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Gawker Has a Lesson for Sports Departments

Gawker Media boss Nick Denton made waves last week with an explanation of the thinking behind his sites’ new look, which will become the norm next month. (You can see how Deadspin looks in a beta version here.) As you’d expect from Denton, his walkthrough is smart, blunt and comes with a generous helping of showmanship. It also reveals a trend websites are just beginning to come to grips with, and that will affect sports along with everything else.

In his post, Denton explains why the Gawker sites are ditching the traditional reverse-chronological flow of blog posts in favor of a full story on the left and scrollable headlines on the right. He discusses the weakness of this basic blog design, noting that big stories get washed away by smaller ones – when the tech blog Gizmodo got its hands on a prototype iPhone, it actually stopped publishing for several hours to keep its scoop at the top of the page for the many new visitors coming in. And he savages the current state of web advertising: “The savvier [media buyers] know clickthroughs are an indicator of the blindness, senility or idiocy of readers rather than the effectiveness of the ads.” A lot of what Denton is unveiling is borrowed from TV, and aimed at attracting higher-end ads. His conclusion: “We will offer a larger canvas for both our editors and advertisers; and pair their offerings in the way that the web has so far failed and TV has done so well."

Denton’s post has attracted a fair amount of commentary in digital-media circles, but what really jumped out at me is what the new template does to Gawker’s home page. There now effectively isn’t one – essentially, the Gawker sites will spotlight a single story at a time, with links to everything else. Or, to put it another way, every story can now effectively serve as a home page.

That’s smart, because it reflects the reality that we increasingly get our news through social media. Searching and sharing have splintered publications into fragments — the basic unit of news on the web isn’t a site or a section, but an individual article, video, podcast or what-have-you. Hyperlinks themselves drive this fragmentation, as does search. But social media has accelerated it. Denton notes that Gawker’s referrals from Facebook have increased sixfold since the beginning of 2010, and argues that “we can turn more of that drive-by visitors into regulars by turning every page into a front page.” But he then goes on to call Facebook and Twitter “as much threat as opportunity. … The river of news that each provides is personalized, comprehensive and sifted by the reader's social network. And they can make pages much more cheaply than operations dependent entirely on original content.”

Denton knows he can’t beat that – no site can. We’re social animals, and our preferred way to take in, assess and spread information is by talking with our peers. Now the web gives us access to much more information, and social media gives us an easy way to share that information in real time, let us effectively recreate our hard-wired social ties online. (Read more thoughts about this here.) But this sharing is piecemeal – we share articles, not sites. We pass along a bit of Sports Illustrated here, a bit of the San Francisco Chronicle there, an ESPN.com video followed by an independent writer’s blog post. What ties these things together? Not the home page of SI or the Chronicle’s sports front or ESPN’s home page or the main page of that blog – rather, all of these things float along on the river of news assembled for us by our friends.

It’s painful to say this, but the sports section is growing less and less important as a way of organizing the news. It’s a big tent, aimed at appealing to a general sports audience, when the members of that audience increasingly wander in and out of many tents in the company of like-minded fans. Our sports pages are increasingly our Facebook or Twitter feeds, and the job of organizing the news has been taken over by our peers.

This doesn’t mean sports editors are out of a job – sports fans now get more information than they ever have, and this has only increased our craving for more up-to-the-minute news, sound analysis and great storytelling. But sports departments have to keep in mind that readers are less likely to come to an article through a home page or a section front, and less likely to be familiar with a publication.

Increasingly, readers’ visits begin with a specific article. For those visitors, that article essentially is your home page or sports section front. It’s quite possibly your only opportunity to get readers to keep reading other things, and how effectively it does its job will drive traffic, ad revenue, reader loyalty and everything else. Yet too many sites still agonize over home pages and section fronts while treating articles as the end point of a reader’s journey. That’s backwards, and every day it becomes more of a waste of resources.

Like a lot in the digital world, this is startling and unsettling: It’s the equivalent of having visitors teleporting into the den instead of coming up the driveway and knocking on the front door. But that’s the reality we face. What we need to do is greet those visitors in the den and make them feel at home, in hopes that they’ll take us up on the offer of a tour and decide to stick around.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.on Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
  
 
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