by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Good morning sports media fans. Irregular posting will continue over the next month as we get into the holiday season when sports news dies down.
Quick reminder that I'm working on another media roundtable on the topic of ethics in journalism. In case you missed the last roundtable check it out here. If anyone here is friends with Cox, put in a good word for me. I'd like him to participate in one of these some day.
5 Questions with … James Mirtle
When The Athletic launched it seemed like a nice idea but it was hard to see how their small roster of recently Godfrey'ed writers was going to convince people to subscribe. The papers are losing the subscription battle, and they are armed with bigger names and greater resources. Why would someone spend their dollars on a start-up with so few writers?
In recent weeks, however, The Athletic have made several splashy moves. First, they hired ex-Post/ex-Star writer Sean Fitz-Gerald who is very well regarded as a story-teller by his peers. Then they announced that Globe & Mail hockey writer James Mirtle (115k followers) was taking over as Editor in Chief for the Toronto branch. This was a major surprise and definitely lent support to the theory that The Athletic has a decent amount of money behind it. You can read some quotes from the relevant parties in this promotional piece in the Ryerson J-school student paper.
Following the announcement of his hiring James penned a letter to the Toronto sports audience in which he explains the goals of The Athletic, what kind of content to expect from them, and why you should subscribe. I reached out to follow up on some of these items with Mr. Mirtle. Here is our conversation:
Q: Your job title is listed as Editor-in-Chief for The Athletic Toronto. Is that the same or different as being the editor of a sports department?
JM: The biggest difference is that I am going to write and I am going to write a lot. We're just getting going … Tuesday was my first day. My plan is to be on the ground and at the rink every single day during hockey season, and to be producing content because I think that is important to our success. It's also different in that we are a really small group. Sean Fitz-Gerald is doing a lot of the editing work right now with the writers, and writers will also work with him on story ideas. The job was appealing to me because I get a lot of say in how the whole organization works as opposed to just being a writer. It's going to be a lot of work but I'm really excited about it.
Q: Are there kinds of stories you think The Athletic should not be covering?
JM: We want to stay Toronto-focused. That means not trying to do everything, especially in the beginning. I have been pitched all kinds of stories since I started but we want to stay local for now and be a destination for hardcore sports fans. I think those are the ones that will be willing to pay for what we are doing.
Q: How do you see The Athletic fitting in to the existing marketplace that is mostly shaped by the three papers, TSN, and Sportsnet?
JM: We want to be unique. If you look at what John Lott does, or Eric Koreen, or myself or Fitz-Gerald, there's no one else in the market like us. So I think having unique voices covering the teams is what is going to set us apart. Also, you're only going to see sports departments at the papers get smaller. I am really talking with our staff about trying to innovate. We're going to try different story formats. I really like what Eric Koreen and Blake Murphy are doing in terms of having conversations about the Raptors that you would see at places like Grantland. We are not tied to any format, or deadlines. We can experiment. The other thing we want to do is bring in freelancers. We have already started to do that. I want to pick the best young people and shine a spotlight on them. I also want to get former players to write for us. We want to avoid game recaps and news-of-the-day stuff.
Q: In your letter to the readership you talked about being independent from teams and leagues and how this was going to allow you to write stories that others wouldn't. Can you give some insight into the kinds of stories that you have in mind?
JM: I think my career at the Globe was an example of that. The Globe is independent and privately owned. I wrote some stories about the Leafs and management during my time there that others would not have published. If you go back and read some of the things I wrote about Dave Nonis or Randy Carlyle … a lot of it was, let's say, brutally honest. I didn't see other places saying the same things. I think what I was writing was more accurate. There's a freedom in being able to write that kind of story and I want to see all our writers take advantage of that freedom and be critical when it is needed. Most of the teams are now owned by media organizations and that's not the healthiest thing to have in a market. We are going to fight back against that.
Q: Do you have a sense of how things have worked in Chicago so far?
JM: A little. It's still early days since they only launched in March. But they have done a really good job of differentiating themselves. And if you're a sports fan in Chicago, you know who The Athletic is. The teams and the coaches and the players know who The Athletic is. The brand has an identity there and if you flash forward 12 months, that's where we want to be in Toronto.
Q: What kind of feedback have you been getting from peers in the media about the move?
JM: I wasn't really looking forward to the day I announced I was leaving the Globe to do this instead. I wasn't sure how people would react and was expecting some to say I was nuts. But the response has been so much more positive than I thought it would be. As you know from my tenure covering the Leafs, I haven't always got along with everybody else in the media. I didn't know if this announcement would lead to some taking shots at me. But it seems like everyone at the papers understands that we need to find a different way. Working at places where there are constant cuts is not a great environment. Also, there are so few young people being hired these days. Part of what was appealing to me about this opportunity — and I spent a long time doing my due diligence — is that the people behind this are young and have been successful at other start-ups, and really wanted me to come help try something new to see if we can turn this industry around.
Q: Last question. Baseball went through its growing pains surrounding advanced stats, and we are now at a stage where things like WAR and OPS+ are uncontroversial. In your opinion, are we over the hump in the battle between CORSI and character in Canadian hockey media coverage?
JM: It's still a generational divide. I have been impressed by how advanced stats have worked their way into broadcasts and team stats packages at the arena. It's entered the lexicon for coaches and players which means the media has to talk about it too. It's less controversial than it was even two years ago. The truth is that what we call analytics in hockey aren't really advanced stats right now … it's just taking existing things like shots on goal and making them more accurate. I think a lot of people have realized that. I don't get the same blow-back now that I did back in 2013. I get a lot more positive reinforcement when I go to things like PuckTalks … people will come up and say thanks for introducing me to this stuff. That's always nice to hear.
Review: user experience at The Athletic
Let's start with the good:
- The content is very very good. While Lott, Alter, and Koreen may not be everyone's favourite cup of tea, each is extremely responsible as a writer and none of them rely on hot takes or hyperbole. I have not read anything that I thought was overly generic. This is good.
- John Lott was at the Winter Meetings so it seems they have some travel budget built in to the business plan. That is good from a credibility and access standpoint. I doubt they'll send writers to road games, but that's understandable. As long as they have their people at the big events — home or away — then they will maintain the right presence.
- The layout of the articles and the balance between text and images on both the iOS app and the website is good. The content is easy to absorb since there are no intrusive ads or unnecessary boxes promoting videos or partner content. I find the web interface easier to absorb at a glance since I can see a snapshot of the day's stories before deciding which to click on. The iOS app doesn't offer a mosaic view so you have to scroll past each story to get a sense of all the content there is.
- When it comes to subscriptions, they are basically the only outlet vying for your dollars. The Star has no premium content at all. The Globe has virtually no premium content of interest to sports fans. The Sun has a high limit on the number of articles you can read for free, and their website and app are not worth paying for. Neither TSN nor Sportsnet offer a premium service, though that may change when Sportsnet's Magazine shuts its doors this month.
- The $4-7 (depending on whether you catch a sale and if you sign up for the year) a month is a great price point for the amount of content you're getting. On Monday they had 9 original pieces. That's great value for one day. Most days the new content is around 5-6 items. That's just right for me. I would think twice about paying $10 a month, but the current price is a no-brainer.
The future looks exciting:
- Mirtle mentioned in his letter that "[w]e need support so that when more layoffs and buyouts come at the papers, we can hire the best of those who are let go" This is a bold statement. He's basically saying "take your buyout and come work for us!" which is kind of aggressive in a good way.
- He also says they are looking to add "several columnists unique to Toronto." This is also very exciting. Right now that's the one thing they are missing: a good generalist who can speak intelligently and entertainingly on bigger picture stories. No one has really taken that mantle in the marketplace since Brunt put it down. As I wrote in a past column, I would favour them finding someone with some name recognition to do a weekly column. To my mind there is no one better suited for that currently than Dave Perkins.
- Finally, Mirtle says: "We would like, for example, to have former NHL, NBA and MLB players, coaches and executives contribute." The Players Tribune has been a fantastic addition to the marketplace and a local version of this would be amazing. I would love to read a long reflection by Mats about whether the media in Toronto is tough, or to hear from Brian Colangelo about what he would have done differently. The papers occasionally do this sort of thing but they are constrained in ways that The Athletic wouldn't be.
On to the bad:
I intend this as constructive criticism, even if it won't be received that way. The iOS app needs a ton of work. Here are just a few things that I found within the first 20 minutes of using it.
- The app is designed for iPhone so on an iPad you can’t make use of extra screen space or pixels. The content just zooms to fill the screen. Have a look at Star Touch to see tablet layout done right.
- The app only works in portrait mode, which is a pain on an iPad.
- There's no way on the app to see a roster of writers and then pick from an index of their recent stories. You can do this by clicking on an author's name on the web version but not on the app. Author names aren't clickable.
- There's no content organization other than Leafs, Raptors, Jays. So if you want to see a list of all their podcasts, you have to scroll and scroll and scroll. Also, TFC is lumped in with Leafs currently.
- Speaking of scrolling, for some reason the web version only allows you to scroll back a week and then ends. Where are the archived stories?
- Back to the app, podcasts don't run in background. If you navigate back to the main menu it stops playing. That's a guarantee I won't listen on the app.
- Tweets embedded in stories show up on website but not on the app. What's the point of mentioning a tweet if the user can't read it?
Lastly, The Athletic proudly announces: “We're excited to introduce Article Comments. Community is at the center [sic] of our mission here at The Athletic and this is just the start of our commitment to bringing the best fans in the world together. Comments are for subscribers only and can only be accessed in our mobile apps so expect a level of discourse higher than you see in most sports forums.”
Here are some issues:
- You need to connect to a Facebook account to comment. Firstly, some of us don't have Facebook accounts. Why can't I just make an account with The Athletic? You already have my real name, email, and credit card info. Second, for a company that is billing itself as "independent", you can't get any more "dependent" than having to link through Facebook.
- Further, you can’t comment at all on the web version. You can’t even see the comments people have left. This is a completely artificial limitation that doesn't exactly fit with the concept of "community". I'm not sure how they think this is going to raise the discourse. (I suppose no discourse is a kind of elevation compared to some comments sections.) Maiming the web version of their content might save some dollars in development costs, but is penny-wise and pound foolish since many people will be reading at their computers at work.
Verdict: "world-class" technology? Not at this stage. That being said, there are lots of terrible sports apps out there already so the bar is not very high. Still, many of these issues in the iOS app are obvious. If you're taking money from people then you want to cancel any impression that current subscribers are being used as beta testers for future paying customers. If that is the case then it is important to be up-front about it.
Final Thoughts: As a consumer of sports media this is a good development for me. As a fan of the sports media industry, this is great news. Having another employer in the marketplace is a very welcome development. There's a real opportunity here to break the mould and I can't wait to see how they will grow this in Toronto. My advice is to grow your writer roster slowly. If a site has too many writers I have a hard time identifying with it. Also, this makes it harder to maintain a core identity and that will be important for The Athletic. You want customers to feel a connection with the brand.
I'll be watching how quickly they iron out the issues with the app. A small company can be nimble so let's hope they make this a priority. Beyond that there are some reasons for concern, as Raju Mudhar reports that "the company might look at advertising and sponsorship, but doesn’t want to do that in the early days." As long as they are ad-free I will keep paying with enthusiasm, if only to support the existence of an independent mainstream voice in Toronto.
Overall, this is a positive week for an industry that has seen nothing but bad news for months on end. The Athletic have done a great job of getting everyone's attention. Let's hope they capitalize on that in 2017.
I partnered with the fine folks at PPP to run a poll on whether HNIC is better this year after the moderate changes they made at the end of Year 2 (of 12). They put our poll up on Thursday. Here is how the results looked yesterday morning.
Pretty encouraging results if you're Scott Moore (who is now one of the senior execs at Rogers with the longest tenure) but also a testament to how bad their initial decisions were. If you have not done so already, go vote. The comments over there are pretty interesting as well. People really didn't like Healy. We will be writing a lot more about HNIC in the new year.
Excited to be on board! https://t.co/xJruUCBBZh
— James Cybulski (@JamesCybulski) November 30, 2016
Good guy James "C-balls" Cybulski has landed on his feet yet again, this time with a Rogers-owned news-talk station in Vancouver. James is a master class on how not to burn your bridges. He went from TSN radio Toronto to Sportsnet West, back to TSN radio, and now to Rogers radio. Congratulations James and best wishes in the new job.
If you can get past the self-indulgent writing style, this article on the peculiarity of MLS fans emulating English soccer traditions is a worthwhile topic to mull ahead of tonight's match. Also, if you have no rooting interest as of yet, the linked video of the Seattle Sounders cheerleader should motivate you to pull for TFC. FIGHT AND WIN.
Low Hanging Fruit
- NEW (added on Monday): Dean Blundell spent some of the 6am hour blasting the Jays for their off-season moves. He also spent a lot of time referring to Ross Atkins as Ross "Ass-kins". Finally, he called Sportsnet's Shi Davidi's credibility into question. The audio has been purged from the podcast version of the show. After playing a clip from Shi saying the Jays have been disciplined in their "walkaway point" this off-season Dean laid into him. Here's the quote:
"You know what that says? You know what Shi Davidi is doing? And I love Shi Davidi … I think Shi Davidi may be one of the greatest-most standup accurate reporters … and he's not inaccurate. But what Shi Davidi is doing something called spinning. He's doing it for an organization and a company and he's doing it for Ross and he's doing it for Mark. He's developed their trust. But that is a lovely way in my opinion to be able to say this: the Jays have lost yet again when it comes to signing guys and getting them to come here. Other than losers like Steve Pierce. So if you want to look at it like they've been disciplined in their plans, fine. They lost Dexter Fowler because they cheap-assed the whole thing. That's what happened. "
- So just to recap: Blundell calls his colleagues shills for Rogers and Jeff Blair has most of his colleagues blocked on Twitter. Nice culture you have over there Dave Cadeau.
- Sometimes I wonder if there is a God. Sometimes I wonder if God has a sense of humour. The best evidence for an affirmative answer to both is that on Thursday I randomly picked one hour of Overdrive from my iTunes feed and deleted the rest. The winning episode was December 5th, Hour 1, featuring O'Dog and his trusty co-host Bryan Hayes, with Craig Button filling in for the missing Noodle.
- Now, I have complained about Button before: he is yet to have a thought that he deemed unworthy of sharing with the audience. This episode was no exception. The boys started the show with 10 solid minutes of MLB free agency talk. This was a bold move since at least two of them know very little on the subject. This is Overdrive's fatal flaw and has been from Day 1. Whatever the topic is, if they can relate it back to hockey then they will. If they can't, well then the organizational philosophy of "mailing it in" takes over.
- Sometimes, however, this leads to hilarious results. Here, courtesy of Overdrive, is your moment of Zen:
- Dear TSN1050 … this is how your station sounds to the rest of the world:
mobile: Merry Christmas
- P.S. … the Fall ratings book should be out soon and the FAN had a bunch of Jays playoff games during a range of slots. I'm guessing it will be another healthy round of xmas bonuses for all their hosts.
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)