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ESPN Digital boss King talks strategies on engaging viewers, attracting changing audiences with NSJC students

One of the principal architects behind the behemoth of modern sports digital media, Rob King, ESPN’s Senior Vice President for Print and Digital Media, boasts a personal journey that, in many ways, mirrors that of his employer. From his days on the general assignment desk for a daily newspaper in Danville, Ill. to his current gig overseeing a website that generates around 40 million unique visitors a month, King’s had his hand in a throng of media platforms throughout his 25-plus years in the business.

All of which likely serves him well at ESPN, for which he left his post at The Philadelphia Inquirer for in 2004. In his seven years in Bristol, he’s run an award-winning outfit of more than 200 editors, writers and designers across the online platform, overseen the launch of five regional sites as well as columnist Bill Simmons’ brainchild, Grantland.com. And the duties don’t end there: he’ll now have more of an active role in the production of ESPN: The Magazine, further establishing King as one of the instrumental components behind the company’s rapid rise to the apex of the sports media world.

King openly offered his thoughts on his employer, the changing sports media business and a host of other topics Thursday for graduate students of the National Sports Journalism Center. He spoke of how Internet news coverage has evolved during his time at ESPN, how he and his colleagues are working to better engage their audience before, during and after an event and lastly, what it’s like running the brand all other companies are chasing.

“We have a strategy that we call live, social, personal,” King explained to the students via Skype. “It’s a mantra that we’re spreading around everywhere. There was a time when a website was enough, but now, we want to be there with you. We want to send tweets while the game is going on. We want to make sure (that) as an audience, you are getting what you want out of this relationship. We want to create an environment you always want to come back to.”

King also expounded on six trends he sees shaping the ever-evolving world of sports media, among them: the fading existence of the 800-1,000 word online story.

King was happy to respond to a multitude of questions from the students centered on ESPN, journalistic integrity and the booming online media market:

  • On the five regional websites in Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, Chicago and Boston:

“They’ve all done very well financially against our plan and we’re happy with what we’ve created. In the long haul, we want to see bigger growth. Originally, we did draw up a plan to go to 25 markets. Now, we’re looking in both directions. How can we be great locally and how can that help us be great nationally?”

  • On the recent departure of popular ESPN.com columnist Pat Forde to Yahoo! Sports:

“First of all, I’d like to say I’ve known Pat since 1992 and he’s a very, very good friend of mine. I think in our latest contract conversation, we suggested he do more things with the magazine, tell bigger stories that way. It wasn’t the offer Pat wanted. Yahoo! must have simply fit his eye better.”

  • On ESPN’s recently-questioned objectivity, pertaining to journalism ethics:

“That’s an issue we take very seriously. We have to take an active role in dispelling the notion that our journalists are kept from doing good journalism based on our business interests. Nobody loves Goliath. Whatever reporting we do – as good as possible, impactful – if we get it wrong, it would be that much bigger.”

“The middle is disappearing,” he said. “There are two very different sports consumption experiences. First, there’s the quick stuff: the short highlights, the data, the stats, the tweets, the breaking news. Consumers are diving in and diving out as much as they possible can. The other experience is the long-form, deep engagement experience. (People are) very comfortable reading long-form stories, and those with tablets know.”

King, a good friend of Simmons, noted the rise of Grantland.com as a prime example. The website is a branch of ESPN.com that offers lengthy features and commentary pieces on topics in sports and pop culture.

“The site’s been up for about four months now,” King said. “The first month is got seven million unique visitors. The second month it got 8.5 million. The third month, around 10 million. On any given day, 15-20 percent of people stay between 15 minutes and an hour. In the digital space, that is an eternity. This shows us that the longer, immersive experiences are meaningful.”

Given Simmons’ vast popularity across the Internet, Grantland’s success comes as little surprise. But it also alludes to a second point emphasized by King: the shrinking gap between professional sports journalist and the stay-at-home blogger. What Simmons represents – the quintessential sports fan, living and dying with his beloved teams and offering emotional, candid and amusing accounts along the way – is evidence of a fluctuating market for sports coverage.

“There is no mass audience anymore,” King said. “There is a massive audience of individuals instead. They are all so diverse in (their) interests. Now, technology has allowed you to start off every day by creating a world of your own. You follow the people you want to follow.”

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