Three lessons news sites can take from the launch of The Verge


This post is by from Nieman Journalism Lab


Click here to view on the original site: Original Post




Maybe it’s just the 30-something former rock critic in me, but I keep accidentally calling new gadget site The Verge The Verve instead. But whatever you call it, The Verge’s launch today is one of the most anticipated in the online news space in some time. The chance to build a new platform from the ground up, with talented editorial and tech teams attached, combined with the months of buildup at the placeholder site This Is My Next, meant a lot of people were waiting to see what they’d come up with.

And it is impressive: bold, chunky, and structured, all at the same time. The gadget/tech space has no shortage of competitors, and building a new brand against some established incumbents takes a bold move. Which of The Verge’s moves might you want to steal for your own news site? Here are three.

Don’t be afraid of big, bold visuals

Engadget, the tech site from which most of The Verge’s core staff came, has long committed itself to having big, 600-pixel-wide-or-so art on each of its posts, be they short or long. But the Verge takes that a step further. Just look at the home page — big beautiful images with lovely CSS-driven tinting in the top promo area, then more photos attached to nearly every linked story. Because every story has all the visual fixings, they can ebb and flow as the story moves down the front page. (The movement is still blog-style reverse-chronological.)

The story pages expand the photo well even more and feature page-width headline slots with a nice slab serif, Adelle Web. (Slab serifs are all the rage these days.)

The Verge’s short, aggregation-y posts get a bigger design treatment than most news sites’ feature stories do. (They also carry over Engadget’s highly annoying habit of burying the credit links for what they aggregate in a tiny box at post bottom.) But if you really want to see the power of big visuals, look at one of the site’s feature stories, like its review of the iPhone 4S or this takeout on survivalism — photos over 1,000 pixels wide, bold headlines and decks, structured story organization, embedded galleries, columns that don’t all stick to a common template well, page-width graphics. And check out the gallery and video pages, both of which stretch out Abe Lincoln-style to fill the browser window. In all, it’s the kind of bold look that you’re unlikely to see on most daily news sites; its design DNA lies much more in magazine layout.

That bold look comes with some tradeoffs, of course. While the front-page content is still generally newest-up-top, it’s not quite as obvious what’s new if it’s your second time checking the site in a day. And the front page has far less information density than a typical news site; on my monitor, the first screenful of The New York Times homepage (to go to the opposite extreme) includes links to 32 stories, videos, or slideshows, while The Verge’s has only eight. But that’s okay — while prolific, The Verge produces a lot less content than the Times, and I suspect the appealing graphical look will encourage scrolling more than a denser site would. And each story on The Verge homepage gets a bigger sales push — between a headline, an image, a deck, and an excerpt — than all but a few newspaper stories do on their front pages.

I suspect we’re going to see more of this big, bold, tablet-ish design approach finding its way back into more traditional news sites in the next year or so; you can already see movement in that direction comparing the Times’ (redesigned) opinion front to its (almost unchanged since 2006) homepage. In a world where an increasing proportion of traffic comes from social media and search — that is, from some place other than the front door — it makes sense that the burden of a site’s homepage to link to everything might be lightened.

Layer your reporting on top of structured data

It’s telling that the first item in the top navigation on The Verge is “Products.” Not “Articles” or “Latest News” — “Products.” Just about every significant product in the gadget universe — from cell phones to TVs to laptops — gets its own page in the underlying Verge taxonomy. Here are all the cameras, and here are all the gaming systems, for instance, and here are some sample product pages. (Intriguingly, you can search through them by using filters including “Rumored,” “Announced,” “Available,” “Canceled,” and “Discontinued.” Did you know there were 129 different tablets out there?)

The product pages feature basic information, full tech specs, related products, and in some cases “What You Need To Know” sections. These will be good for SEO and pageviews, and they’ll likely be useful to readers; stories about a product link prominently to their related product pages. (I’m actually a little surprised the product pages don’t take the logical next step and slap “Buy Now” links next to everything, with affiliate links to the appropriate vendors.)

Topic pages are nothing new, of course, but few news sites make this sort of commitment to being a reference point outside the boundaries of the traditional news story. A newspaper may not care much about the Nokia Lumia 800, but they could build their own semantic structured web of data around city council members, professional athletes, local restaurants, businesses, neighborhoods…whatever matters to readers. Most news organizations will have something that completes the SAT analogy The Verge : gadgets :: Your News Site : _________.

Build a place for community

Engadget has a famously active community — so much so that it had to turn off comments entirely for a stretch in 2010 when things were getting out of hand. (“What is normally a charged — but fun — environment for our users and editors has become mean, ugly, pointless, and frankly threatening in some situations…and that’s just not acceptable. Some of you out there in the world of anonymous grandstanding have gotten the impression that you run the place, but that’s simply not the case.”)

The Verge appears to be doubling down on community, though, adding topic-specific forums to the voluminous comment threads on specific entries. Forum posts get big bold presentation too. The same Josh Topolsky who wrote that rip of Engadget’s commenters above writes today that the new site is designed to let “reader voices be heard in a meaningful way…we think it’s totally cool and normal to be psyched about a product or brand and want to talk about it.” He also promises that active commenters and posters will get “special sneak previews of our newest features.”

Will it work out and generate positive, useful discussions (or at least enough pageviews to satisfy the ad sales team)? We’ll see. But it’s good to see some attention to reader forums, a form of reader interaction a number of news sites have walked away from in recent years.

What’s most promising about The Verge, though, is not any one specific element — it’s the fact that they’re giving a lot of thought to the form of their content, at a time when the basics of the blog format have congealed into a kind of design conventional wisdom. Here’s hoping other sites join that process of thinking about their tools and their structures along with their daily content.

This is their next: Vox Media becomes the new parent company to SB Nation and The Verge


This post is by from Nieman Journalism Lab


Click here to view on the original site: Original Post




When it was announced that SB Nation was getting into the technology blogging business with the refugee all-stars from Engadget it was a clear indicator the blog network was planning on growing beyond sports fans. Today they made it official, not just with the launch of The Verge but with the creation of Vox Media, Inc., a new parent company that will oversee the newly christened technology site, SB Nation, and no doubt new sites in the future.

It’s a classic publishing move — plant the flag and expand as you gain audience, a strategy that’s one part Luce and one part Denton. The mix combines distinctive editorial voices with an ambition to scale, running headfirst into a crowded party. Just like there is no shortage of gossip, politics, or pop culture blogs, we’ve got a wealth of sports and technology sites. What Vox CEO Jim Bankoff told me is that the crowded field isn’t his biggest concern. While there are plenty of ad dollars to fight over, competition, especially in media, doesn’t mean what it once did.

“The competition may not be the exact same zero-sum game as it was before,” Bankoff said. “On the web, people have access to products and consumers can go from one site to the next. It’s not like the newspaper world or magazine world where you choose one or the other exclusively.”

That changing dynamic, as well as the shifting relationship between writers and their audience, is more or less what SB Nation and The Verge are counting on. Readers’ media diets are more varied, while at the same time they enjoy more direct connection with writers and outlets. They’re going to go after the same scoops, but the stories and personalities are just as important as scoops, which is why VOX places a value on having engaging technology and writers. Vox is, after all, Latin for “voice.” “We think it’s the marriage of talent and technology that will help to define successful media companies going forward,” Bankoff said.

It seems like that’s been the recipe for Bankoff from the beginning and one of the reasons he finds himself, and his company, where they are today. SB Nation built its reputation on accessible writing and on innovating in the oft-stagnant blog-technology space, which was one of the lures for Joshua Topolsky and other former Engadget staffers to make the leap to a company primarily known for sports.

Vox will rely on a common ad sales staff and developer core working behind the scenes, Bankoff told me. The underpinnings of the sites will share a lot in common, but design-wise there won’t be much carry-over, Bankoff said, as the now-launched Verge makes clear.

Still, there are some similarities. In the way SB Nation is broken down into sites by teams or schools, The Verge appears to go a similar route for tech companies or products. Taking the place of Roll ‘Bama Roll is the Android hub, one of 12 hubs given prime top-of-page real estate. (Fans’ passion for Apple shares a lot with fans’ passion for the Packers.) They’re distinct sites with aggregated content on products and companies, though all under The Verge instead of standalone sites.

The Verge is the first big test for Vox — introducing a new title in a field they’ve got less than eight months’ experience in. They had a head start and launching pad in This is My Next, the site where the editors and writers of The Verge have kept busy breaking news, offering product reviews, and hosting a podcast, all of which they’ll carry over to the new site. All of that translates into an audience they should be able to take with them to The Verge, like when your favorite TV show moves to a new time slot. In the months the site was active as a placeholder, they reached 3 million monthly unique visitors and over 10 million monthly pageviews, Bankoff told me. “Before they knew it, This is My Next had really taken off organically,” he said. “We’re really excited to have all that momentum.”

The next step for Vox is continuing to grow the audience to the sites. One way they’re going to do that is through partnerships, with SB Nation is taking part in the new YouTube programming project. Meanwhile, editor Topolsky will be busy spinning plates of his own, writing columns for The Washington Post and making regular appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

The birth of The Verge and Vox pose an obvious question: What new sites are in the pipeline? You don’t go through the trouble of developing a new media-company structure (not to mention raising several new rounds of investment) if you’re not planning on becoming bigger. Fashion, politics, entertainment? Bankoff said no decisions have been made on Vox Site 3 just yet. What they won’t do, he said, is simply target a category because of its market potential. Bankoff said the same kind of process that went into developing The Verge — identifying the right team, defining the editorial direction, and understanding the relationship to technology — would be used in creating new sites.

“Our approach will be to understand where there is opportunity,” Bankoff said. “Where there is a business opportunity, but also an opportunity to find a team that will continue down the path of high quality talent and understands the medium.”

Topolsky and Bankoff on Engadget, SB Nation, and the new tech site that’s bringing them together


This post is by from Nieman Journalism Lab


Click here to view on the original site: Original Post




There can be a very real “through the looking glass” feel to working on a site that covers technology, especially when you start contemplating the technology of publishing. At least, that’s the situation Joshua Topolsky and his group of Engadget expats are finding themselves in as they ramp up to the fall unveiling of a new technology site that will live under the SB Nation flag.

“What we’re building and what we write about are the same thing in many ways,” Topolsky told me. “And for us that provides an incredibly unique point of observation.”

It says a lot about Topolsky, as well as his fellow Engadget-ites Nilay Patel, Ross Miller, Joanna Stern, Chris Ziegler, and Paul Miller, that while they could have spent the intervening time developing their new site in a bunker, they’ve instead decided to get out front and do what they do best, which is covering tech. They’ve been doing that on This is my next, their placeholder blog.

In migrating away from Engadget — and, in that, from the AOL/Huffington Post empire — the attraction to SB Nation, as Topolsky has written, came from the company’s publishing philosophy as much as its evolving publishing technology. As purveyors, chroniclers, and users of technology, Topolsky and his team are now in a unique position to develop a phenomenal tech site. It’s a scenario with Willy Wonk-ian overtones: They’ve been set loose in a candy store.

And yet, Topolsky told me, their aspirations are more modest than fantastical. If anything, they’re not looking to re-invent the blog or news site as we know them. They just want something that’s more adaptive both to the way stories are written and published, and to how audiences actually read them.

“We’re not trying to be Twitter or Facebook, as in this new thing people are using,” he said. “We want to be something that is just the evolved version of what we have been doing.”

The point, he said, is this: Reading on the web is an ever-changing thing, and publishers need to develop or embrace the technology that can respond to its evolution.

Topolsky isn’t releasing much information about the new site at this point, but in terms of his team’s coverage of the tech industry, he told me, they won’t be straying far from their Engadget roots. In many ways, what their Project X represents is an experiment in publishing and engagement technology, which fits in well with SB Nation’s M.O. One of the things they’re likely to be using on the site, for example, is SB Nation’s story streams, which provide constantly updated information on stories while also offering different access points to readers.

Though the site will also need to be able to accommodate things like multimedia (Topolsky said they it might use something similar to The Engadget Show for that, that that dynamic approach to narrative will work well for covering the latest updates on Google’s Android OS, say, or the tribulations of a phone producer like BlackBerry. “You write the news as seems appropriate and connect it automatically to a larger story, encompassing the narrative,” he said.

But what’s just as important as the tech, Topolsky pointed out, is an understanding between the editorial people and the developers, so when you need a new module or feature on the site both sides understand why — and how — it could work. In some of the more frustrating moments at Engadget, Topolsky said, he found himself having to plead his case to AOL developers in order to get site changes made.

That likely won’t be the case at SB Nation, which, as we’ve written about before, is more than willing to experiment with the blog format. It also helps that they’ve secured a healthy dose of new funding. When I spoke with SB Nation CEO Jim Bankoff, he noted that publishing companies are only as successful as the technology and people that comprise them.

“The foundation of our company is the marriage of editorial talent and technology, — sometimes I say people and platform,” he said. “We really believe that to be a new media-first company you have to be based on people who understand how to craft stories online.”

But other than trying to build inventive publishing systems out of the box, what makes the difference for SB Nation is its habit of addressing regular feedback from readers, Bankoff said. The developers at SB Nation, he noted, constantly update the sites based on comments from readers and contributors. If something’s in the service of making a better product, they’ll try it, he said.

Though the audiences for sports news and tech news have their own vagaries, there are some elements — cast of players, data points, and healthy competition — that they have in common. And those will go a long way towards helping to adapt and grow SB Nation’s publishing platform, Bankoff said. “Just like sports, there is an arc to every tech story — and we’re going to be able to really convey the various milestones across any big news item.”

Topolsky and Bankoff on Engadget, SB Nation, and the new tech site that’s bringing them together


This post is by from Nieman Journalism Lab


Click here to view on the original site: Original Post




There can be a very real “through the looking glass” feel to working on a site that covers technology, especially when you start contemplating the technology of publishing. At least, that’s the situation Joshua Topolsky and his group of Engadget expats are finding themselves in as they ramp up to the fall unveiling of a new technology site that will live under the SB Nation flag.

“What we’re building and what we write about are the same thing in many ways,” Topolsky told me. “And for us that provides an incredibly unique point of observation.”

It says a lot about Topolsky, as well as his fellow Engadget-ites Nilay Patel, Ross Miller, Joanna Stern, Chris Ziegler, and Paul Miller, that while they could have spent the intervening time developing their new site in a bunker, they’ve instead decided to get out front and do what they do best, which is covering tech. They’ve been doing that on This is my next, their placeholder blog.

In migrating away from Engadget — and, in that, from the AOL/Huffington Post empire — the attraction to SB Nation, as Topolsky has written, came from the company’s publishing philosophy as much as its evolving publishing technology. As purveyors, chroniclers, and users of technology, Topolsky and his team are now in a unique position to develop a phenomenal tech site. It’s a scenario with Willy Wonk-ian overtones: They’ve been set loose in a candy store.

And yet, Topolsky told me, their aspirations are more modest than fantastical. If anything, they’re not looking to re-invent the blog or news site as we know them. They just want something that’s more adaptive both to the way stories are written and published, and to how audiences actually read them.

“We’re not trying to be Twitter or Facebook, as in this new thing people are using,” he said. “We want to be something that is just the evolved version of what we have been doing.”

The point, he said, is this: Reading on the web is an ever-changing thing, and publishers need to develop or embrace the technology that can respond to its evolution.

Topolsky isn’t releasing much information about the new site at this point, but in terms of his team’s coverage of the tech industry, he told me, they won’t be straying far from their Engadget roots. In many ways, what their Project X represents is an experiment in publishing and engagement technology, which fits in well with SB Nation’s M.O. One of the things they’re likely to be using on the site, for example, is SB Nation’s story streams, which provide constantly updated information on stories while also offering different access points to readers.

Though the site will also need to be able to accommodate things like multimedia (Topolsky said they it might use something similar to The Engadget Show for that, that that dynamic approach to narrative will work well for covering the latest updates on Google’s Android OS, say, or the tribulations of a phone producer like BlackBerry. “You write the news as seems appropriate and connect it automatically to a larger story, encompassing the narrative,” he said.

But what’s just as important as the tech, Topolsky pointed out, is an understanding between the editorial people and the developers, so when you need a new module or feature on the site both sides understand why — and how — it could work. In some of the more frustrating moments at Engadget, Topolsky said, he found himself having to plead his case to AOL developers in order to get site changes made.

That likely won’t be the case at SB Nation, which, as we’ve written about before, is more than willing to experiment with the blog format. It also helps that they’ve secured a healthy dose of new funding. When I spoke with SB Nation CEO Jim Bankoff, he noted that publishing companies are only as successful as the technology and people that comprise them.

“The foundation of our company is the marriage of editorial talent and technology, — sometimes I say people and platform,” he said. “We really believe that to be a new media-first company you have to be based on people who understand how to craft stories online.”

But other than trying to build inventive publishing systems out of the box, what makes the difference for SB Nation is its habit of addressing regular feedback from readers, Bankoff said. The developers at SB Nation, he noted, constantly update the sites based on comments from readers and contributors. If something’s in the service of making a better product, they’ll try it, he said.

Though the audiences for sports news and tech news have their own vagaries, there are some elements — cast of players, data points, and healthy competition — that they have in common. And those will go a long way towards helping to adapt and grow SB Nation’s publishing platform, Bankoff said. “Just like sports, there is an arc to every tech story — and we’re going to be able to really convey the various milestones across any big news item.”

Both the short and long of it: How sportswriting is taking over the web through innovation and adaptation


This post is by Tim Carmody from Nieman Journalism Lab


Click here to view on the original site: Original Post




Readers paying attention to sportswriting for the past few months have had ample room for excitement. Not only have we been treated to great takes on the Super Bowl, March Madness, new seasons for baseball and tennis, the specter of an NFL lockout, NBA and NHL playoffs, and an upcoming Barcelona-Manchester United UEFA soccer final at Wembley Stadium — we’ve also seen the launch of several important publishing experiments on the web deliberately breaking out of sports’ traditional press box.

If you’re catching up, here’s your cheat-sheet (organized by chronology):

  • In January, ESPN.com/Associated Content alumnus Dan Shanoff started Quickish, a “real-time(-ish)” aggregator of sports-related tweets, links, and commentary. It’s designed to give readers a quick peek at the day’s biggest news and sharpest observations, powered by a combination of reader tips and Shanoff’s own curation: “Come back when big news happens, drop by in the morning or at the end of the day to find out what you might have missed or just visit the site when you have a free 60 seconds to catch up. It’s that easy.” Shanoff plans to expand the site’s reach beyond sports later this year: “Mother’s Day” and “Bin Laden Dead” are already trending topics on the site.

  • In April, recently-departed Engadget editor Joshua Topolsky announced that he and fellow tech-writing ex-pats Nilay Patel, Paul Miller, Joanna Stern, Ross Miller, and Chris Ziegler were creating a new technology vertical for rising sports blog empire SB Nation. It’s SB Nation’s first move beyond sports, but for Topolsky, what mattered most was the editorial model and developing technology: “SB Nation is actively evolving its tools and processes to meet the growing and changing needs of its vast editorial teams and their audience communities. They’re building for the web as it is now. From the perspective of a journalist who also happens to be a huge nerd, that’s a match made in heaven. SBN isn’t just another media company pushing news out — it’s a testbed and lab for some of the newest and most interesting publishing tools I’ve ever seen.”

    The yet-untitled site is slated to launch this fall out of new office space in New York’s Union Square; meanwhile, the core team has a temporary home writing about gadget and technology news at This Is My Next.

  • Around the same time, Longform.org launched a sister site, SportsFeat, spotlighting well-crafted longform sports and sports-related writing. Most of the stories are current, but others reach into the archives even as they relate to the day’s news. For the Kentucky Derby, the site featured Hunter S. Thompson’s famous “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”; when basketball coach Phil Jackson announced his retirement, they linked to Jack McCallum’s 1991 profile of Jackson for Sports Illustrated.

    The typical SportsFeat blog post features a link and story excerpt, with minimal commentary. Recently, Bethlehem Shoals (founder of the sadly shuttered FreeDarko.com) contributed a kind of review-essay, under the column title “Three Seconds,” linking and commenting on three classic stories from sportswriters around the web. Besides Shoals and Longform’s Max Linsky, other curators on the site include Wired.com’s Erik Malinowski, PBS Frontline’s Gretchen Gavett, and Alan Siegel, who’s written popular sports/pop culture stories for Deadspin.com and The Atlantic.

  • Meanwhile, Dallas Mavericks owner and tech entrepreneur questioned whether it was worth it for sports teams to give web journalists access to players and coaches at all, calling out Yahoo and ESPN.com by name: “I think we have finally reached a point where not only can we communicate any and all factual information from our players and team directly to our fans and customers as effectively as any big sports website, but I think we have also reached a point where our interests are no longer aligned. I think those websites have become the equivalent of paparazzi rather than reporters.”

    Now, slamming bloggers (or reporters, period) for trafficking in headline-grabbing gossip is old hat. More significant is Cuban’s argument that between the organization’s PR machine, players’ use of social media, and amateur blogs, sports teams can communicate just as well with their audience, and fans’ desire for information can be just as satisfied, without the need for professional journalists as intermediaries. It’s a provocative claim, but also a signal that sophisticated writing about sports is being produced for digital media by many different organizations with very different interests.

  • Finally, later in the same month, ESPN.com unveiled Grantland, a long-awaited joint venture driven by superstar writer Bill Simmons, fresh off his best-selling Book of Basketball and acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series, both of which successfully fused sports history, pop culture, and personal/eclectic storytelling. That’s the formula for Grantland, and the reason why Simmons’s team is packed with names not necessarily known for sportswriting: Malcolm Gladwell, Dave Eggers, Chuck Klosterman, Lane Brown, and former GQ/Entertainment Weekly editor Dan Fierman.

    The first Grantland preview stories, Katie Baker’s “The Garden of Good and Evil” (thick description of the New York Knicks’ promise and shortcomings paired with a personal history of Baker’s own Knicks fandom) and Molly Lambert’s “Summer of Robots and Reboots” (a good-naturedly snarky preview of summer movies) offer a glimpse of the site’s future: smart writing for a sports audience infinitely less obsessed with scores and stats than it is absorbed by games as a forum for witty observations and conversation.

If there’s a common thread to all of these moves, it’s hybridization and metastasis. The tools that drive compelling sports journalism on the web aren’t limited to sports. Nor are they exclusively held by sportswriters working for independent media companies.

As Rob Neyer wrote when he moved from ESPN to SB Nation, the new ethos in sports journalism, as elsewhere, seems to be breaking down the distinction between “us” and “them.” And this is a distinction that you can interpret much more broadly than one between writers and readers, pros and amateurs, sportswriting and non-sports writing. When the walls tumble, they tumble everywhere.

My bet is that this will be good for everyone — not just sports fans, sportswriters, and smart media companies, but everyone looking for new ways to read and write smart material on the web.

Give Me Something To Read

In particular, the shift towards faster and more readerly sportswriting helps correct a long-standing imbalance in sports fandom, perhaps especially online. Net-connected computers let you store and search for hitherto unimaginable amounts of data. And in any subject area, the web tends to empower a vocal population of argumentative superfans. Both amplify some of sports’ longstanding tendencies towards fetishization of the same, whether in print, on sports radio, or at a corner bar.

Sheer erudition — and erudition of a very specific type — throws up large barriers to entry. Too often, newer, younger, and more casual sports fans “can sort of get to a certain point of enthusiasm before they hit the ‘stat wall’ where discussion of sports becomes pedantic and quantitative for no discernible reason other than as a social indicator of investment/knowlegeability,” says Grantland’s Katie Baker. “In particular, I constantly see women driven away from sports because they are fed it as a zero-sum game: either you know everything about everyone or you don’t.”

Now, what defines a committed fan is much less monolithic. Quick, real-time tools like Twitter help open up a richer sense of what counts as meaningful information in sports. “To me,” Baker says, “sports has always been just as much about, say, the face that Player X makes when he fouls out of a game as it is about the argument, hashed and rehashed boringly for days over sports radio, about whether that was ‘the right foul to take in this situation.’”

Short, observational takes on sports also recognize the time constraints placed on new media formats. Even those superfans want to be able to stay plugged-in to the discussion when they don’t have hours or days to spend listening to sports radio: on the subway, at the airport, at work, on the move.

In this case, even “less” news helps feed the desire for more. In “Five reasons it’s still a great time to become a sportswriter,” SportsJournalism.org’s Jason Fry writes that “if there’s an upper limit to the desire for sports news, we haven’t found it yet.” When CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell tried to go a week without Twitter, he says “I felt like a guy who strangely just decided to stop talking to his friends. My followers were sending me tweets telling me to end the experiment. Translation? What I was doing wasn’t fair to them.”

And as hungry as fans are for quick takes and real-time updates, they’re equally hungry for history of the game and the stories that shaped how we see it. Longform/SportsFeat co-founder Aaron Lammer explains the hunger for old stories for a generation accustomed to tracking down and collecting the best of the past:

Everyone has that one standout piece that gets seared into their skull, so it was exciting, when someone mentioned one, to actually be able to track it down and pass it around. For me, the process echoed the early days of MP3s, when out of print and ultra-rare recordings that had been stuck in record industry purgatory all started making the rounds. Except with long-form stories, the whole thing is amplified, because most of these pieces have totally dropped off the map. [emphasis mine]

And with a hundred and one ways to get the day’s stats and highlights and deals and signings, including directly from the teams themselves, anywhere and everywhere, there’s a premium on well-curated, extended, critical profiles and analysis — especially when we have time to sit and read.

The sports-tech demographic

At the same time, there are reasons that outlets cater to the audiences they do that go well beyond feeding the news hole or the geek-premium in sports culture. There’s fierce competition across all media for high-information readers/viewers/listeners/app users, particularly men, whether teenagers or middle-aged dads. This is a prime demographic for advertisers; it’s also a choice target for media companies or sports teams looking to cross-sell products in other businesses.

That’s one reason why SB Nation’s first non-sports vertical will focus on consumer technology. CEO Jim Bankoff helps explain the logic in this insightful interview with Forbes’s Lewis DVorkin:

“First of all, we have a big male audience,” Bankoff says. “Depending on who you believe, anywhere from ten to twenty million adult males — tech-savvy adult males.” Already at SB Nation, according to Bankoff, “about 30 percent of our revenue is coming from advertisers who are tech companies.”

When the post-AOL/HuffPo Engadget exodus began, Bankoff — who as VP of programming convinced AOL to buy Engadget and its parent company Weblogs Inc. back in 2005 — found his team to bring sports and tech together.

“Our company was built on the marriage of talent and technology,” Bankoff told DVorkin. “The talent makes the technology better… The more talented storytellers we find for what we do, the better they push our product team, and the more excited our product team gets to work with them.”

Changing how (and where) news is presented

As the Lab’s Laura McGann wrote last year, by building its platform around sports teams and sports fans, SB Nation had to create sophisticated platforms to:

  • manage many sites at once
  • blend local and national news
  • blend text with multimedia
  • facilitate reader participation and content creation
  • update developing stories in realtime using “story streams”
  • whittle down a huge number of stories to find the most important/relevant while still allowing news junkies to go as deep as they’d like
  • push news everywhere and to every device sports fans want to find it

In short, it’s the same challenges every news organization faces, but arguably compressed and magnified. If tech talk/geek culture dominated the anonymous, text-heavy newsgroups and forums of the 1990s, and snarky, image-heavy media, gadget, and celebrity gossip sites represented (fairly or unfairly) the first wave of for-profit blogs in the 2000s, sports networks might be the best indicator of where news is going in the 2010s.

Back to the roots

Quickish’s Shanoff sees it a little differently. Sites like Simmons’s Grantland, he says, remind him more than anything of ESPN’s lauded Page 2 site during its “classic period” from the early-to-mid 2000s, when literary-minded writers like David Halberstam, Ralph Wiley, and Hunter S. Thompson brushed against unknown, try-anything bloggers with strong voices, including a young Bill Simmons. (Even the name “Grantland,” an allusion to sportswriting legend Grantland Rice, suggests a return as much as a step forward.)

“The connective tissue between Page 2 and Grantland,” Shanoff says, “is a notion that there is always room to push boundaries when it comes to compelling editorial in sports — most relevantly, that there are undervalued talents who can, when paired with critical resources like distribution, can emerge and create new value for readers and publishers.”

Even sports coverage on television has become increasingly web-like, both in look and tone. If you watch a sporting event, news recap, or opinion show on TV, you’ll find a screen cluttered with text and graphics, framing on-screen personalities (overwhelmingly men) who argue and joke with each other.

Shanoff thinks the influence between TV and the web is mutual:

The most “web” product in the history of sports media came from a TV show that launched even before the initial popularization of blogs: Pardon The Interruption, which launched in 2001 with its implicit refutation of windy sportswriting cliches and its marriage of accessible personalities and a user-friendly format. I cannot think of a sports-media product that is more highly regarded by fans and “pros” alike. PTI accurately foreshadowed — down to its on-screen graphics — the “stream” that would become the dominant visual metaphor for both Facebook and Twitter (and thus the dominant visual metaphor for news consumption in the 21st century).

Shows like PTI, and the countless programs it influenced, offer a graphic approach to television news perfectly suited for the sudden ubiquity of big-screen high-definition TVs and an audience increasingly accustomed to processing multiple information streams at once. But we don’t just experience sports in front of the TV, on the radio, or at the event any more. Even when we do, we’re likely to have a mobile device in hand, ready to tweet our thoughts or share video and pictures about what we see.

And we don’t only read online sportswriting in front of our desktop PCs, with multiple browser windows open giving us stats in hand. We also read it in coffee shops or in bed, on tablets. We don’t read it only to win arguments, to boo or cheer, but to relax, reflect, and remember.

Image by Bob Jagendorf used under a Creative Commons license.