Grantlangst: Fear of a World Without Meaningful Content
Grantland is dead, and with it another high-caliber outlet for good journalism. Can niche sites survive in the age of the content farm? One former Grantlander and content farmer explains.
Welcome to Grantlangst. The fear that boutique content farms are no longer in demand, or even monetizable. Niches cannot be appropriately broadened into a modestly sized, sustainable content producer. We live in a world where Pitchfork was acquired by Conde Naste months after shuttering its micro-boutique movie site The Dissolve. Even if you are a medium-sized niche, you will be steamrolled by the mission of mass scalability.
When the termination of Grantland was trending on Twitter last Friday, it felt like a coming out party for everyone who didn't realize the online media landscape had already drastically changed. They were able to direct their digital media fury at ESPN as a ruthless corporate entity with a few contrarians creating a complex Bill Simmons self-sabotage theory.
The internet's content prosumers had a moment to feel like a website that had brand equity for 'meaning something more' was instantly abandoned. It was shuttered, with no attempt to recover value in the brand. All of the readers' precious eyeballs were probably already assumed to autoload ESPN.com any time they wanted sports news.
As a former Grantland staff writer, I am very in touch with Grantlangst. I was offered the opportunity to write for them before the site even launched. It was a chance to 'establish my brand as a writer, not a content farmer' and lend them my brand as an authentic content farmer. I'd say my voice on the site didn't appeal to the Grantland-diehards, but all of the editors were in support of my artistic direction.
Overall, I was more representative of the 'remote' content farmer who doesn't actually intertwine with the daily lives' of the editors and staff that keep a media project eternally buzzing. Eventually, my enthusiasm for online content petered out due to a severe case of Grantlangst. It does feel like Grantland might be one of the last 'romanticized media workplaces' in the spirit of a place to labor where it feels like 'a special club.'
This angst is inside of every one that worked at Grantland. It was the source of wanting to do a better job than the deteriorating standards across competitors in sports and cultural content verticals online. It represents the balancing act between high quality content and 'approachable sludge' that encapsulates acceptable contemporary standards for internet content. From Bill Simmons, all the way to the blogger who got to contribute once and felt an immense high when his link was tweeted out by the @grantland33 account, Grantlangst is sourced from the expectation that internet content can be meaningful to readers.
In a sea of 'hot takes' delivered by traditional talking heads, the internet prosumers needed a place for a branded intelligent take. But the audiences in demand of intelligent takes no longer achieve the necessary economies of scale to sell ads against.
This is Grantlangst.
In ESPN's statement regarding the axing of Grantland, the keyword is broadness.
Effective immediately we are suspending the publication of Grantland. After careful consideration, we have decided to direct our time and energy going forward to projects that we believe will have a broader and more significant impact across our enterprise.
Broadness is best way to describe the intensely covered nothingness that exists on massive websites on the internet. The majority of successful media companies have packaged broadness with a unique gimmick. Whether it is Vox's informational angle, Upworthy's positive angle or the posi-voice of a successful women's magazine's online content, it all manages to cover the broad world in a broadly digestible manner.
Without the broader appeal of Bill Simmons as a marginalized sports talk guy on the internet, it seemed impossible to continue to create a voice where the necessary broad appeal could be siphoned through Grantland's artisanal content producers. Creating genuinely meaningful content aimed at people who know how to read more than 100 words might already be a dead craft.
Under the umbrella of broadness that the ESPN brand provided, you have to wonder if alternatively packaging a topic as broadly appealing as sports even makes sense. There is no reason to question sports, league commissioners, advertiser relationships, unregulated fantasy gambling, domestic abuse issues, mental health issues, or unlevel playing fields. All of those are implied problems with sports to the informed internet user whose internet consumption of sports has broken the fourth wall of the traditional media's curated sporting stage.
Grantlangst can happen when you realize that as a stereotypical educated, Millennial male, you aren't watching sports for the same reasons as the broadest Middle American audiences.
Artfully executed broadness that panders to the social algorithm is the key to success in online media. The death of Grantland provides a necessary historical landmark on the timeline of online media. The site was an anomaly, clouding the lessons that many of the most successful, acquire-able content farms learned in the growth-hacking boom since 2013. Niche blogging doesn't work anymore. Neither does reporting or longform. A strong point of view and eloquent pieces aren't scalable. The bots and longtail internet users who drive pageviews these days don't care about expertise, passion, or even perfectly assembled words. Your unique point of view won't be discovered and you won't be paid above market content farm wages.
While Grantland wasn't exactly hyper-niche, it hadn't 'given up.' For the self-identifying liberal, who is actually probably more like a left-leaning conservative in every Millennial Male, Grantland was a good buddy who could provide a take that was more informed and genuine than an ESPN midday talking head. Some would say this was the ultimate value of Grantland to ESPN, despite Grantland's lack of monetary profitability.
Grantlangst comes from trying to do the impossible in a landscape where you will not be rewarded for most accurately describing the emotional experience associated with sports and/or culture. Writing for Grantland is an admission that your work will not appeal to the broadest audience. In fact, the sheer number of words will probably turn off the standard content consumers clickbaited from Facebook mobile. While Grantland makes your brand 'respected' in the niche, it makes the big, broad powers resent your tone for existing in a context where romanticism in consumption can still exist. The broad powers only see the internet as a beautifully unquantifiable system of infinite scalability.
As someone who cared about the site and the content-farming-well-being of colleagues that write for the site, I am still pretty confused about what lessons should be learned from the Grantland experiment. Five months ago, I wrote about Bill Simmons as a transcendent content producer after his firing.
It seems like ultimately, Grantland's big picture media lessons will be those of philanthropy and celebrity. The site was built upon the celebrity of Bill Simmons. It wasn't built to make money, but instead to be a supplemental vanity project to attempt to incubate the voice in case. When he took a handful of editors with him, and the most well-branded talent left the site, the workhorses were left without much of a 'media brand' to perpetuate. However, it was only the philanthropy of ESPN that gave all of the talent the runway to incubate.
There is Grantlangst inside every one that consumed internet content around the turn of 2010. Explaining the existence of Grantland is more difficult than explaining the abrupt murdering of the site. Grantland was probably one of the last pages on the internet that was meant to inspire people to feel things, as opposed to just digesting algorithmically curated trends. It was a time when content farms could solely rely on Twitter to scale their brands, instead of posting tons of stories to Facebook with engaging, tagged captions. Back when 'going viral' had roots in internet culture instead of broad culture.
Grantland was the opportunity for a digital media brand to exist outside of the reasonable expectations of the current digital media world: Grow at all costs by pandering to the broad interests and comfortably uninformed perspectives of the world. This meant you didn't have to worry about sending fake traffic bots to the site or using positive-themed content to get clicks. Criticism was real, not strategically posted to jump on popular backlash traffic bubbles.
The voice was strong. The work was consistently high quality. Will the next phase of informed sports coverage find a voice in whistleblowing? Or is it the duty of the informed to create a pure and level playing field, so future generations can enjoy the excitement in naivety of professional sports in their youth? The tone of Grantland as a byproduct of the romantic sports blogosphere may have run its course. But can the future wave of Bill Simmons content that approaches professional sports as something worth questioning AND enjoying work? We don't really deconstruct the things that we enjoy, giving them a broad appeal.
Across generations and mediums, broadness will continue to trample over the ethical desires in our commodified interests. Grantlangst is the frustration we can't change the world with content, even after the digital realm offered us a tiny lens to see into the barrier-building industries that we are enabling with our own interests.