June 2011

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I like the idea of Grantland.com. This is the new website that was launched by Bill Simmons (The Sports Guy) on June 8th, 2011. He has assembled a talented group of writers including Chuck Klosterman and Dave Eggers. Simmons, Klosterman and Eggers are among this country’s most interesting writers and it’s great to see them combine forces. I read most of the articles posted in the first few days and they were all well-written and interesting. I feel like this is going to be a great spot to read good writing, which is what many of us want most out of the internet: a handful of places to go for good writing. Grantland.com is already one of my favorite websites though I wonder whether they can maintain their current pace.

However, I cannot help feeling that Simmons and Klosterman whiffed. Grantland.com is an ESPN website. I wish Simmons had left ESPN and started this venture with Klosterman and a handful of others. It would have taken a lot of guts, that’s for sure, especially with families to take care of, and I can’t blame them for going with the security of ESPN backing. But Simmons and Klosterman have juice, they have a fanbase, and they had a chance for something BIG.

Nobody has tried Mark Cuban’s idea to monetize a written word website. The idea is that people register with a credit card and then buy articles piecemeal. Say 25 cents for an article. Or on a site like Grantland.com with longer pieces, maybe 50 cents for an article. You could add all these clicks up and bill monthly. I think this would work better than an annual or monthly membership fee. Really put your money where your pen is, make a living per article you output. (That’s how it works now but the magazines pay authors. Why not eliminate the middleman? Have readers vote with their pocketbooks.) True, it’s risky, and Simmons and Klosterman would quickly test the loyalty of their fan base. But in this (excessively gloomy) review of the site in The Atlantic, Simmons is said to get a million pageviews per column. How many of these million people would pay 50 cents per article? Surely at least one quarter would. That’s a good chunk of change. Then you could have collections of articles for sale on the eReaders for 99 cents. This way Simmons and the others could gauge exactly what their readers want and give them more.

The problem with staying in the ESPN structure is that you maintain all the constrictions of the suits. First you have the censorship, which Simmons has famously fought at ESPN. Here’s another example: the name of the website, which the suits at ESPN apparently forced on Simmons. Grantland.com is named after Grantland Rice, a sportswriter of yore. I imagine naming this website after him was an immense thrill for a handful of 70 year old retired sportswriters, at least it will be after their grandchildren teach them how to use the internets.

But as a name for a 21st century website about sports and pop culture? Grantland Rice died in 1954. His heyday was in the 1920s. I’m all for historical callbacks but this one makes little sense. I can only guess some suit high up at ESPN loves Grantland Rice. Wonderful. But most sportswriting sucks. What makes Bill Simmons successful is that he is one of the few sportswriters who doesn’t suck. And maybe that’s why people loved Grantland Rice so much. He was one of the few sportswriters of his day who didn’t suck. If so, Grantland.com should be a Grantland Rice museum & archive site, because if you need five minutes to explain the name of your website to your average reader*, and an hour of required reading (Rice’s old articles), than you’ve failed. You need suits who know when to get out of the way of the creative people. (*I’m not a sports fanatic so perhaps I underestimate G.R. Awareness. I’d heard of Rice but I remembered nothing about him. I’m guessing most of Simmons’ readers under 50 are in a similar boat.)

On the other hand, the sports blog on the site is named The Triangle, a Boston sports reference that I don’t know and don’t care to know. We get enough Boston with your stuff as it is Simmons! I’m surprised Simmons didn’t call it, “Brady’s Corner.” The suits should have said, “No. This is a national website. You can’t use a local reference. And your readers get enough Boston as it is.” But this is a minor quibble.

We need talented people who have juice to declare their independence from the suits. If Simmons and Klosterman can’t do it, how can the rest of us creative types hope to? We need them to lead the way. It’s not a pipe dream. It’s happening with the Kindle and other eReaders right now. People are bypassing the traditional publishing industry and making very healthy livings. The media in this country is controlled by an elite few publishing houses, radio station conglomerates, TV station conglomerates and movie studios. But more and more, people are finding ways around the suits. It’s happening with eReaders, iTunes (podcasts and music), youtube and various other outlets. Simmons and Klosterman missed a golden opportunity to become leaders of this movement.

Funny quote from PJ O’Rourke:

Wherever there’s suffering, injustice, and oppression, America will show up six months late and bomb the country next to where it’s happening.

And here’s a good O’Rourke article on Afghanistan from August 2010. The article talks about Radio Azadi, which seems like one of the best things we’re doing over there. I don’t know what the current status of our funding is for Radio Azadi but I hope it’s good. I can’t think of a better way to show democracy and free speech in action.