It didn’t take long for Jim Brady to experience some of the fallout that comes with being associated with ESPN. While people in the industry lauded the network naming him as its new public editor Friday, Brady was the target of many negative shots on social media. They included allegations that as a big Jets fan, the Long Island native couldn’t possibly be objective about critiquing ESPN’s coverage of the New England Patriots.
“Of course, since the Jets have given me so much joy in my life,” said Brady sarcastically about his years of frustration.
Just in case there were any doubts, Brady then said, “I’ll never root for the Patriots any more than a Patriots fan will root for the Jets. That’s the reality of being a sports fan. But your profession supersedes your sports loyalty. If you’re a journalist, you do that unequivocally. If people don’t believe that, it’s their problem.”
Brady’s work will be in full view when he writes the first piece of his 18-month term later this month. He will be the sixth in line to hold the position, but the first to be called a public editor; faculty from the Poynter Institute served a term from 2011-2012.
Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president and editorial director for ESPN Digital & Print Media and chairman of ESPN’s Editorial Board, felt it was time to retire “ombudsman.”
“I was in the minority of knowing what the term meant,” Stiegman said. “[The change] is to emphasize that this is a service to our readers and an advocacy role of how the audiences views ESPN.”
Indeed, Brady’s appointment marks a significant transition for ESPN. He will be the first person in the position whose background primarily is in digital. Brady helped launch and then later served as both sports editor and then executive editor of WashingtonPost.com. He also held multiple executive positions at AOL. Brady is the CEO of Spirited Media, which operates the mobile news platform Billy Penn in Philadelphia, and in the interest of full disclosure is a member of Poynter’s Board of Directors.
Brady’s resume is quite a departure from his predecessor, Robert Lipsyte, the former New York Times columnist who barely used social media. Stiegman, though, quoted Lipsyte in noting that ESPN wanted a new public editor who can address various issues on the network’s many platforms from TV to mobile.
“Bob had a great line,” Stiegman said. “He felt his job was ‘to be a window washer.’ It wasn’t necessary to be inside ESPN, but he had to make sure the fans and audience have a clear view into our decision making and processes. We’re at a tipping point as far as user behavior on all our platforms. In order to be a window washer in 2015, you have to touch the audience in a multitude of their touch points.”
That mandate is one of the reasons that attracted Brady to the job. He thinks the seismic shifts in the media landscape provide him with a unique opportunity to examine ESPN.
“It is one of the more fascinating media companies on the planet,” Brady said. “Yes, they have their relationship with the leagues, but they are having to work their way through the complete upsetting of the whole media ecosystem. There are expanding platforms to changing business models; new competition. How do you go forward in a world that keeps changing by the day?”
Brady will write more frequently than his predecessors. He says he intends to weigh in with shorter posts on various issues. Since digital is in “my metabolism,” he also will have a strong presence on social media, which will provide him with plenty of interesting feedback from ESPN consumers.
Brady, though, cautions he won’t be addressing “the controversy of the day.” He said there are plenty of critics who can fill that role. Rather, Stiegman said he wants Brady to gather information and insights from the appropriate individuals at ESPN in writing his posts. Stiegman called it, “demystifying the process.”
“My job is to try to give people an understanding of how things operated at ESPN,” Brady said. “How do you make the tough decisions? What are the factors that go into making that decision? How does the sausage get made?”
Brady said he does intend to address the demise of Grantland. But other than that, he declined to give any hints about the direction of his posts early on.
Initially, Brady wants to do his best to approach this new assignment with a clean slate when it comes to ESPN.
“You’re a human being,” Brady said. “I have been a big consumer of ESPN. You have your opinions. But when you get into this role, you have to balance those opinions by being a reporter.”
Objectivity is at the forefront of being a reporter. Brady anticipates people will have a different perspective about his conclusions. And that goes for the person who hired him: Stiegman.
“Sure, there are times when I disagree with [what previous ombudsman have written], “ Stiegman said. “But that’s the value of having a voice of the audience.”
Brady also knows there are perceptions when it comes to all things ESPN. And that will be heightened tenfold if he has to write about ESPN’s coverage of the Patriots and “Deflategate.”
Brady said he is ready for it.
“Some days, people are going to think you’re a shill and other days people are going to think you’re a narc,” Brady said. “Everybody is not going to be happy with what you write. That’s what you have to tune out. You go and assess the work you need to assess. You write what you want to write and you deal with the consequences.”
Recommended reading on sports journalism:
Jane Leavy discusses her career with the Povich Center.
George Solomon, the head of the Povich Center, reflects on his tenure as sports editor of the Washington Post, which had one of the greatest sports sections of all time.