SBJ/August 13 - 19, 2007/This Weeks News

New ESPN.com boss to reduce opinion pieces, but increase video

When Rob King changed the design of ESPN.com’s home page July 27 — during his first week on the job as the site’s editor-in-chief — it looked like major changes were about to hit the sports world’s most popular Web destination.

But King, a former newspaperman who used to oversee ESPN’s NBA coverage, says the changes will be subtle, though regular visitors will notice them immediately.

One of his first orders of business is to kill the video that automatically plays whenever users visit the site’s home page, a change that could happen as early as late August. Eventually, users will be able to opt out of having that video play when visiting the site.

“We’ve all heard some expression of discomfort,” King said in his first extensive public comments since getting the site’s top editorial job. “We’re addressing it.”

King, who will be based in Bristol, Conn., also wants to rein in the number of opinion columns that exist on the site. Specifically, he says, he wants to avoid the situation that arose earlier this summer, when ESPN.com had several sometimes-conflicting reports about what was going to happen.

“It would have been a lot easier if Chris Ramsay, Tim Corrigan and I were talking more closely about who’s saying what and when they’re saying it,” said King, noting ESPN’s executives who oversee NBA coverage. “Can we get these guys on a conference call and figure it out?”

King wants his writers to think about how they are serving fans beyond writing what he calls “I-think-I-feel columns.”

“I looked at a lot of Web sites when the Michael Vick story broke, and they had an AP story with four people saying ‘I think, I feel,’” he said. “Isn’t it as important what the user thinks or feels? What are you doing to get that person closer to information that helps him or her figure out how they feel on this subject? … There’s only so much space for I-think-I-feel. After a while, it just becomes people yapping.”

King’s subtle changes have already begun.

King’s first big hiring move was convincing Howard Bryant to leave The Washington Post to become a senior writer for the site. He starts Aug. 20, writing columns and long-form narrative.

King also wants to give users more of a voice on ESPN.com, pointing to the “SportsCenter” Town Hall meeting ESPN did on Barry Bonds on July 25, which generated a lot of discussion on the Web site.

In addition, he wants to take a page from some of the blogs that typically rip ESPN by speaking with a specific voice and allowing users to post comments. He specifically mentioned Deadspin.com, which he says has a great connection with its readers.

“We’re still charged with treating serious stuff seriously, which I think [Deadspin Editor Will Leitch] is pretty much committed not to doing,” King said. “Will’s approach to the Michael Vick story will never be ESPN.com’s approach. It might be, in some way, Page 2’s. But we do try very hard to make sure that we have a range of approaches to these kinds of things. Fans get to tell us whether we’re successful or not.”

In general, sports Web sites have been trying to figure out the best way to create social-networking and user-generated portions of their sites, but none has been really successful, so far, said Chris Russo, the former head of the NFL’s interactive business who now is CEO of Fantasy Sports Ventures and an online consultant.

“Sports sites have not completely cracked the code yet,” Russo said. “Sports sites have been successful with fantasy sports, which is a community of 12 because it’s a community of your league. They’ve been less successful at creating pure social networks.”

One area of ESPN.com that gets a lot of public complaints, the Insider pay area, will move away from having talking heads comment on the news of the day. Calling Insider material “hit or miss” to date, King said he wants Insider to have a blend of advice for fantasy teams, commentary and an area that allows athletes’ voices to be better heard.

Despite the move to eliminate the automatically launching video, ESPN.com does plan to offer more video overall. King said he wants the site to become a destination for people looking for live news. He described one day last month as a “red-letter day,” when ESPN.com streamed NBA Commissioner David Stern’s press conference about the Tim Donaghy scandal live in the morning and had live video with Michael Vick in the afternoon.

“It’s a service to fans if you can’t be in front of the television as it happens,” he said. “We’re going to make it easier for our fans to understand what video is where, how they can access it, how they can enjoy it and how they can place it in their lives.”

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