Internet

'Grantland': Can Longer Reads Hold Up In A Hit-And-Run World?

A man relaxes with a computer in front of him. i i
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A man relaxes with a computer in front of him.
iStockphoto.com

The internet isn't supposed to be for thoughtful conversations.

We're told it's a rough-and-tumble place for trolls and anybody who can keep up with its relentless waves of content. Even when a long-form essay slips in, it's published between flurries of information meant to feed the always-important bottom line: traffic.

But if that's true, why are sportswriter Bill Simmons and ESPN hedging against the norm with Grantland, a new website that promises to publish only a handful of "original columns, long-form features, blog posts, and podcasts" every week?

Named after the purple-prosed and criminally overrated sportswriter Grantland Rice, the site launches today at noon as a one-stop shop for a brand of writing that's been largely ignored by the ESPNs (and by relation, the Disneys) of the world. Not that the name's not appropriate — a century apart, both Rice and Simmons introduced new voices to sports writing, catapulted themselves to celebrity in the process and inspired God knows how many imitators.

But Grantland won't be a one-man job. Simmons, who built his audience of millions by weaving pop culture minutiae with an everyfan's sentiment about sports, recruited — or in less friendly terms, poached — a damn fine cast for the project, including Deadspin's Katie Baker and This Recording's Molly Lambert, along with better-known print writers including Chuck Klosterman and Dave Eggers.

Still, there have been plenty of teeth gnashed about Grantland in recent weeks, over concerns about Simmons' own feelings about the website and the editorial control of ESPN brass, which scared off at least one excellent writer, Tommy Craggs. With rare exceptions though, not too many seem prepared to pooh-pooh the website's potential.

But that's all we have to go on for now — potential.

Grantland could be, as Simmons told USA Today, a place for writers "who don't feel like they have a home" and "where if you're a 19-year-old in college you look at this website and say, 'Some day I'm going to write for them.'"

You know, just a couple of easily achievable goals like that.

Hand-wringing about coulds and what-ifs also misses the broader impact of Grantland and the shift it represents. For the first time in what feels like forever, a mainstream media company that traffics in sports and pop culture has acknowledged that there are a whole lot of people out there looking for something aside from websites that publish three dozen stories every day. In a genre that's encouraged short, snappy writing for the better part of a decade, ESPN's suddenly betting on a long shot.

That's not to say creating a firehose of content is wrong — it's just become overwhelming. Fifteen minutes noodling around with an RSS reader can teach anyone the need for balance between short and long-form writing. Especially once we realize we are going to miss almost everything.

So here's what we know: Grantland is backed by Mickey Mouse money and expectations, which could legitimize longer-form content for a new audience, but could also expose that content to corporate meddling. By concentrating (and, by putting them under the Disney banner, sanitizing) some of the most talented writers on the internet, Grantland is billing itself as the online destination for sports and pop culture criticism. If Simmons and his gang of writers and editors pull it off, they'll have torn down a stalwart strategy of playing to short attention spans that's influenced almost every successful website.

But if Grantland fails, it'll be piled into the heap where the husks of The National and Play magazine are rotting.

But either way, let's agree on one thing — it's one hell of a way to swing for the fences.

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