Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing

It’s dangerous, I suspect, to draw too many lessons from the ignominious end of Grantland, the high-brow sports and culture site that ESPN shuttered this weekend, several months after parting ways with Bill Simmons, the site’s founder and editor-in-chief. Much of what transpired seems to have clearly been personal, not only the rancorous way in which it ended but also how it began: was ESPN every truly committed to a brand-building endeavor that didn’t even have the ESPN name, or was Grantland a pet project meant to keep Simmons, the most influential and famous sportswriter of his generation, in the fold?

Conventional wisdom is that both are worse off for having split: ESPN for having lost said writer and, in the end, a truly remarkable online magazine, while Simmons lost access to ESPN’s massive audience. Still, there is no question that the numbers didn’t add up: Deadspin reported in May that Grantland had 6 million unique visitors in March, a relatively meager sum that in no way shape or form could support a team of over 50 writers, editors, and back-end staff, even if Grantland had been much more aggressive in monetizing through advertisements (the site usually carried at most one banner ad plus a “You might be interested in…” block at the end of articles). And, so, as Chris Connelly, who replaced Simmons as interim editor-in-chief, noted in an interview with Sports Illustrated:

When you are doing a site that you understand is not making money, you kind of understand when times get challenging or there is a new economic climate, you will be scrutinized very closely. I think the site continued to do fantastic editorial, for which I want to be sure not to take credit. That was the product of the editors and writers who were there every day of the week. But in this economic climate you will be very closely scrutinized if you are not a money-making operation.

Indeed, Grantland was not the only cut at ESPN: the network also recently laid off around 300 people in the face of rising costs and declining subscriber numbers; there’s not much room for brand-building when you’re already showing valuable employees the door.

Grantland’s Value

There’s no question that Grantland was an editorial success, at least in terms of quality. The site garnered three National Magazine Award nominations, won a primetime Emmy, and was nominated for and won a number of Sports Emmys, Webby Awards, Eppy Awards, and more.1 Speaking personally, the site was one of only a handful I visited directly daily; if an article was on Grantland I presumed it was worth reading.

To put it another way, Grantland was a “Destination Site.” I first defined this term in an article this spring about Facebook’s Instant Articles, and noted:

It’s really hard to become a destination: you need compelling content of consistently high quality. Notice, though, that that is precisely the opposite of what most online publications have focused on: in their race for ever more content and ever more clicks most publications have lowered their quality bar.

That right there is the rub, as Todd VanDerWerff lamented on Vox:

The problem is scale. A larger, general-interest site can’t be built purely atop longform, because longform takes time — both for writers to produce and readers to read. Therefore, as both Buzzfeed and Gawker realized early on, well-done longform could be the steak, but it couldn’t be the meal. (Grantland perhaps realized this too late.)

The non-steak portion of the “meal” that VanDerWerff refers to are those quick-hitting posts that, to use his employer (Vox.com) as an example, embed and summarize an interview with a pop singer, do the same embed and summarize routine about a $1500 sandwich, and rewrite a news story about Jon Stewart going to HBO that countless other sites covered as well. And that’s just (a small selection from) Tuesday! In fact, the majority of stories — including the most popular ones of the day — could have been written by anyone anywhere.

As a reader this is frustrating: Vox stripped down to the political and policy coverage that is its raison d’être would almost certainly rate as a destination site for me; instead, faced with a deluge of rewrites and summarized videos, I miss most of the good stuff save for what I stumble across on social media. I’m certainly not going to waste my time wading through the filler on the homepage.

Grantland’s Worth

Still, the fact remains that Vox is by all accounts thriving while Grantland, which eschewed filler, is dead. Moreover, the only destination sites that really seem to be working either have massive brand equity that is being leveraged into subscriptions (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times), or are tiny one-person operations that leverage the Internet to keep costs sustainably low while monetizing through small-scale native advertising (e.g. Daring Fireball and the now-retired Dooce.com, for example) or subscriptions (e.g. The Timmerman Report and the site you’re reading). It certainly seems that the lesson of Grantland is that there is no room in the middle: not enough scale for advertising, and costs that are far too high for a viable subscription business.2

The Publishing Curve Revisited

But remember my initial warning: it’s possible to read too much into Grantland. Last year I wrote about Publishers and the Smiling Curve, characterizing publishers as being akin to original equipment manufacturers assembling computers and phones at cost, while profits flowed to aggregators on one side (Facebook, Google, etc.) and to “stars and focused publications” on the other.

Publishers and the Smiling Curve
Publishers and the Smiling Curve

I certainly think I got the aggregator part right (several months later I generalized the concept to Aggregation Theory), but it wasn’t clear in the article — or ultimately to me — how exactly the “stars and focused publications” would profit outside of one-man operations.

Simmons, though, just as he pioneered online sports writing, may be leading the way once again in demonstrating how writing can be monetized: by not even trying.

Writing As Lead Generation

Simmons is pursuing two endeavors post-ESPN: he’s creating a television show for HBO Now (although it will reportedly air on HBO proper as well) and he’s recording The Bill Simmons Podcast. The business models — and thus the incentives — for both couldn’t be more different than those for successful online publishers:

  • HBO Now, like all subscription services, has to surmount the far stiffer challenge of convincing customers to get out their credit cards, not just click a link (or, in television terms, watch an ad-supported show). This changes the focus from common-denominator low-cost fare like reality TV or game shows (or video summaries or news rewrites) to focused, expensive “destination shows” that fewer people watch, but those who do care intensely.

    One show in one niche isn’t enough though; the best balance between revenue and costs is found through bundling: people may be willing to pay a lot for one show and a little for several others, which means a well appointed bundle can ultimately get more revenue per customer from a wider base of customers. In the case of Simmons, he brings a younger male audience that cares about sports, and who may also be interested in, say, Game of Thrones or Hard Knocks, or perhaps a bit of comedy from, say, Jon Stewart; it’s the collection that makes said audience willing to pay $15/month, even though they may have been willing to pay Simmons alone less.

    Why, though, does Simmons have those fans in the first place? Because of his writing. The flipside of writing being hard to monetize is that it is the most digestible and sharable medium, allowing folks to accrue large audiences that they can leverage elsewhere.

  • Podcasts run on an advertising model, but said advertising is far more valuable than display ads in particular. They are truly native: Simmons, like most podcast hosts, reads the ads himself in the middle of his podcast, meaning they are more likely to be heard and are more engaging to boot.

    The trouble with podcasts is that they are difficult to grow: while text can be shared and consumed quickly, a podcast requires a commitment (which again, is why advertising in them is so valuable). Simmons, though, by virtue of his previous writing, is already averaging over 400,000 downloads per episode.3 Podcast rates are hard to come by, but I’m aware of a few podcasts a quarter the size that are earning somewhere in excess of $10,000/episode; presuming proportionally similar rates (which may be unrealistic, given the broader audience) The Bill Simmons Podcast, which publishes three times a week, could be on a >$6 million run rate, which, per my envelope math in the footnote above, could nearly pay for a 50-person staff a la Grantland.

To be sure, as I noted above, Grantland was certainly much more expensive, and it’s not clear just how far podcasting can scale (but I think that’s only a matter of time), but Grantland actually had an entire stable of podcasts, several of which were quite popular because they featured writers whose writing was popular.4 Just as with HBO, it turns out writing is great lead generation for an actual monetizable business.

The Grantland Lesson

To be sure, it’s tempting to pull a “That’s Fine for Bill”; the guy has been writing online for eighteen years (and, technically, he’s not writing now).5 It’s a fair point but I think there’s room for another, equally compelling one: too much of the debate about monetization and the future of publishing in particular has artificially restricted itself to monetizing text. That constraint made sense in a physical world: a business that invested heavily in printing presses and delivery trucks didn’t really have a choice but to stick the product and the business model together, but now that everything — text, video, audio files, you name it — is 1’s and 0’s, what is the point in limiting one’s thinking to a particular configuration of those 1’s and 0’s?

In fact, it’s more than possible that in the long-run the current state of publishing — massive scale driven by advertising on one hand,6 and one-person shops with low revenue numbers and even lower costs on the other — will end up being an aberration. Focused, quality-obsessed publications will take advantage of bundle economics to collect “stars” and monetize them through some combination of subscriptions (less likely) or alternate media forms. Said media forms, like podcasts, are tough to grow on their own, but again, that is what makes them such a great match for writing, which is perfect for growth but terrible for monetization.

That’s why the lesson to be learned from Grantland may be the exact opposite of what it seems: the problem isn’t that ESPN spent too much money on a web site that couldn’t monetize, it’s that the web site should only have been step one to a multi-media endeavor that converted visitors to fans willing to invest time in formats that can actually pay the bills.7

  1. Via the afore-linked Deadspin article []
  2. Some back of the envelope figures:

    Presuming a cost per employee of $100,000 (which, including benefits, is probably on the low side):

    • A one person site needs $100,000 in revenue, which means 1,000 subscribers at $100/year
    • A two person site needs $200,000 in revenue, which means 2,000 subscribers at $100/year
    • A 50 person site (ignoring Simmons’ reported $5 million salary, plus the fact the site included former Pulitzer Prize winners) needs $5 million in revenue, which means 50,000 subscribers at $100/year. Add in Grantland’s other expenses and the number is likely double that

    Keep that $5 million figure in mind []

  3. I’ve heard the number now is actually closer to 500,000 []
  4. The podcast point is the most legitimate of all of Simmons’ complaints about ESPN: there was clearly minimal effort made to monetize the B.S. Report or the other Grantland podcasts []
  5. This is also the part where I note that the reason I and so many other online writers revere him, despite his warts, is that he was a true pioneer: no one had made a career on the Internet before him, and now lots of us have []
  6. Indeed, I’ve not only written repeatedly that a traditional advertising model only works at scale, but also argued that Facebook and Google are on pace to capture ever more of it: the two Internet giants have better user data, better tracking, and better inventory, and relatively unlimited inventory (at least compared to a medium like TV, which certainly took a chunk of advertising revenue from traditional publishers, but only a chunk). []
  7. One more thing: I don’t think linear TV is that format. Fans want to read/see/listen to stars, but time is a constraint; on-demand a la HBO Now or podcasts is a much better fit []