One of the most-discussed pieces from Grantland’s short history so far is Charles P. Pierce recalling his time at the fabled, much-lamented The National, whose 17 months of existence in 1990 and 1991 featured an amazing who’s who of sportswriting talent and groundbreaking experiments in everything from color print and distribution to box scores and column-writing. For most of The National’s brief existence, I was in college in New Haven, Conn., which was one of the few places where you could get the paper – and from a corner box, no less. Looking back, I was too young to understand what a departure the paper was from everything that had come before, or to imagine that it might fail. There’s a famous quote about the Velvet Underground that could as easily apply to aspiring sportswriters and The National: Hardly anyone bought the debut album, but everyone who did started a band.
Pierce’s recollections won a wide audience for a couple of reasons. The silly reason was that Pierce has feuded nastily and publicly with Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons, which lent his appearance in Grantland a certain voyeuristic appeal. A happier reason was that Pierce’s recollections were vivid, detailed and moving, ending with an arresting anecdote about watching Mexican orphans play baseball with whatever was at hand: “There has to be a place for that in the collective memory of the tribe — orphaned children, playing baseball, swinging old bones as a choked, blooded sunset falls on a small, scalded corner of the world,” Pierce wrote. “For a while, it was The National that provided that place. I'd be ashamed to say it wasn't worth the gamble.”
There’s also the fact that Grantland seems like a potential continuation of what The National aspired to be. ESPN didn’t miss the connection: While in development, those close to Grantland referred to it as The National 2.0. That’s a thread Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs (who for a while looked like he’d wind up working at Grantland) picked up. Craggs called Pierce’s piece “essentially the introduction to Grantland that Simmons never wrote” and added that “what made me excited about Grantland in the first place was the prospect of writing stories that, in conception and style and execution, would look unlike anything ESPN ever does. Pierce's essay is one of those stories, and so is [Chuck Klosterman's college-hoops essay], and that's because, in their own way, those stories are also about weird old bones in small corners of the world.”
That nicely captures a yearning I think Grantland’s launch evoked in fans of sportswriting, which bodes well for the site’s future if it continues to offer evocative stories about those weird old bones. But at the same time, there’s something working against Grantland – something inherent in the web that The National, for all its problems, never had to face.
The challenge — for Grantland or any other publisher — is that the web works against their brands, fragmenting them into bits. The National, if you could find it, was a paper you'd buy on a newsstand, picking it over other papers. Perhaps there was one story in particular that jumped out at you on the newsstand, or that a friend had told you about, but having bought a copy of The National you'd then likely read it cover to cover, or at least page through it — and you were less likely to read anything from the other publications you hadn’t bought.
But that's not the way the web works. Online, we increasingly engage with sites not as a whole, but through individual articles we find through search or social media. A reader who arrives at an individual article may not read anything else, departing after that first item — and possibly reading individual articles from all manner of other sources. Yes, there are still "destination brands" whose homepages are visited by readers as part of their daily rounds, and such readers are obviously very valuable. But publishers can no longer count on daily habits in making their business plans. Facebook, Twitter, blogs that aggregate material from other sites and search all further fragmentation. Figuring out how to entice readers to go beyond that single article and check out other offerings is one of the foremost challenges in web design — far more important than the homepages that still grab an outsized portion of design resources and publishers' thoughts.
Can publishers counteract this fragmentation? They're trying – witness efforts such as paywalls and the "metered model" of site access. The dilemma publishers face is they don't want to lose an influx of potential new readers by cutting off access — which is why publishers typically don’t count articles found through search or shared through social media against the metered model or paywall restrictions. This is a wise acknowledgment of web realities, but it’s a short-term bargain: As social media becomes even more ubiquitous, this loophole will become a bigger and bigger hole in paid-access strategies.
The question for publishers, then, is how far the fragmentation of collective brands will go. If piecemeal access doesn't dominate readers' habits, strategies for converting single-article readers to habitual ones can take their place alongside more traditional ways of building brands. But if piecemeal access does dominate behavior, publishers will have to radically rethink how traditional, collective brands work — creating "paytags" that accompany individual articles or videos as links to them make their way across the web, perhaps. Or maybe that won't work, and publishers will have to accept that traditional brands no longer work at all.
And that's where I come back to The National. Most recollections of The National revolve around one of two things: the crazy, make-it-up-as-we-go business model (yet another way in which it seems like a web company before its time) or the individual writers who plied their trade there. Which is a question about Grantland too: Can the site can develop an identity beyond being a URL commonly encountered by fans of Simmons, Klosterman and its other top names?
Maybe it can — ESPN.com and Deadspin are known as destination brands, and I think that yearning speaks to the fact that we still want single places to make daily destinations, or at least think we do. But if Grantland’s identity fails to develop, some of the blame will fall on the web and fragmentation.
Grantland's writers already had lots of fans, after all, and many of those fans already encountered those writers’ articles piecemeal as they appeared on a variety of sites. Which is increasingly the way we get our sports news and commentary — a bit of Simmons here, some Craggs there, a Joe Posnanski post over here and finally a lyrical post from a just-discovered blogger, all of it vetted by our peers on Twitter or Facebook and assembled by scripts.
Seen from that perspective, The National 2.0 already existed. Except it's created by readers, and no two incarnations of it are the same.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.