Fending off the ESPN.com invasion Nov. 20, 2009
It started with a staffer calling me in early August.
You know the type of call.
"Can I talk to you?” he said with a mysterious tone.
He came into the office the next day, and that’s when I found out ESPNBoston.com was on its way. At that time, that writer told me he was only having preliminary talks, but wanted me to know (which I appreciated). Several weeks later, he accepted a job offer (which I didn’t appreciate).
That was only the beginning. ESPNBoston eventually offered jobs to six Globe staffers. Soon after ESPN started offering jobs, Comcast SportsNet, bulking up its own web site in response to ESPN, did the same thing, offering five Globe staffers new jobs. Plus, we were competing for the same football writer as I tried to replace the one who left for ESPNBoston.
The first job offer set in motion 10 weeks of constant negotiations, cajoling, researching candidates, arranging travel for candidates, interviewing candidates and hiring committee meetings. It literally took up all my time.
The staffers with job offers seemed to wait until the weekend to call me. I would then call our editor, Marty Baron, to keep him up to date. One time he answered his phone and said, "Joe, I know when I hear from you on a weekend, it can’t be good news.”
It was true, the news was rarely good. It either had to do with the job offers our staff was receiving or the Boston Globe’s financial situation.
In April, buyouts were offered, but not enough people took them and layoffs became necessary. Only a week after we finished the layoffs, the New York Times Co. threatened to shut the Globe down if it couldn’t get concessions from the workers’ unions. The concessions were eventually given in the form of pay cuts and benefits reduction, and it was announced we would continue to publish.
There’s more: The Globe was also for sale, and the rumor mill cranked out the worst kind of speculation. A sale followed by major staff reductions. Given that, it wasn’t surprising that staffers would be willing to talk about new jobs. We were vulnerable. Despite that we were determined to fight back, fight to retain our people, and if we couldn’t, we were going to pursue the best candidates to place anyone who left.
As I considered the possibility that my staff would eviscerated. I began to think out loud: "How much is too much? Is it ethical for one new organization to offer jobs to so many people from a single news organization?”
ESPN was a member of APSE, so I thought, "Is it right for one member of a professional organization to try to attract so many staffers from another member organization."
I wasn’t sure of the answer, and I’m still not.
Patrick Stiegman, vice president/executive editor of ESPN.com, explained ESPN’s strategy this way: "Our overall approach had two goals. One, the availability of content we are creating on a national level, take that and slice it into more convenient pieces for fans in a particular market, telling them you don’t have to come to ESPN.com to get an idea of what’s happening in your market.
"The second half of that, which I call inverting the funnel, it was an opportunity to add resources in local markets, not only serve that community, but it allows us to create more and deeper expertise at the national ESPN.com, take national content and slice it locally and taking the opportunity to create this great local experience, and enhance what we’re doing nationally.”
ESPN also had a strategy on how to succeed.
"I like to say it’s a hybrid approach,” said Stiegman. "We slice it down locally with our national voices like (Peter) Gammons, (Bill) Simmons, and Michael Smith, who have an association with Boston, and we were looking for people who wanted to contribute that were of the market and had a good standing in the market. To do that, you’re going to have to hire people away from people who are competitors in the market. All of the best voices on the local scene in Boston happened to be working at the Globe. This wasn’t about raiding anyone’s staff.”
Don Skwar, a senior news editor who oversees ESPN’s bureau reporters and producers as well as its event news unit, was sports editor of the Globe when The National Sports Daily changed the marketplace for many sports writers and editors in 1989-90 in terms of opportunity and compensation. So he’s lived it.
"If people are going to go, they’re going to go. If they’re going to stay, they’re going to stay,” said Skwar, a former president of APSE.
He believes people should have the opportunity to take advantage of improving their situations.
"The employee has a certain amount of loyalty to show to their employer, but also a duty to themselves and their family to see what is better for their careers,” he said.
Stiegman echoes Skwar.
"We not going to apologize for trying to get the best people on our team,” he said. "This wasn’t an attempt where we said ‘Let’s go see if we can raid someone’s staff.’ The idea was who would be the best talent in the market? In fairness to us, we’re trying to get the best people. If you want to be the best, if you want to do the best, you have to hire the best.”
The good news at the Globe was that we were able to retain most of our people and management allowed us to hire replacements for the few people who ultimately left. I feel we’re getting back to normal. The New York Times Co. also took the Globe off the market, and that helped. People throughout the newsroom are generally feeling more secure, even if their pay and benefits have been reduced.
Not only have we adjusted with our staff, we’ve armed ourselves for the fight. A redesign of the boston.com sports home page went live Oct. 27 and it looks great. Our promotion department quickly put together an advertising campaign that emphasized the Globe’s and Boston.com’s reputation as the source for sports news. The catch phrase is "We are Boston sports.”
We’ve forged a relationship with SI.com where we can use pieces of SI’s notes columns such as Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback when the Boston teams are the subject and we provide them with a Dan Shaughnessy column and some of our original feature stories.
It was a difficult time adjusting but we’ve regrouped. I believe this to be true: The Globe and boston.com are still the best destinations for information about Boston pro sports. I’m confident we will remain the top destination because of the writers and strong editors we have.
Despite the challenge, we were able to retain most of the people who received job offers and we believe our new hires are just as good or better than the people who left.
Meanwhile, ESPN has reached into other markets to hire people for its regional web sites. It’s not inconceivable that this could happen in all major cities. You should be ready to react and try to keep your best people. Try to think creatively, because without question ESPN will be offering people more money. We were able to keep some people by changing their jobs, some just slightly, and that helped them decide to stay.
ESPN is already in Chicago and Dallas. Most likely, it’s coming to your area.
”What the number will be has not be determined. We’re committed to New York and Los Angeles as our next two launches,” said Stiegman. "In theory, we should have both up and running in the spring. What happens beyond that, we’ll have to evaluate.”