31 October 2015

ESPN has shut down Grantland

Grantland is no more. The sports and pop culture website which was launched over four years ago with Bill Simmons at the helm with the backing of ESPN has been shut down as of yesterday, according to an ESPN press release. This comes six months after the departure of Simmons, who is now en route to HBO.

This decision appeared sudden to many but should we have seen this coming?

It is not a coincidence that the ESPN "suspension" of Grantland comes on the heels of some major layoffs at the so-called Worldwide Leader. Early reports indicated that ESPN's parent company, The Walt Disney Company, ordered them to cut $100 million from the 2016 budget, and reports earlier than that wondered if ESPN's so-called "affinity sites," Grantland and Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight, were potentially at-risk. After all, while Grantland was certainly popular, it never did huge amounts of traffic

But ultimately without Simmons, the future was always going to be in relative question. Simmons was the one who put the strong writing staff at Grantland together and was highly regarded by his writers. They saw him as having their backs. Therefore  it seemed inevitable that there was going to be an exodus of sorts and that is what ultimately happened (and was still ongoing at the time of the dissolution of the site).

What didn't help matters was how ESPN struggled to find the permanent editor-in-chief to replace Simmons, after their top choice (deputy editor Sean Fennessey) turned them down in order to join Simmons at his to-be-announced website. Their interim choice, veteran journalist Chris Connelly, appeared to be an odd fit as per the great James Andrew Miller:
Connelly was (executive vice president Marie) Donoghue’s choice for the temporary editor-in-chief slot. She could have picked a Grantland insider or a pair of insiders, thereby stabilizing the culture and atmosphere inside Grantland. Instead, she passed over internal candidates to go with Connelly, who adopted a strategy from the get-go that had many a staff head being scratched. Instead of saying, in effect, “you’re all doing good jobs and I’m here to support you,” Connelly, a veteran of MTV News, Premiere, and ESPN TV newsmagazine E:60, chose to impart his own taste and style to the site, as was his right as editor in chief. His brand of journalism has taken Grantland in the direction of E:60, with a much heavier reliance on reporting. But it made for few shared sensibilities between the new boss and the largely millennial staff who love feature writing and analysis.
This move reportedly affected about 40 people and ESPN said all of the Grantland writers will have their contracts honored with the intent of using some of them on "other ESPN platforms." However, we don't know who that will be yet and who else will be keeping an eye out the back door to possibly reuniting with Simmons.

As we all know, there was a lot of talent on the Grantland staff with folks like Zach Lowe, Jonah Keri, Bill Barnwell, Bryan Curtis, Kirk Goldsberry Andy Greenwald, Matt Hinton, Mark Titus, Holly Anderson, Andrew Sharp, Robert Mays, Katie Baker among others (and yes that is a lot of names). The Grantland chapter may have closed but now with The Undefeated still not getting off the ground and FiveThirtyEight doing relatively disappointing traffic, the changes may not be done yet.

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