It’s perhaps fitting, given the shape of his career, that the news of ESPN’s decision to fire Bill Simmons could manage to be both a surprise and completely predictable. (Yes, I know he wasn’t technically fired but when your boss tells the nation’s largest paper he isn’t renewing your contract without first telling you then we’re talking about something more than an amicable parting of ways.) Simmons, of course, is one of the pioneers of online writing, the man who did for sports writing what Andrew Sullivan and Ezra Klein have done for political blogging.
Like Sullivan and Klein, Simmons at his worst introduced an irreverence and faux-edginess to professional writing that has in time created the new genre of hot takes, something that all three of those pioneers have, somewhat ironically, come to despise. However their work is not all bad: At their best these three writers are all capable of offering a type of writing that is more accessible, smarter, and accountable to observable fact rather than the emotional overreactions that tend to characterize a certain type of writer in both sports and politics. (See: Beck, Glenn for politics; Smith, Stephen A. for sports, or Olbermann, Keith for horrifying examples in both.)
But the key thing we should note about the end to Simmons’ tenure at ESPN is what it tells us about the future of professional journalism. We have now seen three different career paths play out as journalists find ways of financing their work in the post-print era:
- Door Number 1: Develop a reader-funded model that is actually independent. The benefit to this approach is that your product as a writer is actually being paid for by your customer. This arrangement is the norm in most industries but became almost unheard of in journalism as publications came to rely heavily (too heavily, actually) on advertising revenue to subsidize their work. Unfortunately, building the sort of audience that is large enough and loyal enough to actually fund a large journalistic endeavor is probably not possible for most writers. If a man with the capacity and enthusiasm of an Andrew Sullivan can’t sustain a truly independent, reader-funded site for more than two years that doesn’t bode well for other attempts at a similar business model.
- Door Number 2: Build your business on the back of a big brand either directly as Simmons and Klein have done with ESPN and Vox or indirectly as companies like Buzzfeed and Vice do via “sponsored content.” Despite your dependence on that brand you do your best to maintain an independent voice and to criticize those deserving of criticism, even if it jeopardizes your relationship to your financial backer. This is what Bill Simmons has done in repeatedly criticizing the truly odious Roger Goodell and it got him fired. Simmons offers ESPN a large readership, a respected niche site with average traffic numbers at best, and, to be sure, an oversized ego that rubbed many coworkers the wrong way. Goodell offers ESPN the riches of the most wealthy professional sports league in America. In the amoral world of the marketplace, Goodell will win that battle every time.
- Door Number 3: Build your business on the back of a big brand either directly as Simmons and Klein have done with ESPN and Vox or indrectly as companies like Buzzfeed and Vice do via “sponsored content.” Then sell out to the brand and give them an alarmingly high level of editorial control that no advertiser would have dreamed of having in the print era. This is obviously what Buzzfeed and Vice have done and, if I had to guess, it’s where sites like Vox.com and the broader Vox Media network will end up–though I would be delighted to be proven wrong.
The point of all this, then, is simple: Truly independent journalism still doesn’t have a viable business model in the online world. For online writers to make a living as writers they pretty much have to become marketers. This is true even for writers at Buzzfeed or Vice who aren’t writing the sponsored content articles because the site is only valuable to the degree that it has high enough traffic numbers to motivate brands to buy the sponsored content pieces in the first place.
Put another way, even the journalists end up becoming marketers because their job is less about accurate reporting and more about building an audience in order to attract advertisers. Ideally accurate reporting and building an audience will align, of course, but if they do not the latter is going to win out because there is no other possibility given the business model.
This isn’t to say that all the writing these sites do is bad. “Marketing” is not some sort of incantation that magically transforms interesting writing into tedious drivel. It’s possible to do good work in marketing. That said, the standards by which marketing is judged are different than the standards for journalism. And the things that concern marketers are not the same as things that will concern journalists.
It’s especially important to understand this point because of the role media plays in shaping and guiding cultural narratives. CS Lewis understood this better than most when, in That Hideous Strength, he made a great deal of the fact that the novel’s antagonist, the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (NICE) simply used the nation’s media as their own personal platform for driving cultural debate in the direction they wanted it to go. And this is more sophisticated than simply saying “buy this brand’s product.” As Mark Studdock, one of the novel’s protagonists quickly learned, you can actually use media in far more subtle, insidious ways by playing to people’s prejudices, taking advantage of already-existing conflicts, and slowly manipulating the readership to think whatever it is you want them to think.
Online writing doesn’t have to be like this, of course. One of the great things about writing online is that it’s easy to distribute your work to a large audience, even if you don’t work for a major media outlet. The old self-published papers of the print era never enjoyed the reach that a good independent blogger can get now.
But the trouble begins when the suits show up. They’ll offer that blogger money, the opportunity to focus entirely on his or her work without having to worry about maintaining a day job. And they’ll only ask that you sign on with a business whose entire existence depends upon keeping certain brands happy. If you can make that sacrifice, then you have a place in the new writing economy. If you won’t… well, let me introduce you to a guy named Bill Simmons.