A break from the coronavirus comes from someone unexpected: Michael Jordan

Your Tuesday Poynter Report

April 21, 2020
Category: Newsletters

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Coronavirus fatigue has set in. For those covering it. For those reading it. For those watching and listening to it.

It remains a story that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. It’s always there and will be here for a while.

Sometimes, however, you just need a little break.

Normally, when we are looking for an escape, many of us turn to sports. But even that has disappeared. Until this week.

This week, sports return. Well, sort of.

This is a big week for ESPN. Its much anticipated 10-part documentary “The Last Dance,” about Michael Jordan’s last championship season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-98, debuted Sunday with parts one and two. It drew huge TV numbers. And I mean HUGE — as in the best the network has ever seen for a documentary.

And ESPN should get another big audience later this week when the NFL Draft starts Thursday night and continues into the weekend.

Sports fans are clamoring for something, and this is the biggest week they’ve had since sports essentially shut down a little more than a month ago.

First, “The Last Dance.” This is more than your standard sports documentary. It has never-before-seen file footage; exclusive interviews with Jordan, other Bulls and a few special guests such as Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton; and interesting storytelling that goes back-and-forth in time. This is really good stuff. (By the way, just for fun, it should be noted that Obama was described as “former Chicago resident” and Clinton as “former Arkansas governor.”)

Let me repeat: The documentary is very good. Did it live up to the hype? Not so far. Although to be fair, that might have been impossible because sports fans have been starving for something fresh with no games, and there has been such a build-up for “The Last Dance.”

It is getting rave reviews and I’ll agree that it is well made. I’m just not as hot for it as many others are. If you are a basketball fan and have some reasonable memory of Jordan and the Bulls and that era of basketball, you’ll find it fascinating. If you’re a casual fan, I’m not sure it makes a real or emotional connection.

The gold standard of sports docs remains “O.J.: Made in America,” the 2016 Oscar-winning documentary about O.J. Simpson. But, if you’re a basketball fan, “The Last Dance” is worth watching and, after laying the groundwork in the first two parts, the documentary should pick up moving forward.

As I mentioned, ratings were through the roof, showing both the interest in the topic and the craving for anything fresh when it comes to sports. (Give credit, too, to tremendous advertising and pre-show buzz.) The first episode attracted 6.3 million viewers across both ESPN and ESPN2. The second episode averaged 5.8 million viewers. That 6.1 average makes it the most-watched documentary in ESPN history, easily topping “You Don’t Know Bo,” the 2012 doc about two-sport star Bo Jackson. That drew 3.6 million viewers in his first airing.

And in another sign of just how much interest there was in “The Last Dance,” sports fans and sports journalists were live-tweeting the documentary as if it was a live game. ESPN and even competitor Fox Sports 1 spent much of their Monday programming talking about the first two parts.

In an interview with ESPN’s “Front Row,” ESPN executive vice president of content Connor Schell said, “‘The Last Dance’ is the most ambitious piece of original content we’ve ever undertaken, and we are thrilled that we were able to respond to the calls from fans to get this out into the world at a time when we are all missing sports dearly and craving entertaining content. On top of that, the series is really, really good. It’s captivating and comprehensive.”

In a piece for Vice, Tim Marchman and Laura Wagner wrote, “The funniest thing about the epic series so far, pretty much everyone seems to agree, is Jordan’s bemused reaction to being told that the Bulls team he joined as a 21-year-old rookie in 1984 had once been described as a ‘traveling cocaine circus.’ The next funniest is probably just how committed ESPN appears to be using this project to burnish and forward Jordan’s, and ESPN’s, brand positioning, which plays out in the pettiest ways.”

Meanwhile, the NFL Draft should be a big boost for ESPN. It will be different from any drafts of recent memory. No big stage. No big announcements with hugs and putting on team hats. No crowd cheering and booing. It will be virtual, making things not only more difficult for the NFL, but for ESPN and the NFL Network, which also will televise it.

“While the presentation is decidedly different from past years, it will be no less relevant and no less special,” Schell told “Front Row.” “We’ve worked closely with the NFL to develop an ambitious plan for the two distinct telecasts, giving this marquee event the coverage and resources it deserves. The NFL installed in-home cameras for 58 of the top draft prospects, who we plan to interview during the show. We will feature in-home cameras for all 32 NFL head coaches and GMs, plus one for Commissioner Roger Goodell, who will be announcing picks from his home.”

So there you have it, a break from the somber daily news. There might not be games. Sports won’t be all the way back until there are games.

But for now, at least this is something.

Now for some bad news

Seems like every day we see more stories like these: Meredith Corp., which owns magazines such as People and Entertainment Weekly, is cutting pay for about 60% of its staff until early September. The reason is the same as the reason there are journalism cuts across the country: a drop in advertising revenue due to the coronavirus crisis.

According to CNBC’s Alex Sherman, Meredith announced about 2,000 employees will receive a temporary 15% cut and another 750 will take pay cuts anywhere between 20% and 40%. A little more than 2,000 won’t see their salaries cut. Those taking cuts will begin working four-day weeks for the next four months.

In Minneapolis, The Star Tribune is implementing furloughs. Employees will get eight-day furloughs — four days in each of the next two quarters.

Fox News special

Fox News host Harris Faulkner (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Fox News has a special today for parents and educators, as it looks at the challenges of guiding students through digital education during the coronavirus pandemic. “Outnumbered Overtime: America Learns Together” is scheduled for 1 p.m. Eastern today and will be hosted by Harris Faulkner. Among the scheduled guests are Arne Duncan, former Secretary of Education under Barack Obama, and Bill Bennett, former Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan. In addition, child psychologist Dr. Jessica Griffin will be on hand to answer questions from teachers and parents.

Outside the box

Coronavirus has caused lots of problems for journalism. But it’s also been the impetus behind some creative thinking.

Take WBUR, the NPR station in Boston. When other media outlets were scrambling, WBUR was ahead of the crisis. It started working remotely before stay-at-home advisories were issued. It turned its eight-day pledge drive into a 13-hour push that exceeded goals and turned into a virtual gala. And it has launched virtual programming to help create community and connection.

For example, the most ambitious project is the WBUR Town Hall series held Tuesdays at 6 p.m. and broadcast live on YouTube. It brings together WBUR journalists and experts to concentrate on a weekly topic. (Here’s the link to tonight’s town hall.)

WBUR CEO Margaret Low, who came over from The Atlantic, said in an email, “The coronavirus has touched every dimension of our lives. Many of us are isolated in our homes, away from family, friends and colleagues. People are longing for connection to one another and for deep, reliable information. The WBUR Town Halls are a way for us to connect in a meaningful way with our audience, at a time when we all need each other more than ever. We can provide that sense of togetherness that everyone is yearning for and to give everyone access to our journalists and to the experts — on the frontlines of this pandemic.”

Meanwhile, KQED, the NPR member station in Northern California, has launched KQED en Espanol to provide vital reporting and resources to the Spanish-speaking communities in and around the San Francisco Bay area. You can find more information at kqed.org/elcoronavirus.

Holly Kernan, KQED’s chief content officer, said in an email, “As part of our public service, it became imperative that we make a special effort to provide these crucial resources to our Spanish-speaking communities, many of whom have particular needs and who deserve the same quality of information and news about the crisis.”

About those press conferences

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus Monday at the White House. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Two more notable pieces about the daily White House coronavirus press conferences.

The Washington Post’s Dan Zak, Ben Terris and Sarah Ellison delved into the details of what Trump talked about on days when the national death toll passed 12,000, then 25,000, then 34,000. On those days, Trump’s topics of conversation included mail-in voter ballots, replays of old baseball games and North Korea.

The Post wrote, “The briefings, in a way, are longings: the president desires unqualified praise, his fans yearn for the free-associating emcee who used to hold court in arenas, viewers want new information and a way forward.”

Meanwhile, New York Times opinion columnist Charles M. Blow wrote that it’s time to stop airing the press conferences. Blow wrote, “In 2016, Trump stormed the castle by outwitting the media gatekeepers, exploiting their need for content and access, their intense hunger for ratings and clicks, their economic hardships and overconfidence. It’s all happening again. The media has learned nothing.”

Blow pointed back to a recent Times story that quoted legendary journalist Ted Koppel, who said, “Training a camera on a live event, and just letting it play out, is technology, not journalism; journalism requires editing and context. … The question, clearly, is whether his status as president of the United States obliges us to broadcast his every briefing live.”

Koppel’s answer: No.

But what about those ratings?

President Trump likes to brag about his TV ratings and, well, he’s not wrong. People do tune in to watch him. Last Thursday, which was supposed to be the most newsworthy news conference when he laid out plans to reopen the country, drew 6.4 million viewers alone on Fox News. Fox News and CNN both see upticks in viewership during Trump’s press conferences (Fox News more than CNN). MSNBC’s ratings tend to go down when Trump comes on.

Well, this sounds depressing

California Gov. Gavin Newsom. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

Look for California Gov. Gavin Newsom on today’s “CBS This Morning.” In an interview with Tony Dokoupil, Newsom doesn’t sound so optimistic about baseball this summer, school in the fall and a normal November election.

“Yeah, I don’t know as normal,” Newsom said in an excerpt from the interview sent to me. “And none of the above as normal. I think that would be unrealistic to assert. You have to radically change the floor plans in the schools, in businesses, private-public institutions, large and small. We’re gonna have new protocols and procedures, temperature checks, people wearing face coverings across the spectrum. … But the idea of tens of thousands of fans coming together across their differences, high fiving one another, hugging each other — after a base hit, or a strikeout — is not something I’m anticipating any time soon.”

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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