Remember when the Internet was small? Even longer ago, remember when the idea of choosing content was fairly limited?
There was a time not long ago when the newspaper you got was pretty much the news content you got (sure, you could buy an extra USA Today or New York Times on a newsstand). Then, the Internet came along, but, even then, competition was limited, at first, and especially for sports.
The evolution of sports media in the age of new media has been a lesson in evolve-or-die for the major names like ESPN that have persisted over the decades. It went from broadening the scope of content to realizing there was competition around them, so they had to be better and to stand out, to a recognition, today, that no click or page view can be taken for granted.
I recently had the opportunity to pick the brain of a veteran sports writer, Jim Caple, who spent decades at ESPN writing on a number of topics, especially the off-beat stories that went beyond the play on the field, and he gave great perspective on an evolution through which he has lived, and thrived, after coming to ESPN after years covering the Twins for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. [Check out my interview with Caple]
Caple started early on with ESPN.com working for Page Two, which sought to build upon ESPN’s growing audience by taking on topics and angles that, while rooted in sports, told stories that would appeal to readers whether they were avid sports fans or not. ESPN.com had the size and breadth to tell these great stories that weren’t yet being told, to maintain their dominance of online sports media at the time.
“It was ‘Let’s do something that the other people aren’t doing. Let’s just have some fun with it. And it was really popular at the time…,” said Caple about Page Two. “You just got all these interesting stories. Writing about surfers in Hawaii and what their lives are like. Or just writing something fun off a game…
“We were reaching people [and] saying ‘Look, here is just something interesting. Here is just something fun that you’ll be entertained by. You may not have any interest in this sport. You may not know anything about these people. But this is kind of interesting, and it’s worth reading.’ And people would.”
With a relative dearth of quality sports media on the Internet in the early days, at least those with the credibility and brand chops of an ESPN, ESPN wasn’t necessarily yet competing with the dozens of competitors today. The Worldwide Leader had its competitive eyes on, well, the Worldwide Web. And Page Two’s diverse stories was part of that.
“There weren’t nearly as many [sports] sites at the time. If you wanted to read about sports early on the web, [ESPN.com was] the place to go to…,” said Caple. ‘Then there were so many more options…That’s a good thing for the readers; it isn’t always a good thing for your site…We were trying to draw in as many people. We didn’t want to look for just a [sports] fan…we wanted to look for anybody that was looking for a good story…”
It’s no secret that this ecosystem didn’t remain status quo for long. Sports content, and a lot of quality sports content, began sprouting up all over the Internet. but the most important change? Social media allowed a good story to take off, to get shared, whether it had the clout [and Klout] of an ESPN or not. It also meant that, when there was a good story to be told, there was a better chance that story had already been told and readers [and writers] would easily have seen it. Caple noted that, if nothing else, Twitter gives a glimpse into what people are reading and what articles ARE being seen and consumed. For writers like Caple, it meant a new set of factors to consider when deciding which story to tackle and which angle to take.
“It’s kind of interesting in that in the old days you didn’t see what other people were writing,” said Caple. “And now you see it and you’ll be like ‘Oh, that person already wrote about that if I write about it, will I just be copying or it’s already been written about, so I shouldn’t do?…’ On the other hand, it’s just this is what I want to write about or this is how I want to write about this particular event, then I should write about it the way I want to write about it – take this angle or write about this particular athlete…”
It’s a conundrum for columnists, a risk of redundancy for reporters, especially as the brand power of ESPN isn’t what it used to be make readers choose one over the other. For Caple, he can’t help but notice the other work being published that covers similar topics on his plate. And he is still grappling with the desire to write what he wants and do it better than anyone, while also, well, not being repetitive.
“I don’t go out there searching for [other content on the same topics he’s writing about], but occasionally I’ll see it anyway,” said Caple. “And it will affect how I [write]; I don’t ever want to be accused of copying or [to] be redundant. I want it to be different.”
So this is the part of the article where the big insight is supposed to be delivered, the panacea to creating quality content that stands out and that captures the attention of sports fans and fans of good content, in general. But there is no magic formula.
The solution begins by embracing the wide open world of media, because it’s not going anywhere, and understanding what fans are consuming, how they’re consuming it, and what kinds of content and topics are appealing is more possible and more important than ever. That’s not to say one has to search far and wide to make sure a story or an angle, even if it’s more evergreen and less moment-focused, hasn’t been done before.
Listening to Caple tell about all the unique experiences he’s had, including the treasure of anecdotes compiled while writing and researching and experiencing the stories themselves, I have no doubt the ability to enjoy this kind of content is never going to diminish in the midst of memes and social media fat. Because where Caple and his brethren [and their employers] can continue to shine is having these experiences and helping fans/consumers/readers/viewers get a piece of those experiences, too.
Find a way to convey memorable, sensory, emotional experiences, and you’ll win over fans who want see what it was like to be in those shoes.