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Grantland so far

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Alma, Jul 14, 2011.

  1. Alma

    Alma Well-Known Member

    It's been roughly one month since Grantland launched. I thought I'd start a new thread to examine it from a macro perspective instead of a blow-by-blow recap that seems to be occurring in the longer thread. Note: This post is generally critical of its effort so far. Feel free to defend/debate at will.

    First, I had to keep in mind one important thing: Bill Simmons can't be the best thing on it. Because if he is the best – or even near that – then, well, ESPN already has Bill Simmons. It doesn't need to build Grantland as a launching pad for his work. That's why the early advertising dollars – old ESPN fave Subway is one of them – don't matter much. That's ESPN saying “here's where Bill Simmons will be now. We'll take your money.” But Grantland doesn't have to exist for Simmons to exist. So the strength of the site can't be his random, occasional contributions (the frequency of which I doubt he keeps up). It has to be the rest of it.

    The strengths are, thus far, limited by the weaknesses. The design is clean, yes, but to the point that you lose any sense of what the big, commanding piece is on the site. Its an offshoot the McSweeney's design and I'd argue Grantland's going after a different demo than Eggers' outfit. (In general, it would appear that Simmons is taking pointers from people who don't know sports all that well.) The footnotes I personally like, but I've stopped reading some of them, and you can tell some writers don't have much time for them. I think Simmons' work, frankly, has been good, save his awful site opening ramble. He's written the two best pop culture columns without, I'd guess, trying that hard. His NBA column, tortured Dave analogy aside, was focused and a quick read. I like the “Director's Cut” series and the oral history series, but their scattershot, almost unannounced nature makes me dubious as to whether readers can count on them. Rany Jazayerli's few commentaries are forward-thinking instead of navel-gazing, but he's a rare example and, again, he'll show up once a week, or once every two weeks.

    Much of the content bores me. Not the writing, necessarily. But the lack of ambition, of nails, or muscle. It reads like a lot of folks who haven't spent much time in the arena. The talent's there, the turns of phrase are there, the confidence is there – but there's no virtually no risk to any of it. When there is risk – The National oral history, for example – the Grantland staff is merely transferring the risk to the subject. I feel as though I'm reading people watch TV, firing missiles at folks never likely to know they exist. There's a distinct limit to my enjoyment of that. Especially when Simmons, over the last decade, has already done this, and done it more effectively.

    First, picky flaws: Copy editing needs to improve. Links really need to improve; when I click on Simmons archive of writing, http://www.grantland.com/columnists/billsimmons the latest update is 6.30.2011, even though Simmons has written since then. I have to click on the side archive (several times with the arrows) to get all of June's work, while July's still doesn't show.

    Klosterman's meanwhile, shows nothing written before 7.6.2011. http://www.grantland.com/columnists/chuckklosterman These are sort of inexcusable mistakes to make on a Web site. The sidebar archive doesn't appear to reflect everyone who's written for the site. Why? What's the difference between someone who <i>writes</i> for Grantland and someone who <i>wrote</i> for it in the online universe? It's not like readers know writer contracts. Is there a difference between a column and just a regular report? If so – what?

    One flaw is an absence of continuity. The larger narrative of the sports day – or even the sports week or month or year - is completely lost inside Grantland. In this way, it's quite similar to the 30 for 30 series. How I feel about Grantland is informed by what I thought of the 30 for 30 in general: Random, mostly tepid, occasionally excellent, passably interesting. But, in 90-minute digestible chunks spread over the course of a year, you didn't feel the inconsistency of 30 for 30 series. In Grantland, you do.

    The story selection: Pasta on a wall. Some baseball, some fringe sports, way too much Hollywood/cable TV, way too much Molly Lambert (who is not necessarily bad, but a poor fit for this site.) Oh, and Mark Moseley's MVP year in the NFL, because you cared. And Katie Baker's moving, so she'll miss New York. And movie trailers. The insights are generally tepid. The craftsmanship is fine, but it's often writing for the sake of writing, long-winded asides, analysis paralysis, out-of-the-blue, vague celebrity profiles that don't circle around to a larger point.

    The content is a bizarre mix of Bill Simmons' personal taste – NBA stuff even though the season is over, the AL East beat writer in Chris Jones (this remains, to me, a stunning “fuck you” to fans of teams in other leagues, firm, indisputable truth that ESPN harbors a East Coast fixation) – and stuff that seems driven by ESPN's interests. ESPN is about to pick up Wimbledon, so readers get a shit ton on Wimbledon (will this happen with every tennis major, or just ones ESPN is trying to win a bid on?) ESPN is showing the women's World Cup, so here comes three perspectives on the quarterfinal game. ESPN is showing Friday Night Lights reruns, so here's an oral history on the show. No stuff on the All-Star game the day after, though (was that because the AL East didn't star in it? Because Simmons deplores the All-Star game?) NFL lockout material? Barely a whisper. NASCAR? What's NASCAR? British Open? Not yet! Not one whiff of college football. But there are two thinkpieces on the legacy of Yao Ming.

    I get that you're not going to hit everything. But Grantland seems to be following a contrary, almost secret sports calendar. The site fails to build anticipation or give readers a routine. It lacks urgency. It lacks anger. With the exception of Jones – who has the ability to write profane/dirty/muscular without seeming like he's sucking on a Marlboro Light – most of the pieces either seem written by the same mildly observant wise ass trying hard to unload their toolbox of pop culture jokes.

    Chris Ryan's story on Soccer City USA is a perfect example


    Here's a story about rival fan bases without a single whiff of quoted conversation. It's descriptive, well-written, but impossibly tame. If I were an editor, I'd say: <i>Go back and get a little dirty. Enough with the architecture and the communal spirit from afar. Actually get in there. Chart it. Give me some life, not some distant, pleasing essay. It's not the Travel Channel.</i>

    The ratio of sports to pop culture is much too heavy on the pop culture. And, at some point, it'd be wise for the pop culture section to reflect more than a handful of cable TV shows. What, for example, defines pop culture in the last two weeks? Does Grantland reflect that?

    Note that my post isn't really about the quality of the writing. It's been decent-to-strong. Simmons has perhaps picked up his game, and, more importantly, he's addressing the stuff in his wheelhouse – the NBA lockout – head-on. But I don't see the same toughness /rigor from the rest of the staff. The ownership seems fleeting. Legit question: Where's Jones on Jeter's 3000th hit? You have a terrific writer, a huge moment, the “AL East” beat and...where is he? And that's not so much to knock Jones but to knock the mindset of the site. Where's Klosterman on the Adele or Gaga or Katy Perry phenomenon? Where's <i>anyone</i> on Casey Anthony? Where is anyone on anything NFL or college football related?

    The site badly needs writers willing to rise to the moment. To say “something big is happening in Sport X, and I want Grantland to be a definitive voice on that.” The opposite of risky, Grantland is actually quite safe, attempting to thrive as a boutique, high-end market while you get the rest of your groceries at, you know, a store that actually sells bread. Some of boutique items (Rany chief among them) are pretty tasty and worth the time spent. Some are much too expensive for the effort expended by the reader. But it's almost all boutique coverage. Klosterman is clearly working hard on stuff – and actually interviewing people! - but it's boutique work. The exceptions (Wimbledon, the women's World Cup) appear driven by ESPN's interest to have Grantland weigh in.

    Some of the problem lands on Simmons' desk as a boss. Put simply, he needs to be tougher. At some point, the site needs to chart the course from diversion (for its writers, for its readers) to compulsion. A boss has to be able to say to his writer <i>Hey, I need you to have a take on this. You gotta be there. Maybe I'm shaking you out of your comfort zone of being a cool Grinch in a decidedly ivory tower, but turn this around in 12 hours.</i>

    And some of the problem lands on Simmons' desk as a persona. I think, even after all this time, he lacks a clear understanding for his own success. It wasn't merely his style, his “aw, fuck all” nature, but a combination of two things:

    *The willingness to be meticulous and exhaustive on a subject (Boston sports) that had long been turned into a hoary cliché by area sportswriters.

    *The passion to dive so deep into the NBA that people wanted to follow him into the core of the sport, where they will rarely go if the writing doesn't sing its way out of the trench.

    Both of those things took more guts than most here admit – because Simmons didn't function as an actual reporter very much – because folks here fail to acknowledge the sheer emotional and creative capital that goes into what Simmons did for years. I'd argue his staff of writers has, on balance, a similar misunderstanding. Most of the work reads like the ultimate, relaxed insider, much too comfortable with their thoughts, far too unwilling to venture outside their comfort zone as reporters, but lacking Simmons' slavish devotion to creative volume or sense of subject.

    I don't get the sense, thus far, that Simmons wants to be a bad guy with his writers. But, to harness and throw this site in the right direction, you have to be. It could exist for years like this, of course, because ESPN wants it to and because it wants to satiate Simmons' desire to have it. But, right now, it's a quirky, minor light, filled with writers who specialize in being quirky and minor, people who, if you said <i>give me your fastball</i> wouldn't know how to find the extra four miles per hour because they haven't yet bothered to see if they have it. Some of them have spent a whole career in the niche role of “snappy comeback.”

    Is that all Grantland is destined to be?

    YGBFKM Guest

    That post was more thoughtful and interesting than anything I've seen on Grantland.
  3. Azrael

    Azrael Well-Known Member

    Terrific, Alma. Thanks.
  4. Mizzougrad96

    Mizzougrad96 Active Member

    I think the criticism of the site is valid.

    Alma's point that the best writer on the site can't be Simmons is a great one.

    But are we talking about best or best known? There aren't many (maybe any) writers better known than Simmons. I like Klosterman a lot, but I don't think he's a draw to the site. I feel the same way about a lot of the other writer there. Tremendous talent, but not necessarily a draw. To be fair, I think very, very few writers are actual "draws"

    That said, I like the site a lot. It's different. I like the pop culture stuff because I'm into that kind of stuff. I also don't feel like I have to go there and search for anything like I do on some of the other sites.
  5. MankyJimy

    MankyJimy Active Member

    Alamo, that was a very good review but you forgot one thing Grantland needs:

  6. Alma

    Alma Well-Known Member

    I'm talking about best, Mizzou. I haven't read anything there yet that said "I'm going to take this gig by the horns and be a star." I'd sure like to; unlike some folks here, I have no ego to have bruised by reading some rising star announcing herself/himself with a flourish of inspired work. Simmons, love him or hate him, did that again and again and again as his brand grew. We can debate whether he should have become a star but he did in part because his hunger to produce copy was evident.

    Thus far, I read a rather blase vibe on the site. I don't see the muse visiting much. I don't read much juice. Nothing seems like a high-wire act. Maybe that's just me.
  7. Mizzougrad96

    Mizzougrad96 Active Member


    Who would you hire?

    The thing with Simmons is that love him or hate him (and I really understand both sides of that argument), he's different.
  8. SF_Express

    SF_Express Active Member

    Here's why I'm perhaps a bad fit for the web, sports journalism, the future of long-form writing on the web and perhaps even this community:

    I thought Alma's analysis was terrific, because it allowed me to catch up on the pluses and minuses of Grantland, which I stopped paying attention to two weeks ago.

    I'm not going to claim work busy, merely life busy, and I just don't have the time go spend a lot of time reading the things Grantland is putting out there.

    While greatly admiring what Simmons has accomplished, I don't care what he has to say -- my kids do, and that's fine with me, and good for Bill -- and the East Coast lean further diminishes its importance for me. I'm from Wisconsin/Florida/California, and my universe is centered elsewhere.

    But further -- and this is the big disconnect, and I'd claim to be ashamed, but I'm not really -- is I don't really want to read 5 or 8 or 10-page stories on the web. So I don't. I'm part of the great unwashed masses in that regard, and so probably not a good judge of Grantland overall.

    I will say that as a web guy, the archiving issues Alma describes are unacceptable. That's pretty basic stuff, should be automated and shouldn't exist on a first-class website. Not that shit doesn't happen, but it shouldn't happen to the site's star.
  9. Big Circus

    Big Circus Well-Known Member

    YES. MankyJimy, this board is a better place with you here.
  10. Alma

    Alma Well-Known Member

    It's not really a question of who they've hired. It's a question of seeming to ignore events and/or stories because they can't rev up anybody - or they haven't kicked themselves in gear.

    Some of it is just story selection. I feel like I'm looking in some 28-year-old "weird shit" drawer.

    And it's not some slavish devotion I have to the All-Star game or the British Open, either. There just seems to be <i>no</i> calculus to how stories emerge on the site. Emmy noms? OK. Some random soccer story? OK... An oral history of Friday Night Lights? OK....... TWO remembrances of Yao Ming? OK........ One of the writers is moving to California and wants to say ten things about the place she's leaving? It's absolutely drift-worthy.

    And it's like McSweeney's. http://www.mcsweeneys.net/tendency I haven't a clue why you'd consult Dave Eggers on any venture that you wanted to make a considerable amount of money; gifted as he is and as much as I like his work across a variety of mediums, he is a professional curiosity, a field with very few, spectacularly talented folks in it. You cannot build the ethos of a giant sports site on being clever, intellectual, remote and stylistically twee. To put it in Simmons' terms: Grantland, right now, is Michael Cera. It would be well advised to tap into some Harrison Ford.
  11. Alma

    Alma Well-Known Member

    Oh, almost none of the work is longer than 3,000 words. A typical range is 1,000-2,000. Trying to get more than that out of the subjects so inconsequential would be absurd.
  12. Small Town Guy

    Small Town Guy Well-Known Member

    Great analysis, Alma. Made me think about some issues in a different way. Maybe could have used footnotes...

    My own thoughts:

    * The search/archive section is a real mess and frustrating to wander through. For instance, right now the In Case You Missed it has nothing for previous weeks. So I can't even link to some stories I'd like to without some detective work.

    * The copyediting issue's been talked about plenty so I don't have anything to add on that.

    * One thing I remain excited about is that it has given Klosterman a permanent home. People think of Klosterman as sort of being overexposed or being everywhere, but really, the last few years, that's hardly been the case. He had his novel. He had a short nonfiction book come out that didn't have the publicity of his other offerings - he didn't do much traveling or anything for it, perhaps out of fear that somewhere, perhaps in a Moscow one-bedroom apartment, Mark Ames was just waiting to pounce on him and accuse him of having the eyes, or ass, of a child molester. And other than that? He popped up occasionally on a podcast. He no longer had the Esquire column, no Spin, no regular espn.com columns. I love having him in one place and being a regular contributor. Plus, I've enjoyed his stories quite a bit. And I like his story selection so far. You asked where's his contribution on, say, Katy Perry or Gaga. I don't know, they're practically the Jeter and Favre of pop culture - what else could be said about them and even if a story on them appeared under his byline, I'd skip it.

    * The AL East/East Coast bias is probably always a legitimate criticism. That said, I think there have been just as many articles on Kansas City as New York, whether it's the Royals or the old Kings basketball arena. There have been a few stories on Seattle as well. Nothing on Minnesota. That needs to change. I offer up my services.

    * I also think the pop culture/sports ratio has swayed too far toward pop culture.

    I disagree with that part. It sort of is random, but I've actually liked that. Maybe there isn't a larger narrative of the sports day. And I'm fine with that. Take the comparison to The New Yorker, which has been made on the other thread several times, whether talking about editing (ahem), fact-checking (ahem 2) or just pure reporting. Not going to argue Grantland compares in any of those areas. But take a typical issue of the New Yorker. Unless it's the theme issue - fiction, food, travel, etc., - a normal issue has a really wide range of stories with no consistent narrative. You could have 10,000 words on an Afghan warlord, 3,000 on Judd Apatow, 2,000 on Tolstoy, and 4,000 on a man in North Dakota who's the pre-eminent Shakespeare scholar in North America. I love that broad mix. It's a surprise each week. And Grantland's offered similar surprises, whether the Federer story, the Jeter diary, Bryan Curtis' story, Simmons' expected NBA stories, the K.C. pieces, the YouTube picks, etc.

    * I'm definitely hoping more heavily reported takeout pieces become part of the mix.

    * The story lengths: Long stories don't bother me. I'd actually prefer some of them to be...longer. It seems they're all sort of the same length. Mix it up, short, medium, long, longer. So maybe that too adds to the "Nothing stands out here" vibe you might feel. Not that long necessarily always equals good, especially with some of the story selections - but if a story was heavily reported it could go longer without feeling like it (apologies for however many entendres were in those previous sentences).

    * The safe argument. Legitimate critique. On the other hand, you can also swing too far. I'm sort of glad they didn't come out of the gate trying to be RISKY or ANGRY or EDGY. What would those stories even entail? Would it be Slate-like contrarianism - "You thought Jim Brown was great, but here's why Eric Metcalf was the greatest Browns running back ever." Outrage - "Those greedy NFL owners need to be taught a lesson. Let's burn their stadiums down!" I guess a comparison could be made to byliner, which came out with Krakauer's takedown. But that's the strength of byliner and their mission. I'd like the reporters to venture outside their comfort zones too while realizing that can be downright ugly to read if not done right (re: Simmons going to the kid's funeral and comparing it to THe Wire). I'm thinking back to when Jon Meacham took over Newsweek (for the youngsters reading: a weekly news magazine which used to have a lot of influence). He did a radical redesign that was fairly ridiculous. Some strange story choices which seemed to be chosen just to be wacky. The site maybe seems too comfortable right now but I think it's easier to start that way and ease your way into the things you talk about and hope to see, than coming out guns blazing, especially if the guns are loaded with blanks, which might have been the case with Grantland.

    Overall I've enjoyed it quite a bit. But like I wrote, really good analysis and you caused me to reconsider some aspects of it.
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