Interview with ESPN.com Editor In Chief Rob King
Simply put, the reason why there is a TSF is because of ESPN.com. There’s no denying such a significant fact. In saying that, we also want an alternative to what has become almost a singular voice in sports. ESPN has a stranglehold on the way sports is packaged and the only way that grip changes is for sites like TSF and others to consistently speak out and offer a substantive check and balance. ESPN has hired numerous minorities as of late and Rob King is most likely ESPN’s most significant addition in quite some time. Just as some of you have questioned ESPN.com’s writers I’m sure some of you will question the hire mainly because of King’s graphic artist background. I had the same question and when contacting ESPN, John Kosner Sr., Vice President and General Manager, ESPN Digital Media responded with this statement via email: “Rob is a true leader. He is uniquely qualified to take ESPN.com to the next level bringing together a talented team to serve sports fans with the best in sports writing and reporting, audio, video and photography. It’s a dream assignment and he was born to do it.” Judge for yourselves what type of impact Rob King will have on MSM. He holds the keys to an organization that shapes the way we visualize and read sports. I must say that Rob King is one of the most intelligent people I have ever come across. The way we view sports is morphing just as fast as the technology that’s readily available. What’s your opinion and where do you see sports heading?
Read very carefully.
Michael Tillery: While doing some research leading up to this interview and speaking to a few people, the prevailing theme was that you are a mover and a shaker. Someone who kicks ass and takes names later. There was a Bill Simmons piece about Kevin Garnett’s trade to the Celtics. It’s widely known that you edited the piece because it contained the word spades. Is this an accurate statement? Are you coming in to ESPN, putting your hand down and making sure that your writers are held to a certain standard?
Rob King: Well…I do believe in standards. I do believe we owe our fans a certain level of sensitivity no matter what we do–even if it’s something totally inadvertent like that incident was.
I’ll say this: The great advantage on a lot of fronts in working at a place like this is that you start out working with a lot of talented folk. I’d be remiss if I didn’t start out early by just saying that what you (the team) are doing at The Starting Five is an incredible service to fans. You are providing the right kind of new voice to the discussion–and doing it on a really high level. I’m happy to say that the folks I work with here are operating at that high level. Even in a case like that where–through the crush of deadline–the contents of a word were momentarily overlooked. People respond and the right thing is done. If you characterize it as my rolling in and setting different standards, I think that will be a little off. I think that people do try to operate at a high level. I think there are some cases in which a new pair of eyes, a fresh pair of eyes, puts us in a better position to succeed. In the short time I’ve been in the chair, my eyes may be seeing something that isn’t there. But it’s good to be in a position where I can get a good honest dialogue working and be in a place where we can get to solutions fairly quickly.
MT: Describe the experience of producing Outside the Lines and ESPN News.
RK: I actually had the great fortune of being brought into ESPN at the level of senior coordinating producer. It meant that I did oversee production though I didn’t have to line produce. That was a good thing because as a 22 yr. newspaper veteran, I was spectacularly unqualified to line produce. I was able to direct the conversations and help put people in a position to succeed, get people with different sources to make the reporting richer and implement story lines that might not have been produced.
I was able to direct conversations with a sense of purpose. It was great. Not everyone gets to start at this level so I was very blessed. Coming to a show like Outside the Lines where you have truly committed journalists in a television environment who were gracious enough to help me understand the difference between newspapers and television. They were also open to hear my ideas of how television can change. It was a really nice opportunity to start.
After Outside the Lines, I picked up golf (overseeing coverage) for a year. I joined oversight of ESPN News with Bary Sacks–Senior Coordinating Producer in studio production two years ago. Again, that was a great opportunity to work at a high level–overseeing a really important network. It is a network that has a completely different mission from ESPN and ESPN2. It takes that mission very seriously and really works to satisfy the fans 24/7.
Then last year I had the great experience of overseeing our studio NBA coverage.
It’s different from news papering. There’s a level of discourse. There’s a sense of urgency timing wise. There’s a level of invectives that has to take place in a much narrow window–given what it takes to produce high quality television. It’s fairly dynamic man, I really loved working in TV. One of the nice things about where I entered the Internet space is that I don’t have to abandon that because video, radio pod-cast and telling stories beyond subject and verb are a major part of what ESPN.com is doing and will do in the future.
MT: Speak about the importance of having video on your site. It seems having some sort of video feature (implemented) is really blowing up on the web. Could you pigeon hole why you think that is?
RK: Well, I think the really cool thing about this Internet space that your site and so many other sites have come to, is that there’s this awareness that it’s not really about how we choose to deliver a story. It’s about being present for the audience out there that’s going to determine how he or she wants to consume stuff. Not just how..but when.
There’s so much great television production that takes place on this campus. Some of it we even produce independent of studio and remote production. We do it out of our Internet production site. There’s so much good content, that it’s impossible to just program it in a day on television. A lot of stuff that gets on television each day we might not see. I know I don’t see everything and I get paid to work at ESPN. It’s really about being where people can find you and when they are ready to enjoy what you have. I think that as our bandwidth changes and our technology advances, folks have every right to expect to see game–or part of a game–or a highlight or a Pardon the Interruption segment, when and where they choose–or however they choose. Whether they have a phone in their hand or a laptop on their lap or sitting at home in front of a desktop. That just affords us and other folks out there–ESPN in particular–the opportunity to share the great stuff we do in a lot of different formats. The great story also about the Internet–particularly when I read Salon.com, Slate, a site like yours or I read Leave the Man Alone—is that people are literate. You can be literate and you can want to watch the television. Or you can walk around with an ipod and catch a radio interview. People have the ability to be multimedia savvy. It’s not just the question of television meaning the downfall of the written word. The Internet is a space where all these things tend to coexist. That gets into what we try to do here. This is a company that’s devoted to being where fans are.
MT: You have an extensive history of being a graphic artist, how does that translate into your present position. Does your experience give you a different sense of vision compared to someone with a typical background?
RK: I think there’s some truth to that. I think the visual journalists that I’ve known, respected or worked with, have had a different way of experiencing the news. Whether it’s through the use of photography or the use of topography or having a sense of a color suggests urgency or what have you. Visual journalists have always had a different route of communicating with other people–which is cool. What’s funny is that I’ve found leaving the news paper world and coming to television is that visual sensibility is something shared by a lot of folks here. People here have a great sense of what a cool highlight is, how video works with music or how a person’s sound bite has certain emphasis if you cut and edit it a certain way. I really understood that fairly early on and that was helpful for me. A news paper story looks nothing like a television script. If you were to sit there and look at those words on paper, you’d think these folks were talking in a completely different language.
If you get into an editing suite and see what an editor and a highlight producer are trying to do with video–and you have a visual background–you get it fairly quickly. So that was encouraging. Candidly, when I left news papers and came to television, it was a leap of faith man. I was like, I hope this works out. I wanted to go to somewhere where I wanted to be in a position to have to learn a lot of stuff, because it would rejuvenate the approach I had with my career. I was 42 when I came to ESPN, at that point you have some decisions to make about how far outside your comfort zone do you want to go. You can be in that same news paper environment and do annual stories that come up, or seasonal stories that come up. There are politicians that probably would have to die before they leave the scope of your coverage. Every year the Eagles would get this close to the Super Bowl and not quite make it, or the Sixers would get to the first round of the playoffs…you find yourself telling the same stories over and over again. I thought it was a great opportunity to come to a place where I had to start over and learn a lot of new stuff. The visual background kept me from having to start completely over and I was thankful for that.
MT: You just alluded to your time in Philly. It’s where I live. Speak about your experience with the Philadelphia Inquirer and also talk about the mass cuts that seem to be going around the country that seem to be putting a stranglehold on print.
RK: Well it’s funny, I had a lot of friends that talk very fondly about the good ole days in news papering–not just at the Inquirer, but in other places. I was in news papers for 22 years. I don’t ever remember working in the good ole days.
Wow. I was in Gannett news papers from 1987-1997. I was at Knight Ridder from 1997 to 2004. The news paper years prior to that was I worked at the Washington Post as an editorial assistant–a copy aide really–and I was at Penn State in grad school for a year. I just remember it being about dire changes and news print prices going crazy and threats of layoffs. In the Gannett news paper chain, there was an awareness that there was a value to meaning something to your Wall Street partners that caused some people hardship that made Gannett especially draconian. Now if you really look back on it they were people that saw what this was about years before Knight Ridder years before the New York Times company.
I just don’t remember those salad days where people were traveling here and there. I always tell people that one of my first exercises as a manager while I was at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky is that I had to sell a plane. They had an airplane that would enable reporters and photographers to get to one end of the state to the other. I get the job overseeing the photo department and it was my job to find a buyer for an airplane. Flash forward to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Folks at the Philadelphia Inquirer have had a long series of herculean struggles. If you look at the quality of journalism, the number of fine stories and the number of game changing stories that have come out of that news room, it’s an amazing story. I love my time at the Philadelphia Inquirer because I really enjoyed the people that I worked with.
I didn’t enjoy some of the realities of the business reality that just crashed into the Inquirer. I didn’t enjoy the way we went to technological solutions that ultimately meant that people in other disciplines like paste-up were suddenly expendable. A lot of work was going to fall onto news editors and copy editors that existed in other parts of the operation. I loved the people, their sense of history, purpose in the city and their determination to always do something really big. I’m from Washington, D.C. I just think that Philadelphia–stuck between D.C. and New York, gets a bum rap. It’s a place of great tradition, great passion and I think under reportedly, great intellect. I think that the news papers there–The Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer–against the backdrop of all those suburban news papers across Pennsylvania and New Jersey–are facing a challenge that’s utterly unique. I think having gone through the number of changes to the masthead and yet still coming out and still being able to churn out great journalism and compelling humor and thought about where the city and community is, is just heroic.
MT: Rob, talk about your parents…your dad being at the Washington Post and your mom being with the Social Security Commission. How did their success translate to the professionalism you seem to grasp so well presently?
RK: First thing, don’t get it twisted! I was in news papers before my dad. Alright? I know he’s a big Pulitzer Prize-winning, Washington Week In Review showing-up-on Bob Schiefer big guy. My dad shows up on these Sunday morning political TV shows frequently. I know he’s a big man OK?
Seriously, He is. He’s the greatest man that ever lived. I’ll put him up against anybody. He wasn’t in news papers when I was in news papers. I remember when Meg Greenfield–who was Editorial Page Editor at the Washington Post at the time was asking him to come joining the editorial department. He had the nerve to call me at work and ask if he should take the job at the Post. I was working at the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I was making like no money. The phone rang around 3:15 and here it is my dad saying “Should I go to the Washington Post?” I was like dad…dad I have no time for this. If you are going, just go. Don’t rub my nose in it (Rob chuckles). I was in the news paper business like three years before he got in. So, to answer your question, my parents are super heroes. I have a younger brother and a younger sister. We are the three luckiest people alive. We were raised by parents that are high achievers. They placed us first. They took some risks and raised us in a predominately White neighborhood. I got in fights like every day in elementary school and also a lot of days in junior high school because someone was always dropping the magic word. I was protecting my brother…protecting my sister. At the same time, my parents always made it clear what it was all about. They always gave us a great sense of pride in who we were. They set high standards for our grades. They made it clear that the whole thing was about more than just us. Both my grandmothers were teachers. My grandfathers worked very very hard. My father’s father had like two years of vacation saved up. He just never took the time off. He was always working. It was the work ethic. So we were just really fortunate in that sense.
MT: You have one of the most important jobs in sports.
MT: Do you ever sit back and say wow…I have this art that I can shape or are there guidelines at ESPN that you go by? Did you come in cold turkey and say there are certain things existing that I want to change?
RK: That’s a big question and the answer on all fronts is yes. There is some history to respect about where ESPN and ESPN.com are, but I was hired just because there was also great awareness of a great opportunity to take this place somewhere else. Essentially I was brought here to help with the redirection of the site. One, is how we can work more seamlessly across platforms. ESPN.com, TV, radio. How do we work together in a smart way to get stuff to fans? Wherever they are and however they want access, let’s hear it. My background in television helps inform them. I have good working relationships with people in television and I have a sense of how we all need to set the table together and make that stuff work.
Again, I have a specific background of news paper journalism, visual journalism, text based journalism–some time with television. Because we touch so many different people here inside of ESPN, we try to deliver good stuff to sports fans out there. It helps to have a wide range of experience–a wide range of shared experiences–to move everyone forward in the same direction.
Then, coming at it from my point of view as an African American male, who has been in some sort of journalistic management position for now 15 years. I have a sense of my own interests and biases. I have a great passion to make sure we have a wide range of voices being heard and telling stories and responding to stories. In picking up story angles as the son of my mother and the brother of my sister and the husband of my wife and not the father of my daughter. I have a point of view to make sure smart decisions are informed by the sensibilities, sensitivities and interests of women. You try to take all those things into a position this massive and make sure the end result is not about me or what I want. It is about making sure that people here succeed in being great story tellers. Succeed in being sources of information that is relevant to fans. It’s really about taking all those things that I bring to the table. Making sure they are used in a way that drives ESPN forward. There are some examples where my background is especially helpful. I think your site has raised really smart points about how all of us have covered the Michael Vick story. I think you can read pieces by Jeff Chadiha and Jemele Hill that speak to sensibilities that many of our competitors in the Internet space or the sports media world can’t speak to. Yet, we can’t speak to the same specificity as the Leave the Man Alone site.
To some extent we are a storytelling entity of record. We use voice and analysis to expand the range of how we are able to tell stories. We are in a position where we do it point by point. Our site is only seen as limited in scope. That doesn’t really meet our goal of reaching all fans. When you try to reach all fans and try to provide sports stories, news and sports entertainment to all fans, the more diffused you get–the harder it is to narrow it down to one thing. My job is just to make sure all the people we’ve hired to be empowered to do that type of story telling, do it at the highest possible level. They get to be the best journalists they possibly can be. Whatever my folks taught me or whatever the people I’ve worked for taught me I come each day to work hoping that that gets other folks closer to that goal. This is an opportunity to make a difference. I’m blessed to be given this opportunity and I take that very serious.
MT: Because of the way sports is covered you name is going to be said and known for many years, that’s the reason why I was trying to get out your thoughts of the importance of your position.
RK: Yeah I get that. You know the funny thing is…
Someone asked me this question not long ago about coming into a powerful position. It’s never really been about that. When my hiring was announced, I didn’t show up that many places on the Internet. It’s been about making sure that if Outside the Lines was going to tell a great story, then it just told a great story. It had nothing to do with anything that my name is. Clearly that’s a little different now. That will take some work. If I’m doing my job right, it will always be about what ESPN has managed to do. How ESPN has grown in it’s ability to serve all fans. Maybe my name won’t be known and maybe that will be a great thing.
MT: You brought up an important point earlier about having Black writers on the site. I see (ESPN has brought on) Howard Bryant. I speak with Scoop, Jemele and J.A. Adande from time to time and I also see (ESPN has also hired) Jeff Chadiha. You also spoke about the importance of having a diverse voice.
Now in this present sports climate and its 24/7 news cycle, could you elaborate just a little bit more on ESPN having a diverse voice?
RK: I think the diversity of an ESPN voice represents the greatest challenges and greatest opportunities this company faces. We are working every day–in my estimation–to make smarter choices on how we represent stories, on how we represent athletes, how we represent the truth and how we touch fans. That is a serious, serious charge. It can be something as sophisticated as who sits in the booth or who sits court side at an NBA game. It can be as specific as managing a word choice in a sentence. In order for us to be viewed as credible in our efforts to tell stories accurately, we have to be prepared to represent a wide range of viewpoints. As you know, there’s no simple truth to a lot of these stories. The Michael Vick story was a painful for me personally because as Jemele Hill writes it is about equal parts the failure of an individual and the collapse of an image as it is something that could be used to paint all of us with the same old unfortunate brush.
These stories just don’t go away. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about Michael Vick and it doesn’t matter if you are talking about Jimmy Clausen and his past youthful indiscretions. You have to manage your approach to telling these stories in such a way that first and foremost you are viewed as reliable and trustworthy deliverers of facts. In that respect, diversity becomes a lot of different things. It becomes a core part of our business. It becomes a really important statement about all of the members of our audience. It becomes a statement of how wide our eyes are to the truth. It’s a big deal. It seems like there was a time where a Michael Vick story would pop up every four months and if you mishandled it, there’s a bad feeling and then you work it out. I’m not saying that we mishandled the Michael Vick story, that’s not my point. Something would pop up out of nowhere and you would say like “Whoa! What happened?” Something is happening almost every day. A year ago were talking about Maurice Clarett getting caught with liquor and a gun. You could just pick your spot along the year and come up with things. Because we know more and people are sharing more information, it just becomes that much more important to be reliable, well informed and trustworthy.
The other thing is that they are really smart watchdogs out there. Whether it’s Deadspin, or The Starting Five or you name it, there are going to be watchdogs that are going to call you out if you are not doing what you should by the fans in terms of delivering the facts. One of my proudest moments as a manager was just the relationship I developed with Stephen A. Smith. Regardless of how people might respond to Stephen A. Smith’s delivery on television, that guy is a reporter. I know how hard he works as a reporter. I count him as a friend. I just know that over the course of time, you can say whatever you want to about volume or style, but you can’t argue about the information. That to me is what you want as your benchmark. That’s what fans can take, process, use and share–not just your attitude.
MT: You have a diverse readership. On our site, we know we are going to get hits if we talk about Kobe Bryant, Michael Vick and Barry Bonds or Terrell Owens, then we are going to double our hits for the day. With that in mind, how do you manage how your readers portray you and the perception your readers have for ESPN?
RK: Well you can’t really control perception of readership. You have to be diligent about getting facts right. Diligent about if writers are making an opinion that it’s an informed opinion, and just monitoring your standards.
Look, in this space…A lot of people start off at ESPN.com. There a lot of people in the who like to start of in the Internet space with an opinion that mimics their own. In that regard, if you are starting out in a place like that there’s not much I can do. The most important thing to me is ESPN the brand. If some one has an opinion on ESPN the brand, I’m only going to move them so far. That’s why some people start off with I-Google pages. They want to start off in a world as they prescribe it. I just think you try to do the right thing by fans by saying there are more viewpoints than just this one. How can we express them all? If you are going to do news, here are the facts, make sure the facts are supported and incontrovertible. That’s heavy lifting. This is not a light enterprise. This is something that means a lot to people. You have to drill down and do the work.
MT: While doing my research for this interview, I read an interview that said you are going to reduce opinion pieces on the site. Is that an accurate statement or is that something that was misconstrued?
RK: A little bit misconstrued. This is my point of view on this: My concern is that the opinion piece is going to start from someone using the first person and saying, “Here’s what I think about issue X.” It’s everywhere. AOL Sports has got them. Yahoo has them. FOX has them. Sports Illustrated.com has them. We have them.
In order to really differentiate ourselves, you need unique voices or you need unique viewpoints and sometimes you can only have so many different view points on something. I guess where I’m coming from is I would like some parts of our section using something else besides the knee jerk reaction column. I also think the viewpoints of the community of people that come to ESPN are in some cases very smart. Some cases they are basic and in some cases they can be mean spirited. In a lot of cases they can be really thoughtful. Sometimes that could turn into a really good role that ESPN can play. It fosters the sense of community as a sports fan.
I’ll give you a couple of examples: Phil Rizzuto dies. The outpouring of emotion and the stories that people told about Phill Rizzuto, were compelling enough that we made sure that television had some of it to their disposal and we ran some of it on TV. There was a case where our golf writer, Jason Sobel accidentally killed a bird with a driver when he was playing golf the other day. He removed the bird from the course. He made a birdie and realized that he made two birdies on one hole. He wrote this piece and all these people wrote in and talked about their own golf stories. There are people out there that want to share their reaction, their stories, their viewpoints. That’s valuable stuff too.
It all blends into one if you are not careful. You have to get a sense of where those things reside, what you are trying to amplify and you are not just overrunning a site with that kind of reactive stuff. Your viewpoint is just as valid as the next person. I just don’t want to oversell reactive opinion as the thing that’s gonna make us great.
MT: I wanted to speak to you as a fan armed with a Black perspective, when I look at media–and I’m not just calling out ESPN here–are you concerned how you will be perceived historically if you take a stance on an issue that can be seen as divisive?
RK: Honestly, I’m not worried about it. The reason being is that I have parents that are living examples that you can live by your principles regardless if whether they are popular or not. As long as you have principles, the historical record will take care of itself. There have been times throughout my career where I have been in the distinct minority–for lack of a better word–on an issue.
I’m still standing. I have a three year old son and a five month old daughter. If I get home to them and put my arms around them and tell them that I’m the guy that got up and walked out of the house, it’s all good.
MT: One last question Rob. How do you think Bill Rasmussen (one of the founders of ESPN) he would…if he could see into the future as it is now, do you think he would at all be surprised?
RK: I honestly don’t know the man. I know something of the history of what his initial dream was for ESPN…the scope of that initial vision…somehow the scope of his initial vision–as I’m looking out the window–is completely unrelated. This is really massive. That’s also because the world has become a smaller place. His role was to deliver the best of Connecticut sports for the state of Connecticut. Then it became something slightly different with college sports. We have purchased the world’s largest cricket website. We just did a deal with Scrum–which is a rugby site. I know Mr. Rasmussen wasn’t imagining throwing almost entire games on ESPN 360. That wasn’t in his viewfinder. I would venture to say this would be something he would be surprised about.