don’t see that changing.
“If anything, I see in this environment, what distinguishes us is the ability to bring the news to our audience, to be the last word on what’s going in the world of sports. I don’t see that commitment in any way diminishing.”
Ley is called “the General” in Bristol. James Andrew Miller, author of the definitive ESPN history “Those Guys Have All the Fun,” calls him the network’s best journalist. “Outside the Lines” launched as a monthly program in 1990 and became a daily afternoon staple in 2003.
When Schaap joined the network more than two decades ago, there was essentially one debate program: “The Sports Reporters,” hosted by his father, Dick Schaap.
“There was also a fraction of the news coverage,” he said. “I don’t even remember how we filled the hours. A hunting and fishing block on the weekends. A big fitness component in the mornings. There was just a lot less of everything.”
The network’s commitment to journalism grew from that point, and Schaap sees no signs of it suddenly receding. In the coming weeks, “E:60” will tackle a range of topics: the airplane crash involving a Brazilian soccer team and the saga of Schuye LaRue, a former University of Virginia and WNBA player who battled mental health issues and was homeless in the District.
Many at ESPN fear more cuts down the road. While the most recent subscription numbers showed a hint of promise, the company has billions tied up in rights fees for the next several years. If it can’t find additional revenue streams, many wonder whether it would try to renegotiate its contracts with leagues. And if the leagues make concessions, would ESPN still be as aggressive and eager to challenge them with their reporting?
Ley has been around longer than any other on-camera employee. He’s not worried about the product, the mission or the ambitions.
“I don’t stew. You want to be vigilant,” he said. “There are challenges in this industry. But I don’t worry about that. What’s the best way to make sure you keep your seat at the table among network priorities? Do damn good work.”