Kung Pao Grantland

Bill Simmons

Bill Simmons

GrantlandFor the past few days there’s been an under-the-radar furor over the news that ESPN will shutter (and now has shuttered) Grantland, Bill Simmon’s unorthodox and motley digital magazine he started in 2011. A melange of sports writing and pop culture analysis, Grantland offered daily doses of baseball/football/basketball coverage (“The Triangle”), movie and television reviews, NBA trade predictions, Hollywood power-structure tell-alls, and straight-up unabashed fan writing of all manner of popular entertainment. The moment the Twittersphere kinda-sorta erupted with news of Grantland’s demise I immediately felt sullen. Some grown-up in ESPN’s accounting department had taken my lollipop away.

Excuse me while I make a poor but useful metaphor: Grantland was the digital equivalent of Chinese-American cuisine. Both offer a little of something for everyone, and the elements together on the plate taste like nothing else in the American palate. Starchy staples, tasty fried sports writing, as well as specialty items you can take or leave, the sweet-and-sour film review or the Kung Pao TV retrospective. Founder and editor-in-chief Bill Simmons’ columns? The fortune cookie.

Unsurprisingly, Grantland was heavy on sportswriting. Bill Simmons’ career as a Boston sportswriter and later with ESPN guaranteed any site he started would zero in on the hardcore day-in, day-out sports fan. But Simmons aimed higher than the lad-magazine sports coverage dominating the commercial Web today. He also avoided the purple athlete hagiographies Sports Illustrated‘s writers pen in the hopes of turning a feature article into a book. Instead, Simmons looked for thoughtful, side-angle takes on sports that avoided the breathless “you-are-there” prose and sports-radio head-bashing. Grantland offered college basketball coverage that would make any casual fan a maniac, unapologetic take-downs on the NFL concussion controversy, and a soulful piece on Don King at the end of a remarkable lifetime, a story that should’ve won a Pulitzer.

(Grantland’s sportswriting wasn’t pure platinum. Like the worst of the dailies’ sports columns, Grantland occasionally lapsed into poor satire, such as its fictional oral history of a real-life American League pennant game, or, worse, Roger Federer’s deviled eggs recipe, both of which told me that Grantland’s writers operated under deadlines like their print counterparts.)

If sports don’t float your boat, Grantland’s television and film writing was equally strong. These features weren’t “bolt-ons” designed to drive traffic to a sports-centric site, but an integral part of Grantland’s overall gestalt. (Now you see where I’m going with this Chinese food metaphor.) In fact, that might be the secret of Grantland’s success: it treated TV and film criticism with the same irreverent seriousness as great American sportswriting. Simmons recognized a sports-fan-like obsessiveness in the Mad Men bingeviewers and the art-house film fanatics. They take their pursuits solemnly and dive in deep to their pet loves, but not with the deadly sanctimoniousness of political junkies or finicky tastes of music fans. Grantland targeted today’s connoisseurs of popular narrative entertainment, people who watch the movie then watch it again with the director’s commentary.

Most of all, Grantland recognized it was possible be a fan of all these cultural wellsprings—Major League Baseball, Breaking Bad, Christopher Nolan—and smart enough to want to read deeper and broader into them all. Bill Simmons laid it on the line: great writing will attract eyeballs, and it will keep them coming back for more.

My appreciation for Grantland came last July when I swore Grantland was committing a bizarre form of suicide. The noose they chose to hang themselves with was “Rom Com Week,” five days of retrospective on the best and worst of Hollywood’s romantic comedies. How could a site for sports fans who think the NBA draft is nail-biting drama possibly want to read about movies that made you laugh as you cried?

Well, it worked. It even made me rethink the romantic comedy as a—fine, I’ll say it—art form. I devoured each daily transmission of “Rom Com Week” at my office desk over a brown bag lunch, always eager for the next day’s installment. The cherry to top it off was Bill Simmons’ wrap-up analysis, “Sports Movie or Not a Sports Movie?” He attacked what may be the most pressing question in popular culture that was never asked and never answered: Were movies like Bull Durham, Tin Cup, and The Replacements sports movies or romantic comedies? In an awe-inspiring and sweeping investigation, Grantland uncovered a massive underground river in American culture, the overlap between “guy” sports films and “gal” rom-coms, with Kevin Costner as the center peg holding it all together. If Simmons’ essay doesn’t rearrange your head, you’ve been living under a rock for the past three-plus decades.

That’s the fortune cookie, Bill Simmons sliding in at the last moment with surprising observations and a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the subject at hand. Hell, he almost got me to forgive Saturday Night Live for forty years of repetitive and spineless comedy—almost. That said, Grantland’s SNL retrospective adds up to some of the best writing ever on an American institution that somehow manages to delude itself (and a lot of other people) into thinking it’s still an anti-establishment rabble-rouser, even while wearing a tuxedo and hobnobbing with A-list celebrities.

Romantic comedies, SNL at 40, the real origins of Moneyball, The Terminator reconsidered, the future of James Bond, the Golden State Warriors’ performance shot-by-shot. Maybe someday the hole left by Grantland will be filled, but I doubt it.

What happened to Longform.org? (part 2): Sponsored content

LongformBack in December I asked “What happened to Longform.org?”, a longish complaint about the changing course of my favorite curator of long-form journalism. Although I concluded that post with the tepid threat that “maybe it’s time for me to find a new curator,” I confess I never actually turned my back on Longform, the premier aggregate of long digital content on the Web. A few other long-form journalism aggregators have sprung up in Longform’s jostling wake (most notably, Longreads), but none have approached the ubiquitous or success of Longform. My hunch is that for an online magazine to get one of its articles listed by Longform is like hitting the daily trifecta at the track—a fat guarantee of tens of thousands of additional pairs of eyeballs being driven to the magazine’s site.

Today I noticed on Longform’s front page something new, that scourge of journalism, the advertisement masquerading as a hard-news essay, the puff piece known colloquially as “sponsored content”. Lodged between a New Yorker essay on euthanasia and Sarah Wambold’s reportage on natural burials in a Texas grove—make of that what you will—Longform dropped into their feed sponsored content from Hewlett-Packard, “Five Huge Industries That Never Saw Disruption Coming”. While the advertorial doesn’t shill HP’s hardware or services directly to the reader, any company established in the data services industry—or any company worried about being thrown aside by upstarts on their heels—is a bread-and-butter client for Hewlett-Packard, and so it’s in HP’s interest to appear as a high-tech sage, the rare Silicon Valley company with eyes on the horizon and not next quarter’s bottom line. “Five Huge Industries” paints HP as sitting in just such a tantric pose. Longform marked the link to “Five Huge Industries” as sponsored (and thankfully didn’t include it in its RSS feed), but the fact remains that the aggregation site is now using its linking power to send their readers off to corporations that have paid for that privilege rather than earned it through great timely writing.

I’m unsure if this is the first instance of sponsored content appearing under Longform’s lighthouse banner, as I’ve not followed the site terribly closely since I posted that first complaint six months ago. Linking to sponsored content is not an egregious sin or some tainting of hallowed journalist ground. I do know that sponsored content is not a good sign for anyone (including myself) who would like to see more diversity and greater breadth in Longform’s selections.

In 2013, gimlet-eyed media critic Jack Shafer wrote a great piece on sponsored content (known as “native advertising” in the business) and how it inevitably infects the reputation of even the most sterile news source:

If, as George Orwell once put it, “The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket,” then sponsored content is the meal so wretched that even pigs will reject unless sugar-frosted. The average sponsored-content page pits the advertiser against the publisher; the former attempts to make his copy and art look as much like conventional news or feature copy as powerfully as the latter pushes back as hard as he can to preserve “editorial integrity” without forfeiting the maximum fee. It’s common for both sides to come away from the transaction feeling soiled and swindled, but, hey, that’s the nature of most advertising.

I’d say this applies as much to a digital aggregator like Longform, which drives readers to other web sites via links and clicks, as much as it does for a traditional news site, where the advertiser’s content is integrated alongside actual content.

What happened to Longform.org?

Longform.orgWay back in 2008, Michael Agger wrote for Slate “How we read online”, a State of the Union on the dreadful shape of Web journalism. Agger’s piece enumerated the accepted practices of online writing that had been pounded into place by the invisible fist of SEO Darwinism: short paragraphs, quick sentences, lots of boldface to anchor attention, and plenty of bullet lists to attract eyeballs. Add a dash of in-the-know sarcasm and a pinch of holier-than-thou smarm, bake until bubbly hot, and you had Internet journalism circa 2008. Nothing mindblowing in Agger’s piece, nothing particularly damning either, just an observer stopping for a deep breath, looking backwards to 1997 (or so), and uttering, “This is where we’ve arrived after ten years?” If you enjoy reading, Agger’s article was a discouraging summary of your options online.

Hence my excitement in 2012 when I discovered Longform.org, an aggregator site of digital long-form journalism reliably curated by the University of Pittsburgh’s writing program. The site updates daily with links to long essays (over 2,000 words) published around the Web. A concise capsule summary accompanying each link provides just enough context to know if a story is your bag of oats. It’s a bit damning of our culture that 2,000 words counts as “long” when not so long ago Time or Newsweek would have categorized that as a filler article, but so be it: in 2012, Longform curated the Web I wanted to experience.

Longform’s bread-and-butter essays were willing to breathe and go in-depth, allowing the author time to wander a bit off the path and stretch out to take in the long view of things. They were the kind of articles that made you leave the browser tab open so you could come back to them later. The kind of material you would share with friends when you met them in the real world, not merely the clickbait that you dumped into your Facebook feed to further burnish your online persona.

Some examples of great work introduced to me by Longform includes “Cigarettes and Alcohol: Andy Capp” from PlanetSlade, James Surowiecki’s “A Brief History of Money” from IEEE’s Spectrum, and the Wikipedia article on the Taman Shud mystery, easily the strangest true crime story you’ll ever read. (Longform’s capsule: “An unidentified body found near the beach in Australia in 1948. An unclaimed suitcase. A coded note.”)

I could name a dozen more great articles Longform introduced to me, but these three form a snapshot of the Internet they were curating in 2012. In aggregate, Longform’s recommendations acted as a collective refutation of Michael Agger’s 2008 pronouncement: The Web doesn’t have to be written in smarmy bulleted shorthand. Longform proved people were ready to read substantial work online. (The years 2011–2012 may go down as the tipping point for the general acceptance of electronic-only written long work, not just long-form journalism, but also ebooks and the legitimization of short story and poetry web sites.)

The above snapshot of recommendations also points to something even more exciting about Longform’s aesthetics, namely their openness to a wide variety of sources. All comers were welcome under the Longform umbrella (or inside the Longform lighthouse, in deference to their logo). PlanetSlade is journalist Paul Slade’s personal web site, a kind of blog of essays he’s been unable to place with magazines, digital or otherwise. Spectrum is the mouthpiece of IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, hardly a purveyor of mainstream journalism. Everyone knows Wikipedia, but for Longform to pick one of its entries as a worthy read for the serious-casual reader is, I think, their boldest statement yet.

Today, nearing the end of 2014, Longform is going stronger than ever. They’ve ramped up their staff (sixteen editors, interns, and support staff according to their About page), offer a slick iPhone/iPad app with social media features, produce a podcast, and have promised lots more to come. If Longform is a weather vane, long-form journalism on the Internet should continue to enjoy sunshine and blue skies.

So why do I feel like a plaid-wearing hipster complaining he just heard his favorite college-radio band on a Top 40 station? I’ve not seen Longform make anything close to a bold statement in over a year. What happened to Longform?

Longform’s recommendations for personal blog posts or independent ezines seem far-off memories. Oddities like Spectrum are now rarities. Lately, Longform’s daily march of fresh links are a bland cavalcade of sturdy name brands: GQ, The Baffler, The Atlantic, Businessweek, and Grantland, just to name what I see on their home page as of this moment. There’s a couple of odd ducks in there (The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eurogamer), but they are dying echoes of what Longform once was and would like to pretend it remains.

Longform’s saving grace is their fiction recommendations, a nice touch that keeps the flame alive for those of us not regularly producing non-fiction. But like its nonfiction staples, Longform appears to have its favorites for sources of fiction—I’m looking at you, Collagist and Atticus Review.

The homogenization of Longform’s picks is the most discouraging aspect of this shift. Today’s Longform is less varied and less quirky than the past, now more topical and aligned to the 24-hour news cycle of crisis-mode journalism. Longform’s greatest asset in 2012 was the element of surprise tinged with humor. You simply don’t read articles about Andy Capp or killer truck drivers very often. Longform put a much-needed spotlight on these great unusual stories and their writers. It seemed to revel in finding that story you never would have heard about before. Today’s Longform links to that dialogue between Frank Rich and Chris Rock, but let’s not fool ourselves: you were bound to hear about it anyway. Longform didn’t bring much to the table in that instance.

It’s not that Longform should banish mainstream journalism from their daily feed. There’s a place for big-name journalism, but considering those organizations’ resources, I would raise the bar on them to make room for other voices to enter the conversation. For example, Grantland‘s piece on Don King is astonishingly human and one of the best reads of last year. It remains a singularity in Grantland‘s publishing history (which is largely NBA trade analyses and movie retrospectives). Grantland attempted to surpass it in November with a tepid, torpid piece on sumo wrestling best remembered as a technical demonstration of HTML 5’s feature set, but Longform featured it anyway.

I keep returning to the word curation. A trendy term and overused at the end of 2014, but if there’s ever a Web site it applies to, it’s Longform. Digital curation is what Longform provides; curation is how it should be judged.

Here’s what I mean by curation. The Louvre is the most exhausting museum I’ve ever visited, a leafblower of art and artifacts aimed straight at your visual cortex. Yet the smaller, more modest British Museum is the better experience. Why? At the British Museum, traveling from room to room feels like thumbing through a pocket-sized guide of Western history. Empty space and shadows counterpoint masterpieces. When a room is busy with artwork, it’s busy like a rural British garden, that is, rigorously cultivated to appear untended. The British Museum’s success is the result of considered decisions, the curators picking and choosing with care from all the cultural riches available to them. The assembled pieces form a cogent experience, and so what’s left out is as vital as what’s included.

Yesterday, Longform’s curators offered to their audience an article with the Upworthy-esque title “This Doomed Alaskan Village Shows Just How Unprepared We are for Climate Change”. This is the straw that broke my back. I haven’t read the piece so I can’t comment on its quality, but everything I’ve come to dread about Longform is encapsulated in this recommendation. The breathless headline—juicy and primed for sharing on Facebook—tells me this not the long view, but instead urgency reportage, the journalistic equivalent of grabbing someone by the lapels and shaking them while demanding Don’t you care? And it’s Longform pushing another politically-charged piece in a time when we’re subjected to non-stop political cattle-prodding from all sides. It may be a beautiful story, it may be an important story, but as a piece of an assembled whole that’s rapidly losing my attention, maybe it’s time for me to find a new curator.