ESPN's purge, and a plea for newspapers

Last week’s purge at ESPN was so staggering, so pervasive, as to make you wonder where to assign the cause. Was it a simple (though cruel) case of course correction, a business shifting assets? Or was it merely one more assault on the media industry and its printed-word wing?

Some of both, apparently. Aside from the shutdown of an entire enterprise, I can’t recall any more wrenching change within a media company. Andy Katz, probably the most connected figure in college-basketball media, gone. Jayson Stark, witty and imaginative baseball insider, gone. Dana O’Neil, author of insightful and poignant college-hoops pieces, gone.

ESPN followed the business model, the one so counterintuitive to good journalism. To hell with the idea of institutional knowledge, of people with deep, nuanced understanding of a beat. You cashier those people because they’re making the most money. Instead, you follow what somebody called the 24/24/24 template. You go for 24-year-old people making 24 grand a year, willing to work 24 hours a day.

It shouldn’t need saying, but we’re all the poorer for this.

ESPN’s move upends the notion that sports, as presented by the World Wide Leader, was a bottomless well of plenty. ESPN developed so many platforms -- ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPNU, ESPN News, ESPN Deportes, 30 for 30, etc., etc. -- that its reach and its resources seemed limitless.

Instead, it flung itself so blindly at the NFL, in part, that it demanded austerity elsewhere. So we’ll get wall-to-wall coverage of OTAs. And the combine, of course (ohmygawd, who did best in the cone drills?). And the draft. And free agency. All this while Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas, still playing, noted recently that he sometimes forgets the reason he went to the grocery store.

For those of us who prefer a change of seasons, not only in the climate but our sports, is there no time to squeeze in something on the NCAA Elite Eight before we bury ourselves in Todd McShay’s latest mock draft?

We began getting a hint at the guillotine coming when ESPN frequently implemented the weird practice of college-basketball game announcers not at the, uh, game, but holed up in studio in Bristol, Conn.

ESPN did what the average Joe does when times get hard. You decide what you can live without, while aiming to make everything seem the same. You know, what newspapers have been doing for years now.

Here’s where I tell you to do something that might seem to make no sense: Go subscribe to a newspaper. Not because of ESPN cutting back, but because they’re part of the soul of your community, and that’s important.

Go against the grain. Go against a president who, when he’s not spouting something that’s demonstrably false, regularly accuses the “corrupt” media of fake news.

I’m not saying it’s easy in these times, when newspaper pages are dwindling. My old paper, the Seattle Times, decided to abandon coverage of Gonzaga basketball this year -- nice timing -- save for the nuts and bolts of what Associated Press provides and an occasional update from the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

So when the Zags made the Final Four -- the first time a school in the state had been there since the Eisenhower Administration -- the paper, on Thursday before the national semifinals, had nary a word on Gonzaga. Maybe it was in good company. Neither did the Los Angeles Times.

I always wondered how intense the workload would be, covering a team that made the Final Four. Never got to find out. But when Gonzaga did it in March, the Times sent one writer to Phoenix. Incredibly, the News Tribune of Tacoma had nobody there.

(If a program with about 11,000 alums in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties falls in the forest to North Carolina, does it make a sound?)

I hate that there are people at newspapers who don’t know the difference between “refute” and “rebut.” And when somebody’s story is built from quotes from a press release rather than a phone call, I cringe.

Yet, the benefits of a buck-fifty a day -- a dollar in Spokane -- far outweigh the negatives. If there are a lot of reasons today to abandon newspapers, there are a lot more reasons to keep reading them.

The watchdog function of newspapers remains immeasurable. There’s a reason the Times has won 10 Pulitzers. And, two words if you think so-called “neighborhood bloggers” could replace professional journalists: Get serious.

By and large, the people who populate newsrooms are the kind of people you’d want to be around, the kind you want in your corner -- curious people, people who ask questions that need to be asked. Committed people that aren’t making a lot of money doing what they do. Real people.

Check out sometime the web hits a newspaper gets in a time of crisis -- say, a police shooting. They go through the roof, as if readers are saying, “We know where to go. This is serious.”

We live in a time of division. And, perpetually, it seems, of belt-tightening. If ESPN needs to do that, well, OK. If in any way its cuts are giving you less reason to watch and read, try filling that void with a newspaper.