With Grantland, Vox and Fivethirtyeight.com, a new breed of digital media properties emerges
By Mike Kuczkowski
Over the past six months, I’ve been closely observing three web sites: Grantland, Fivethirtyeight.com and Vox. These three sites represent a vision of digital journalism that holds great promise. They’re lively, they make great use of their online platforms. They aren’t afraid to go long, which I love. They weave in multimedia, multi-channel content fluidly, whether via animated gifs, infographics, interactive charts or Youtube clips. They showcase the talents of their staff in multichannel formats, whether that’s a podcast, Youtube videos or traditional print-style article drenched in links, infographics and multimedia.
These outlets are giving voice to a new breed of journalist that is thoughtful and expert, just like the old shoe-leather types. Yet, just as Tom Wolfe declared his generation of reporters “The New Journalists,” this online gang is empowering a new generation of reporters who can tell stories with a full toolbelt of digital content tools. The New Digital Journalists are steeped in their beats, highly analytical and willing to put forth a prediction or two — and willing to admit when their predictions were wrong.
All in all, it’s gripping journalism, and signals a major evolutionary step in online reporting.
The one thing that gives me pause is, the editors at these sites appear to have removed the quotation keys from their reporters’ keyboards. They run right up to the line between analysis and authority, which may come to haunt them over time.
More on that later. First, here’s a quick overview of the three media properties:
Grantland is the brainchild of ESPN basketball columnist and commentator Bill Simmons. Simmons is an everyman commentator on a wide range of sports and pop culture topics, with a particular passion and expertise in basketball. Listening to his podcast (the BS Report) is almost always a treat. He’s smart, humble, and insightful. The author of the best-selling The Book of Basketball, Simmons goes out of his way to pay tribute to ABA legends onto his podcast, and talk about how the game has changed. He’s willing to go out on a limb on predictions, and he’s often entertainingly wrong. He does not hide his Boston sports allegiances – he even has his father as a regular guest on his podcast – and his listeners are the better for it. He humanizes sports, without dumbing it down.
Beyond Simmons, Grantland features analytics-friendly reporting on all manner of sports and pop culture. It’s good stuff, by and large. Sometimes it gets wrapped up in its own particular perspective on what’s important, but the team has a good ear for what’s important. Writers post news and analysis, they do Youtube videos on their own Grantland Channel and podcasts, and they are very, very smart on what they cover.
Fivethirtyeight.com, also owned by ESPN, is the brainchild of Nate Silver, formerly of the New York Times and before that, a blogger on politics and economics. Silver is smart, and his site is at its most interesting when it takes a fresh look at some kind of spreadsheet – whether it’s children’s naming patterns over time or how old we can expect elite tennis players to be and still win Grand Slam titles. Silver’s vision for data-analytics in journalism is expansive, and his site is appropriately broad as well. While his greatest strength is on display in features on electoral college or baseball, there is a breadth to the site that is thought-provoking and engaging. I particularly like the way so many of the articles take pains to explain even mildly complicated statistical analysis. This is a real strength for Silver, which in turn makes his site accessible but not reductive.
Vox is the brainchild of Ezra Klein, formerly of the Washington Post. What distinguishes Vox is its use of ‘storystreams’, which are snippets of reporting displayed in web-based card stacks (think post-it notes), with embedded objects (tweets, video, documents, links to other news articles, etc.) that comprise different elements of a story. I love, love, love this approach. It’s as though a reporter has handed us her notebook and allowed us to flip through it. The effect is that we explore the stories based on our own curiosity. It’s ‘discover, don’t sell’ journalism, which very subtly upends the traditional top-down tendencies of most news organizations to tell readers what’s important. The format is pure genius, pure digital genius, that no one at the NY Times was going to come up with looking at things from a print-driven perspective. I thought the high point of Vox’s journalism was the storystream on L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, which allowed readers to venture down the path directly to the TMZ audio recording of Sterling’s alleged racist comments, but then also made it equally easy to stay current on the Clipper’s team protest and other breaking news. Occasionally, a storystream “card” felt a bit thin, but more often than not, it provided just the right level of definitive reportage and links to external sources.
A couple of notable things about all three sites:
1/ The Branded Journalist: Simmons, Silver and Klein are each journalists AND brands. Their sites showcase their individual talents, but not (at least in my view) in an ego-centric manner. There’s plenty of room for other voices, and Simmons in particular uses his personal brand to promote the personal brands of his team. Klein conducts video interviews with prominent sources on his site.
2/ Brand support: All three sites appear to be willing to integrate brands in a ‘native’ or nearly native way. Vox has a partnerhsip with GE called ‘pressing’ that offers expository videos on a variety of news topics. Grantland’s YouTube Channel is sponsored by Jeep, and their podcasts are sponsored as well. This suggests that a classic publishing model — advertisers sponsoring content to get a corporate brand/reputational lift (a la a public radio model) rather than flight specific product ads. (Though they do that too.)
3/ Willingness to take risks: The sites are at their best when they go out on a limb, whether it’s FiveThirtyEight.com’s use of Yelp reviews to create a “Value Over Replacement Burrito” metric, as part of its ‘Burrito Bracket’ feature. Or when Simmons and his NBA analyst pal Jalen Rose, an ex-player who speaks with wisened authority, lay out their power rankings of NBA teams (note: the Chicago Bulls were #1 this year, and even Rose protested that the list was Simmons’s).
That’s what’s good about these new properties. Here’s what’s not so good:
1/ The Loss of Attribution: Nobody quotes anyone anymore. Which I find incredibly irritating. As a reporter, I always thought it was absurd when an editor required me to find someone to quote something that was a provable fact. I mean, there is actually no reason one should need to quote a meteorologist on the days’ temperature. One can simply look at a thermometer, positioned in a reasonable outdoor position, and read it. But, that’s not the same thing as taking an innovative approach to a data set and reporting it without including any critical views from economists saying whether that’s a valid way of reporting something, or not. I don’t mean to clip the wings of these very smart reporters, but it’s an issue.
2/ The Editorial Judgment Learning Curve: In the case of both Grantland and Fivethirtyeight.com, they’ve screwed up a couple of things. On Grantland, there was this piece, which handled transgender issues with ham-fisted insensitivity, and on Fivethirtyeight.com, there was this piece on climate science that was, by Silver’s own admission, lacking in balance. Yet, even in this criticism, which is potentially the most damning, I find seeds of salvation. Both sites showed a level of transparency and genuine apologia that was admirable. Grantland dedicated a significant editor’s note, and a podcast with a transgender sports reporter, to explain what went wrong. Fivethirtyeight commissioned someone to critique its own article to review the controversy around its first author’s piece. To me, this represents a kind of digital new-world order that is instructive for media organizations – and potentially all kinds of content-generating organizations (including corporations). These editors are willing to say, we should have asked tougher questions, and in the future we will. Meanwhile, we’ll tell you everything we can about what went wrong. It would be fascinating to consider how the NY Times would handle the Jayson Blair scandal in today’s hyper-transparent news era.
3/ The Stretch. I’ve noticed that in a few cases, particularly on fivethirtyeight.com, but potentially on all three sites, there is a tendency to take an interesting analytical point and stretch it beyond the accuracy of the data. One example, for me, was when Silver wrote about fan allegiance across America based on a Facebook data feed on location-based ‘likes’ of Major League Baseball teams. It was a great, fun data set to analyze, but as I said in a comment at the time, it really only tells you what people who click ‘like’ on a team’s Facebook page think. It does not illustrate what is happening in real life. And while that may seem like a subtle point, it may ultimately prove to be a significant one. (NOTE: Silver made his name by looking at historic voting patterns and weighting them more than many pollsters did, so it may well be that he is predisposed to think about real-world data and context in his journalism.)
On balance, I believe these news sites are fine additions to the journalistic canon. I think they represent a significant evolutionary step in the world of online/digital journalism. They’re smart vehicles for a range of long/short, predictive, reportage, opinion and analytical journalism. They make great use of their digital media, offering multiple entry points into the properties. They are led by people who have a strong sense of editorial direction – and aren’t afraid to make mistakes.
Moreover, they are likely to continue to evolve, which bodes well for the future of journalism. For people in communications like myself, these trends suggest we should look at new ways to tell our clients’ stories, through data, analytics and multi-channel content. It’s clear that these reporters will be open to persuasion and compelling perspectives about the news of the day, but they aren’t going to fall for glib publicity stunts, thinly researched pitches or experts whose expertise does not exceed that of the reporters themselves. Listening to Zach Lowe interview Jeff Van Gundy is a damned fine interview, in part because they both know their stuff.
So here it is, the new digital journalism. I can’t wait to see where this is headed next.