Could Grantland Survive Without Corporate Help?

A reader writes:

I enjoyed your recent post about Nate Silver and am glad he’s moving to ESPN – one of my daily reads (in addition to the Times). I also like the idea of a Silver-led version of Grantland. But I thought I’d pass along the Big Lead’s recent piece on Grantland, which is very successful in some ways but is apparently dependent on its connections to ESPN not just for editing and support but also basic financial viability.

The article’s a bit critical of Simmons, probably in part due to professional jealousy, but I don’t think it’s entirely misplaced in its judgment (though I like Simmons for the most part). ESPN is an extraordinarily profitable media corporation that still struggles for journalistic respectability, largely because of the obvious potential conflicts of interest involved in reporting on athletes and athletics and broadcasting sports. Grantland seems possibly like a kind of write-off for them, and it’s basically safe. In some ways, 538 is a riskier and bolder move, but I think that the lessons regarding old vs. new media are more complex than a clear victory by bloggers over the old media.

A sizable excerpt from the Big Lead piece:

Grantland sought to “prove long-form has a place online.” Has it done so? Sort of.

It is hard to fashion a general principle from Grantland. The site was not a startup. ESPN affiliation offered it immediate credibility and promotion. ESPN coffers offered it cash to launch and to operate at a loss if need be. ESPN’s existing Internet infrastructure offered it multiple traffic fire hoses, including plum placement on and Bill Simmons’ twitter feed (now over 2 million followers). This project was more than a domain name and a dream. The floor was much higher.

The site’s birth conditions shaped its development. Grantland is utopian and expensive. The masthead has 10 people listed as some form of editor. Another 18 are listed as staff writers. There are additional, high-profile contributors. We presume there are more uncredited grunts doing technical support. Even presuming they are paid at standard rates, that is substantial overhead. Most Internet outfits are skeletal. Grantland is not just fleshed. It is bloated.

Grantland is not optimized to pay for itself with traffic. Writers are afforded time to produce thoughtful content, only thoughtful content. The site publishes a relatively small amount, only Monday through Friday. Grantland is an Internet place where weekends still exist.

How is the site’s traffic? According to Comscore, Grantland has hovered around or a bit above two million unique visitors for the past 12 months. Their number for May, after a recent uptick, was 2,474,000 unique visitors, up 26 percent from May 2012. For some perspective, that is 76 percent of the traffic generated by Deadspin over the same month. Is that traffic enough to make the site self-sufficient financially? The answer in January was “it depends on how you do the accounting” and ESPN “doesn’t discuss financials.” We suspect ESPN would argue important ad metrics are shifting from raw traffic to audience engagement. The company declined a request to provide data that would have buttressed that point.

Grantland, denied the WWL teat, probably would not survive, at least as constituted. But that does not prove long form content does not work on the Internet. Long-form, writerly content was seldom, if ever self-sustaining before the Internet. The New Yorker still prints because it is “The New Yorker.” The magazine was notably unprofitable when magazines were booming. Even before print, scholars relied on independent wealth or, more likely, someone else’s independent wealth to furnish expensive libraries and disseminate their work. The Internet has not changed the climate, so much as it has intensified and quantified it. …

Long-form content will work on the Internet, as it has throughout history, with someone or something else subsidizing it.

Read the rest of the piece here.