Content Churners Strike out Quality Sports Journalism

The other day I was listening to “Pony,” Rex Orange County’s near perfect sophomore pop effort, in the shower (does that make it sound like he made the album in the shower?). I’ve listened to the first track, “10/10,” so much since break started, I figured it was my most listened to song so far in 2020. Then I realized it was still 2019—not the new year. I collected the shattered, sopping pieces of my conscious from the bathroom floor. Momentary space-time aneurysm. Anyway.

My Rex Orange-induced temporal losslessness was a symptom of the bloated content load we experience this time of year. As wintertime approaches, content churners rejoice and content consumers imbibe the nectar of annual years-end content. You notice it gurgling in the spooky aftermath of Halloween, and by December you’re floating along a content torrent like Google’s “Year in Search” or a multitude of variations of “10 Reasons Why this Year Sucked” and a thousand “Top NBA Plays of the Year” posts. These thinly veiled content grabs are masquerading as empirical, culturally significant analysis. It stirs me that this kind of content seems to be both the most easily produced and most popular kind of content. Chicken or egg?

Content junkies like myself inevitably binge on this empty calorie diet for a couple chilly months. But, after a while, you feel swollen. If resolutions are real, I feel like I need a content cleanse before the new year. Anyway.

Our most visible content platforms get pretty carried away with annual inventory-taking. Snapchat, iPhoto Facebook and others curate adorable year-end montages of our best and worst from the last solar orbit. I feel like I need to square these animojied memories away, compile them into some sort of chronological mosaic, and leave it for a future version of myself to reflect on, at some point between here and oblivion. 

This type of content is attention grabbing. It certainly is for me, as a handful of months from now, I will no longer be a teenager. (While this fact causes me great distress, I have received nil sympathy from my parents). The years relentlessly speed forward. I don’t know if anyone can remember a top ten of the year list from 2017, but when you clicked on it at the time, I’m sure it seemed important. In a TikTok-timed flash, we suddenly plunge deeper into the 21st century.

I’ve gotten distracted. 

In 2019, that word “content” becomes the impetus of sports journalism. Sports journalism as we know it less than a century old, yet it ventures into the 2020s looking quite unfamiliar. I believe the next decade will see sports outlets reroute emphasis on in-depth pieces towards more traffic-grabbing content. Like the rest of news production, content is trending from traditional outlets towards social media. New sports journalism thrives in this sphere. House of Highlights, an instagram account which only posts highlights of games to its 14 million followers, is probably the best known name in sports content today among social media users. 

The past year was a no-going-back moment for some traditional-leaning outlets. Established publications Sports Illustrated and Deadspin are cracking under the burden of content production, one measured more in quantity than quality. Their new owners, Authentic Brands and G/O Media respectively, are damn obsessed with grabbing. I’m talking about the same highlights plucked from games and recast across multiple platforms, dull game recaps written by robots, and now, and mindless fan blogs written by underpaid humans

I won’t delve too deeply into Maven’s plan because it is both absurd and already covered by pre-doom Deadspin. Essentially, Maven, the publishing company that the rights to SI are leased to, wants to farm out its publication to local fan bases in a structure similar to SB Nation, which they are calling “mavens.” It would turn Sports Illustrated, for decades a national institution, into mostly individualized content hives built partially on fan-produced, free (labored) content.

Deadspin, known provocateur of catfish victims, was next. G/O’s plan for the site was a hair less insidious but equally disheartening. Deadspin was unparalleled because it brought writers with the insight and wit of SNL staffers to both sports and nearly anything else. The 15-year-old website—all parts sports and not sports—carved out a Deadspin-shaped niche in the sports journalism landscape. Deadspin was Deadspin.

So what is the worst thing you could do to a bunch of freewheeling writers in a digital motley crew? The suits at G/O came up with a cracking idea. They instructed their staff to, wait for it, stick to sports. I use the past tense because Deadspin hasn’t uploaded an article since November. Early that month, Deadspin writers quit en masse, crippling the site and doing what they probably always wanted to do—become martyrs for clever journalists gung-ho for the longevity of their trade everywhere.

Talk to any sports fan who read SI before its “mavening.” They’ll remember the glossy cover, graced by the likes of Serena Williams, Larry Bird, LeBron James, Alex Morgan, and professional tall man Brock Osweiler, mythically centered behind its bold block letters. David Epstein and Kurt Vonnegut, Peter King, content connoisseur Skip Bayless, Billie Jean King and John McCain all lent their pens to its pages. How much is that historical clout worth to the SI business model? Not much, in the eyes of Maven. They’re dragging the glossy pages toward a future of algorithmized and vapid dopamine hits—essentially turning the brand into a transmission belt for fandom rather than journalism. SI is a pretty tremendous facet of American culture to farm out to desperate college kids so millionaires can make a buck with more market efficiently. 

I have no way of knowing who now determines the path of this grand little thing we call content. Is that up to the prerogative of companies like Maven? I actually assume Maven has intelligent people drumming up this clandestine business plan for Sports Illustrated. Could it be our content hungry selves to blame for our own debasement? Like I was saying, the 21st century culture loves quickly digestible, relatable content (content content, winky face). We no longer want idealistic, poetic expositions that chronicle athletes into Olympus. We want to bring them down to Earth and judge their outfits and what recurrent food-themes nights LeBron James gives us 15-second glimpses of. 

I don’t envision kids dreaming of piecing together highlight reels and feigning interest at the buffoonery of drunk college football fans. I don’t see a culture built on maintaining the clout of Sports Illustrated or the fascination in Deadspin. 

By the lack of opinions in this opinion piece you can guess that I haven’t drummed up any retorts to the Great Purge of Quality Content (an editorial spinoff of the Purge canonical universe). I’ve only partially been in this media game so long. My assessment of media’s future is based on my limited experience with this content machine we call Earth. My expertise and interaction is concurrent with when I shower, play video games and drink my morning coffee.

I can only do what anyone seems to be able to do these days: say it bothers me and continue scrolling through my content, consuming. 

Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated via Flickr

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