Sarah Palin is being Exploited [media]

Oprah exploited Sarah Palin.

Sarah Palin knew this, of course. She signed up for it. It’s all part of the deal that people opt in to when they’ve when got a platform that’s larger than their employment prospects.

It’s a bad deal, though. And one that tells us some things about our deeply flawed media.

The deal is supposed to work like this: A notable figure writes a book. They spend the better part of a month giving interviews to as many venues as they can in hopes that the attention will get people to purchase the book. Then they take the money earned by the book out of the bank in singles, cover their bed it in, and roll around happily.

This quid pro quo is a much better deal for broadcasters than it is for authors (as loosely defined as the term may be in this case), and it diminishes both mediums. It turns book publishing into a de facto money laundering operation. Is there any doubt that everything Sarah Palin wished to express and accomplish with “Going Rogue” could have been done just as well with a series of interviews? Or 20 pages of bullet-points?

Worse, the arrangement gives an enormous free pass to a “news” culture that’s become to celebrity newsmakers what the NCAA is to athletes. In a time when the book business is ever more troubled, and the ability to draw an audience together for anything longer than a youtube clip is ever more valuable, how does it make sense for books to serve as the near exclusive means of monetizing interest, while television newscasters get paid millions upon millions for asking softball questions in service of  news broadcasts that serve as profit centers for multinational corporations?

Orpah and other broadcasters get a definable benefit, in ratings and advertising dollars, from having someone on who brings extra eye to the screen. If Sarah Palin brought one extra viewer to Oprah’s show, or to any of the other venues she’s been on in the last couple of weeks, why shouldn’t she be entitled to payment for the value she added?

Taking the idea a step further, imagine a broadcast where the journalists and their interview subjects shared the profits, in an above-board way.

Perhaps a profit motive might lead to someone like Palin answering questions that journalists typically don’t ask, like about Trig’s birth, or how she really feels about her political future. After all, nothing sells like conflict and revelations.

Most celebrity “news” interviews these days are non-confrontational to the point of propaganda. The news could cease showing their desperation for the ratings that come with a good “get,” and fearing that showing a semblance of spine would torpedo their chances. Instead, the could focus on offering the best financial deal, and preparing a show that would create the most possible interest.

We might even get more truth out of the deal.

(I, for one, would pony up $24.99 to watch Sarah Palin interviewed by Michael Moore on Pay-Per-View. Would the integrity of the news business really suffer in that kind of deal?)

It’s time for a new method of monetizing interest. (And if it only served to save us from all of those dubious books, that would be success enough.)

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Sarah Palin is being Exploited [media]

Bill Simmons represents ESPN’s Biggest Failure [sports media]

ESPN’s Bill Simmons is the most popular sportswriter in America. He’s arguably the only one that really matters anymore. He’s enough of a common denominator that if you end up in a semi-decent conversation about sports with a stranger under 45, that both of you read his column is a very safe assumption.

His popularity is such that his 700 page book about basketball went to number 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List in its first week. His book signings have attracted fans in the high hundreds. His columns’ page views are measured in millions. He’s unquestionably a star.

And his ascension represents ESPN’s biggest new media failure.

Simmons was something of a phenomenon. Hired by ESPN in 2001 to write for their web site, first as the “Boston Sports Guy” and soon as just the “Sports Guy,” his was the first voice on a major sports site to write from a fan’s point of view. And a funny fan, at that. Simmons wrote about sports the way fans actually talk about sports and he did so with a looseness of style, not to mention column length, that was unique among big-platform sports writers.

It didn’t take long before word about him spread. I know I was a early evangelist, sending some of his earlier columns to more a few friends under subject headings like, “You’ve got to check this guy out!”

Upon seeing the success that came from have a columnist torpedo the idea that sports media was about “insiders” writing for “outsiders,” ESPN decided that there was no lesson to be learned there, and gingerly stepped away from that door. Instead of introducing a “New York Sports Guy” or “LA Sports Gal” or others, and seeing if they connected with readers like Simmons had, ESPN decided that, while Simmons would continue to do his thing, his situation would be unique.

With that decision, ESPN hasted the rise of the alternative sports blog scene, one that would bedevil them, by years; put itself in a more difficult situation in terms of talent negotiation; and made harder their current effort to generate revenue through locally-oriented content.

Make no mistake, Simmons is a talented writer and it’s admirable that, in an era when most sportswriters seems to view actually “writing” as a means to a radio show or regular television appearances, he takes it quite seriously. Simmons’ success, though, was also the result of his being the right kind of voice, at the right time, on the biggest platform imaginable.

A large part of the sports blog scene rose up in opposition to the relative stranglehold on sports media that ESPN had. Since the early 1990’s, The World Wide Leader (as it calls itself) decided what was newsworthy, what was interesting, and what was funny. And it presented a world where athletes didn’t swear; managers and coaches had to do something supremely dumb to be called mildly mistaken; and, for years, the only sports with steroid problems involved either the former Eastern Bloc or bike racing.

A roster of “outsider” writers, dealing with sports culture closer to the way normal humans do (though still without swears), would have seriously lessened the market’s hunger for sites in the vein of Deadspin, The Big Lead, and With Leather.

As it happens, one of that sports blog community’s favorite pastimes is reading the tea leaves about what Bill Simmons will do when his current contract with ESPN expires in 2010. He’s already, by my reckoning, more effectively monetized being a writer on the web than anyone else. There will be competition for his talents and who ever gets him will have to open up the piggy-bank. Meanwhile, ESPN hasn’t developed any voices that might be credibly able to take his place.

Another possibility, one that Simmons himself mentioned in an interview, is that he might start his own sports web site. The readership that he could take with him to such an enterprise would be significant, and with the low overhead of web journalism, I wouldn’t bet against him.

Finally, over the last year ESPN has launched several locally branded pages, such as ESPNBoston, to compete with local sports pages for readers and advertisers. If they’d used their experience Simmons as an example of how a local focus can be used as an incubator for talent, ESPN would already have writers with the experience and platform to bolster their local efforts. Instead, ESPN has to poach talent from the newspapers they’re competing with.

ESPN dealt with the success of Bill Simmons like an old media company.

When Bill Simmons succeeded, ESPN had discovered a new paradigm for sports media on the web, but was far more comfortable just deciding that they’d found a new star.

They’ll be paying for that mistake for quite some time.

Bill Simmons represents ESPN’s Biggest Failure [sports media]