The big news in the media world yesterday was that ESPN, a company owned by Disney, a billion-dollar global megacorporation whose stock hit an all-time high just two weeks ago, cut roughly six percent of its workforce. The total number of slashed jobs is somewhere between 300 and 400.
This has proven galling to people in a way different than most media company's layoffs are galling. There is of course the "Disney making money like crazy" angle, but that's a small part of it, I suspect. The major issue … well, ESPN has become ESPN by being willing to outmuscle and outspend everyone on anything, at all times, from NFL broadcast rights to Rick Reilly to Grantland to huge brand-new "SportsCenter" sets.
This has been frustrating to a lot of competitors who have lost talent to the hungry maw that is ESPN, but it was at least understandable: ESPN makes a ton of money, so it was reassuring that at least they were spending a good portion of it on smart, creative people. I might be sad that David Hirshey is writing his soccer columns for ESPN rather than Deadspin, but I'm glad ESPN knew a terrific soccer writer when they saw him, and paid accordingly. Same goes for most of the Grantland staff, and the SweetSpot blog, and "30 for 30" and tons of the other good stuff they do over there. If they're going to be evil -- and it's difficult to argue that anyone who makes Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith basic foundations of a business plan isn't -- at least they're evil in all-encompassing way. You can ignore the bad and focus on the positive; there are worse ways to live in the world.
But this felt different. The issue here was that ESPN was doing ESPN-y things -- making comically oversized sets that reek of Jerry Jones-ism, spending billions to wrap up rights to the NFL, US Open, SEC Network, so on -- on a macro level that required them to slash at the micro level. The company expanded the things that are harmful to the sports world (rising rights fees, overly close business relationships with the leagues they "cover," a larger emphasis on programming rather than editorial) and cut back on what they provide for the sports world (jobs, stability, a sense that there's at least one place in this industry that isn't cutting back). A company that is thriving doubled down on self-sustenance, and paid for it by taking away 300-400 jobs.
This isn't different than any other corporation, and all told, it's sort of unfair to blame ESPN for a decision that Disney presumably forced upon them to "balance" the bottom line. (In the same way, I suppose, it's unfair to "blame" an individual Chevy plant manager when the parent company tells them to cut a few jobs. Of course, that's assuming that plant was itself boosting revenues seven percent every quarter.) But this is what we've all signed up for: Job cuts are part of the deal. Our media is almost entirely corporate now; independent media is almost impossible to find.
It is worth remembering that the media we consume, the things we talk about so regularly, are such small pieces of the larger pie that they almost seem irrelevant. If ESPN decided it didn't want Grantland, or "Baseball Tonight," or David Hirshey anymore -- or even if they liked them but just needed to snip one column out of an Excel document somewhere -- it would cut the whole thing and not blink an eye. (Angering Bill Simmons would be an issue with Grantland, but that's an HR and morale issue, not a financial one.) The same goes with everything. Time Inc. could take away your five favorite Sports Illustrated writers like it was nothing. CBS could do the same thing. Fox could get rid of … well, whatever there is to get rid of at Foxsports.com. MLB Advanced Media and USA Today could decide tomorrow that Sports On Earth has too many mascot stories -- or just decide they need that row of desks -- and make it go away.
All of these things are highly unlikely. But the world of media has been consolidated to the point that almost everything you read is controlled by five or six companies … and they have far, far more important things to worry about than whatever you're reading. It's another reason to search for independent media wherever you can find it, though that's tough too. The closest you can find: Probably Deadspin (owned by a company that's valued in the nine-figure range), a lot of the SB Nation sites (owned by Vox Media, which has an even higher valuation) and Bleacher Report*, which I've said enough about already. Other than that, you're really looking at, well … Twitter, really. Tons of independent, smart voices there. You can't fire someone from Twitter, though you can certainly fire them for Twitter.
*(Ed. Note: We forgot Bleacher Report was bought by Time Warner. Denial, probably. Sorry for the error.)
This is not for nothing. As the media world consolidates more and more, you are more likely to see a sameness of thought, a palpable disinclination to take risks. This isn't happening yet -- Deadspin is notorious for its risk taking, and even ESPN does more enterprise reporting than it is given credit for -- but you can see it on the horizon. Companies are moving farther and farther away from editorial voices as they embrace the sort of large-scale content deals like the ones that required these ESPN layoffs. Eventually, if you own a stake in all the sports themselves, as ESPN and Fox and NBC are increasingly trying to do, why hire someone to independently criticize them? Again: This isn't happening right now. (I'm always impressed, for example, how much freedom SoE and MLB.com writers have to give an honest accounting of baseball matters.) But when ESPN slashes staff in part so it can run in-house back-patting documentaries about the greatness of the Southeastern Conference, well, you worry.
As for this particular ESPN story, I bet a lot of this passes anyway. The people who write about stuff like this tend to be more upset about editorial jobs being lost -- those are our colleagues! That could be me! -- than jobs in sales and tech, which were the ones ESPN sliced. (We take sales and tech people for granted because we would have no idea how to do their jobs.) When John Clayton gets dropped because they need to give Roger Goodell another year's worth of interest payments on his house, though, we'll have to remember how little we stood up for the tech and sales people.
ESPN does this because they have to, because they can. It doesn't make them evil and bad guys. It just makes them a corporation. Like the rest of them. Like all of them, really.
* * *