Editor’s Note: In celebrating its 20th anniversary, ESPN.com unveils its new site on Wednesday, April 1. It’s the first major makeover of ESPN.com in more than five years, and it is completely rebuilt from the ground up. This week, Front Row presents discussions with ESPN.com’s leaders past and present exploring the sports news and information site’s growth.
The growth of the ESPN.com editorial team over the past 20 years speaks a lot to how far along online journalism has evolved. Its coverage of the NCAA Final Four alone – the first major sporting event when the site launched on April 1, 1995 – speaks to the importance of ESPN.com as a news source alongside TV, radio and other ESPN platforms. Front Row spoke to the site’s editors about the early days and what’s in store for fans when the new ESPN.com debuts on Wednesday.
How did ESPN.com cover the Final Four in its early days?
David Albright, executive editor: In the earliest days, we literally couldn’t get into the Final Four. We weren’t recognized as a legitimate media outlet. So we worked with TV colleagues and utilized their interviews to tell stories on what was ESPNET SportsZone. We also worked directly with schools for phone interviews or meetings at team hotels. We assigned stories to freelancers who had credentials. In 1996, when the Final Four was at the Meadowlands, the NCAA distributed single-day media passes, mostly for TV entities. We might have shared a few of the ones issued to ESPN (after TV finished gathering what it needed). The bottom line: We didn’t let it stop us from doing our jobs. Thankfully, as the site grew, it established credibility and, sooner than later, we could walk into Final Four venues with our own credentials.
With the new ESPN.com, how will fans experience our Final Four coverage today?
Chad Millman, editor-in-chief: Three days after we launch, we’ll be in Indianapolis for the Final Four with two dozen editors, writers, photographers and videographers from ESPN.com and the affinity sites. It’s the first major event in which fans will get a sense of how immersive and all-encompassing live coverage can be on the new site, and also the dynamic way it’s presented. Users who personalized for teams still alive will get the latest news and info directly in the Favorites column. The Now feed will be capturing the conversation around games as they happen – something increasingly important for fans enjoying a second screen experience. Sandwiched between will be the full palette of stories and features that editors, writers, photographers and video teams report and dream up. It will take advantage of all the new site has to offer.
How has the editorial team grown over the years?
David Kraft, executive editor: In the early days of Starwave, we didn’t have sport editors. We came into the office every day and divided up sports. Sometimes there were three people at night, sometimes a couple. Initially, we had sport editors in-season. Then we grew, and somebody could focus on a sport year-round. As the site grew, we added people to edit columns and features. We added writers, first by sport, then by team. So a site that started with general news editors who might have baseball one night and hockey the next has grown into sport-specific teams, a bi-coastal news and copy desk, city sites, writers covering 60-or-so of the top teams and some of the best enterprise and investigative journalism anywhere.
What were some turning points or milestones for the ESPN.com news team in its 20-year history?
Patrick Stiegman, Vice President and Editorial Director: In terms of storytelling, the launch of Page 2 signaled the elasticity of our content to reach beyond sports into humor and popular culture. The expansion of enterprise and investigative efforts – starting with E-Ticket and evolving into OTL [Outside The Lines] – marked a commitment to in-depth storytelling and fans’ desire for compelling narratives.
We’ve amplified our approach to reaching fans through city sites, NFL Nation, the acquisition of ESPNcricinfo and the launch of ESPN FC. All of these were augmented by the proliferation of distributing our content in new and compelling ways – video, social, phones and tablets, among others. The combination has led to unprecedented consumption and signaled the innovation that we’ll carry through the next 20 years.
Editor’s Note: In the video below, SportsCenter anchor Matthew Barrie recalls his first encounter with ESPN.com.
Video produced by Samantha Baron