As numbers go, Michael Jordan at 50 years old is huge.
Not just for Jordan, but for many sports fans who never realized he — or we — could be that old. Wright Thompson’s feature story, Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building, which appeared on ESPN.com and in ESPN The Magazine last month, captured this sentiment in a way that resonated with readers.
In fact, since the piece was published Feb. 15, it has created big numbers of its own, pulling in nearly 2.5 million page views across ESPN.com and ESPN mobile web sites, while engaging readers two to three times as long as the typical ESPN.com article.
Another huge number: Thompson’s article is nearly 8,000 words, making it a “long form” piece of journalism, which continues to be an important form of content for ESPN’s Digital and Print Media group as it continues to explore new and better ways to tell stories. (Another example hit ESPN.com today with Don Van Natta Jr.’s His Game, His Rules, on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.)
We checked in with Patrick Stiegman, ESPN.com Editor-in-Chief, for more insight on ESPN’s approach to feature storytelling across platforms.
What is it about long form articles that resonates with ESPN’s readers?
It’s all about storytelling. “Long-form” is really an outdated term, especially in a digital age. Our emphasis is not on story length or news hole or word count, it’s about writing a story for what it’s worth. A truly compelling narrative — and Wright’s piece on Michael Jordan is one of the most provocative, insightful, raw and revealing profiles you’ll ever read — is irresistible, whether it’s 1,000 words or 10,000 words. From the stunning illustrations by Mark Smith to the pitch-perfect headline to the gifted reporting and writing to the deft editing by our digital and print enterprise teams, Michael Jordan Has Not Left The Building was an exquisite example of one of the most challenging tasks a writer can face: Tell me something truly revelatory about one of the most famous people on the planet. Working with editors Jay Lovinger, Jena Janovy and Bruce Kelley, among others, Wright accepted that challenge, and quite frankly, crushed it.
It seems that more long form pieces have been featured recently on both ESPN.com and in The Magazine. Discuss the cross-platform approach.
Much like ESPN’s video philosophy is one of best-screen-available — watch our networks on a 50-inch plasma, your tablet, your handheld, or some combination thereof, wherever and whenever — our written pieces are not bolted to a specific platform. In general, we don’t distinguish between print and digital newsrooms or rely on classic conventions. It’s a combined effort — we work with Chad Millman (EIC of ESPN The Magazine) and his team to review each enterprise story on a case-by-case basis and determine where it best serves readers: that could be Magazine-first, Digital-first, simultaneous, or altered versions tailored to each medium. We have an amazing stable of investigative and enterprise writers and contributors whose bylines and words flow seamlessly across our platforms — and often are part of our Outside the Lines and other feature reporting on television, as well (and vice versa). Our aim is simply to serve sports fans, at their convenience, with resonant, relevant and distinguishing pieces.
Where do you see ESPN going with long-form storytelling?
There’s never been a more exciting time in journalism. While the media landscape is unequivocally shifting, so too is the ability to tell stories in myriad formats to fans consuming that content in manners never before imaginable. We’ll continue to explore different combinations of technologies in terms of presentation, offering innovative approaches toward audio and video, dynamic page construction, scalable and responsive templates, graphic artistry, visualizations, social elements and true cross-platform interactivity. That’s a blast. But the heart and soul of our enterprise and investigative efforts will always be great story telling, which is in direct correlation to great reporting. To riff on the subhead of the Jordan piece (one that summed up the dramatic tension of Wright’s work: “MJ is wondering whether there are any more asses to kick”). . . We think there’s a lot of kick-ass journalism still to do, and know I can speak for an dedicated group of writers and editors (and partners on the television side) who will be relentless in pursuit of that goal.