Let’s face it, as ESPN has grown over the past two plus decades it has becomes fashionable to bash them on the Internet. Fan expectations, and criticism, have grown in lockstep with the family of networks and various media distribution channels. It is easy to find fault with reporting decisions and the content ESPN generates (outside of actual sporting event coverage).
This was a difficult verdict to sit down and write because I was looking for a way to shoe-horn my general lack of respect for the way ESPN reports into my commentary. But, while the ESPN filter is prominent in all of its reporting, the responsibility falls to the fan to navigate around it and glean good bits of information. The ability/willingness of the fan to actually do that is a debate unto itself.
That said, a couple of things do make me feel uncomfortable about ESPN. First, the advertising dollars and reporting decisions are uncomfortably close to each other. Like church and state, those two things should remain separate. When content becomes influenced by advertising dollars and business growth objectives, any sense of journalistic integrity flies out the window. The close proximity of advertising dollars to reporting decisions calls content decisions into question (e.g. “Chicago is an important market, do we need to run this negative story about a highly influential member of the Chicago sports community?”).
It is easy to look at ESPN’s decision to move into local market reporting superficially. That is, these markets make sense for ESPN the business, not Joe the Chicago sports fan. ESPN is creating a de facto wire service to create even more potential content for their national distribution channels, and it’s easy to call into question their willingness to let a market with lots of eyeballs and key demographics get a story over a piece of true journalism like what Yahoo! Sports has done with the strange death of a high school football star in Mississippi. (At press time, ESPN has not touched on this developing story yet.)
The only real element of ESPN’s content line up that involves good journalism and reporting is Outside The Lines, but it’s buried is weird time slots. But, like I said, it’s easy to criticize the way ESPN goes about the business of journalism and sports reporting.
Despite the obvious opportunity to criticize ESPN, this debate victory goes to Bleacher Fan. Whether we’re talking about a sporting event or the business of sports content, competition is good, it makes everyone better (unless it’s a quarterback controversy in Cleveland, it seems). A fan having another source to get sports information from is a positive outcome of ESPN’s new initiative and a good thing for Joe, the Chicago sports fan. If Joe does not like the way ESPN Chicago is reporting local news or they fail to cover his favorite high school team, Joe has other resources he can get his news from.
In fact, ESPN’s reporting and information will have to be buttoned up more than ever, as they will actually encounter something they have not encountered since they first began more than two decades ago: competition. The current local market reporting landscape is a tough nut to crack for a newcomer – even for an organization like ESPN. As Loyal Homer points out, the local reporters are already well embedded and sourced. ESPN will have to work and out-hustle to get good stories, and it will not have the luxury of burning a bridge that a powerful national organization might. It’s an interesting experiment that all fans should hold ESPN accountable for executing with integrity as a primary cornerstone of the business strategy.