Media Power Rankings for June/July
Meet the person who designed the LeBron front page of the Plain Dealer
Brit soccer announcer Ian Darke won over the U.S. audience during the World Cup
'The Decision' will go down as one of ESPN's biggest mistakes
1. Emmet Smith, Deputy Design Director for News, The Cleveland Plain Dealer: For those who celebrate the daily elegance of the newspaper front page, it was a gift of genius: LeBron James walking out of the frame, flanked by a single word headline: GONE. For the past month Smith and Michael Tribble, the design and graphics director for the Plain Dealer newspaper, kicked around ideas on how to portray the inevitability of their city's most famous citizen leaving town. "We wanted to do something special for it," Smith said.
Late on the afternoon before James announced he was taking his talents to South Beach, Smith and Tribble came upon a photo of James walking off the court after a 2008 playoff loss to the Celtics. That's when they knew they had their image. Smith then wrote the words "7 Years in Cleveland. No rings." He and Tribble took the design to managing editor Debra Simmons, who approved it on the spot. The next morning, it hit Cleveland and the rest of the world.
Pulitzer Prize winner Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post called it one of the greatest front pages in newspaper history. Newspaper design experts were also effusive with praise. "I went out that morning and got breakfast at Grumpy's Café," said Smith. "I often go there and I noticed the cooks were showing the page to each other," said Smith. "It was one of those fun days where we got to be interesting. If every morning I can pass the boxes that sell our paper and say, 'Yeah, we were interesting today', then that's a great day."
2. Ian Darke, ESPN: ESPN deservedly earned tons of positive notice for its World Cup coverage, but where the network deserves significant credit is for recognizing that its previous blueprint regarding soccer announcers was out of step with its viewership. It imported both Martin Tyler and Darke from the English Premier League and the result was a wonderful sound that drowned out the vuvuzelas. (You can listen to an interview with Darke here.)
Darke called the biggest goal of the tournament for Stateside interests -- Landon Donovan's game-winner against Algeria -- and knew he and Tyler would be judged closely by viewers. "I know it was a slightly controversial decision and I imagine there were people at ESPN who had their doubts about this particular policy, but if people think it has been a better World Cup for us being a part of it, that's great," Darke said. The announcer remains under contract with Sky Sports, but he and Tyler said they are interested in returning for ESPN's coverage of the 2014 World Cup. (Sky does not broadcast the tournament in the United Kingdom, so Tyler and Darke are essentially free agents for the World Cup.)
Outside of a few dissenting voices who thought Darke inserted himself too much into calls, he was praised by both critics and viewers. "Usually you open the papers in England and kind of hope nobody has mentioned you," Darke said, laughing. "If one of the media critics mentions you, it's usually to have a go at you." No go here. His performance, as he likes to say, was an absolute firecracker.
3. Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist: Throughout the last 40 days, I received dozens of e-mails and Tweets from readers imploring me to include the gifted Wojnarowski on this list. That kind of full-court press usually comes from the communication departments of ESPN and NBC Sports. Among the national NBA writers, Wojnarowski offered the most pointed criticism of James and his entourage for what he described as narcissism and selfishness. His May 14 piece after James exited the playoffs was a brilliant manifesto of rage and reporting. (You can find his archives here.) He politely declined to elaborate on why James was such a passionate subject for him. "I'd prefer to let the work speak for itself and let others make their judgments," he said.
4. Bob Sheppard and Jack Craig: Pioneers in the fields of public address announcing and sports media criticism (Craig was the first full-time newspaper critic of sports on TV), both were elegant men with a respect for their crafts. They will be missed, and you can read about them here and here.
5. Chip Brown, Orangebloods.com columnist: Brown's reporting on the Big 12 conference realignment dominated the competition and forced ESPN to cite his website until the conclusion of the story. Along with raising his national profile and gaining oodles of free publicity for his Rivals-owned site, Brown showed how a fan-based Web site can dictate the coverage of a national sports story.
6. Zach Klein, Sports Director, WSB-TV ABC Atlanta: Local sports coverage on television has been bleak in recent years thanks to an endless parade of SportsCenter wannabes uttering catchphrases about as funny as Yakov Smirnoff. When outstanding original reporting takes place, it's worth highlighting. Early this month Klein and his colleagues broke a huge story in their market -- the resignation of Georgia athletic director Damon Evans.
The reporter was vacationing in Chicago with his family when his newsroom alerted him to Evans's arrest on July 1. He and his colleagues (notably reporter Tom Regan) continued to update the story via social media and web. Said Klein, in an e-mail: "Once the details came out about both Evans's conduct during the arrest, along with the woman's red underwear, my source said, 'Not survivable now.' I e-mailed our web desk and then tweeted this information publicly.
"When I was back in Atlanta on July 3, I turned in early. I had a 3:45 a.m. wake up so I could be at the station by 4:30 a.m. to prepare for anchoring Channel 2's coverage of the AJC Peachtree Road Race. That morning when I got up and checked my phone I found a message from my source that Evans was out as A.D. At 3:56 a.m. I copied the station and tweeted, "BREAKING NEWS. Source close to the UGA athletic office tells me Damon Evans is out as Georgia's AD. Official announcement will be Monday." Klein then broke the story on television with his live shot at the road race at 7 a.m. Nice work.
7. Jason McIntyre, editor of The Big Lead website: Using the new-age formula of gossipy sports news, scantily clad women and items about the sports media, McIntyre parlayed his successful blog into a reported seven-figure payday. No matter whether the figure is actual pesos or a hybrid cash/stock deal with Fantasy Sports Ventures, I give McIntyre credit for putting endless hours into the development of his product, even his sometimes nonsensical items.
The sports media has an endless supply of self-absorbed and narcissistic types (yes, I'll include myself here) and McIntyre skillfully played upon those traits. At the onset, he was relentless about e-mailing sports writers and on-air people for any morsel of gossip. ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd soon provided a publicity game-changer by sending his listeners to the site in an effort to take it down.
McIntyre eventually dropped his anonymity in a piece that I wrote. Today, ESPN includes him on its mass mailing list, which speaks to both entities. The New York Times reported the purchase, which in itself was a nice coup for the site. If I were the CEO of Fantasy Sports Ventures, I might give a seven-figure bonus to the pr person who no doubt ferociously pitched writer Richard Sandomir to get the sale into his newspaper.
8. Ron Flatter, ESPN Radio: One of the underreported elements to ESPN's World Cup coverage was its extensive offerings on ESPN Radio, especially the nightly World Cup recap show hosted by the always-terrific Chuck Wilson. Veteran radio reporter Flatter served as a roving reporter in South Africa and his work was the perfect blend of enthusiasm and reportage. He hustled to interview referee Koman Coulibaly (he called the U.S.-Slovenia game), and traveled the country during the month, including a couple all-night drives from Rustenburg to Johannesburg. Flatter currently provides news updates for ESPN Radio's New York affiliate.
"I wanted to offer something that wasn't necessarily being done on other ESPN platforms," Flatter said. "I wanted to take advantage of our ability to immediately access interviews, news conferences, man-on-the-street reaction, etc., and use that audio to paint a word picture wherever I went. I think our feature on vuvuzelas accomplished that. I always sought an angle every day that was pertinent -- and not just on U.S. soccer."
In an age of social media and 3-D programming, I asked Flatter if there's still a place for a general interest radio sports reporter. "For radio as a whole, our portability remains a huge advantage," he said. "We can generate content from almost anywhere at anytime, and with technology today that allows us to almost instantly make a digital recording and e-mail it back home. It makes quite an impression that we can put content to air quickly. Being on the spot in that respect is still what radio does best."
9. Jim Gray: We'll take Gray at his word that he wasn't paid by Team LeBron -- of course, who did pay Gray for his services reminds one of the film Rashomon -- but it's a little like not being charged for the eighth of 10 murders. The longtime reporter perpetuated a fraud on those watching ESPN's The Decision, from extending the questions to an interminable length to his role as an enabler during the process. Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi called Gray a "ball-less, drooling sycophant," which fit the general review from most people, even if they used less colorful language. Seems incredible that SI once described Gray as "television's nerviest interrogator."
10. ESPN's "The Decision": In all my years of writing media columns for SI and SI.com, I have never been contacted by more ESPN staffers than I was last week, all of whom were universal in their message: They were disappointed (some used the term disgusted) with the program above. I've always tried to be measured and reasoned in this column. So I say this with much thought and contemplation: The Decision is the worst thing ESPN has ever put its name to, and it will take a long time for some viewers to get over it. It's also a bit stunning that ESPY host Seth Meyers has offered more commentary on the program (as of this writing) than ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer.
Plenty of great work gets done by people every day at ESPN, especially on the newsgathering and production side. Even more so than viewers who endured this self-aggrandizing, selling-out-our-journalistic-soul, narcissistic shamathon, those ESPN staffers are the ones who deserve an apology.