Evaluating ESPN’s Use of Multimedia

Courtesy of ESPN.com

In the perpetual race to be the most interactive sports website, ESPN.com has a five-second head start. Given that ESPN.com editors have an endless amount of programming from which to choose — SportsCenter highlights, ESPN Radio shows, etc. — it’s no surprise that the website is filled with video and audio clips.

ESPN.com promotes video content across its home page — the tab at the top gives users a choice between “top stories” and “SportsCenter videos.” Even fairly mundane stories, such as a recent update about wide receiver Mario Manningham set to join the San Francisco 49ers, has video to go along with the article.

ESPN typically packages articles or blog posts with video from SportsCenter, ESPN News, Outside the Lines and other programming. While other websites have to ask themselves whether it makes sense to put resources into shooting video for a particular story, ESPN.com has the luxury of being able to cherry pick the best video from ESPN and put it on the web. In some cases, ESPN.com even highlights videos without any text. ESPN.com is another way for ESPN to attract advertising for its video content and another way for users to find on-demand ESPN video from shows they missed or games they didn’t watch.

ESPN.com’s use of audio is more sporadic. Video is clearly king on the website. ESPN Radio programming sometimes makes it onto the main page, but just as often ESPN.com posts videos of reporters calling into SportsCenter with reports. While this is technically audio, it’s still in a video format. ESPN Radio has its own landing page on ESPN.com, but it’s not prominently displayed. Users can listen live to ESPN Radio programming, or listen to taped podcasts. ESPN bloggers often tape their own podcasts, which are separate from ESPN Radio. While ESPN has plenty of audio on its site, video still reigns supreme.

When it comes to the use of photos and graphics, ESPN.com comes back to the pack. Photos typically come from the Associated Press or other news organizations, and are used to supplement content in much the same way that most websites use them. On the home page, instead of using true photos, ESPN will often use a still shot from a video with a play button. This video promotion is again an indication of ESPN’s priorities. Instead of filling its page with graphics and photos, ESPN prefers to embed video and other multimedia. Let Sports Illustrated lead the way with photography, one can imagine ESPN editors saying. Let’s highlight what we do best — video.

And when it comes to the use of other multimedia — chats, blogs, polls, etc., — ESPN once again takes the lead. ESPN has invested heavily in blogs. Bloggers cover leagues and sometimes specific teams in most of the major sports. They have their own pages and are also often linked to off the main page. ESPN’s investment in chats, polls and user interactivity in general is on clear display through SportsNation, its landing page for everything interactive. The page is a mixture of poll questions, live chats, archives of recent chats and interactive maps that show how people from across the country responded to various poll questions. While ESPN.com doesn’t prominently highlight these interactive elements on its home page (instead choosing to promote video first), it’s clear that the website values multimedia and interactive elements.


ESPN’s Smooth Landing Pages

Joe Paterno in his second-to-last college football game as head coach (AP)

With a site as wide-ranging as ESPN.com, it’s difficult to assess the kind of stories that the site does best. There’s breaking news, game stories, features, essays, columns — and sometimes these are all packaged together, particularly for a big event such as the Super Bowl. In fact, what ESPN does best is covering major sporting events and major developing sports stories. The site has the resources to come at these stories from all angles and the creative, tech-savvy designers who are able to package the content in a digestible way.

For ESPN, the challenge during major events is how to manage all of its original content. The company has scores of reporters and columnists covering big-time events, not to mention TV personalities who write opinion pieces and bloggers to curate coverage from around the web. ESPN smartly creates landing pages for these events, as is illustrated by its Super Bowl XLVI page.  “Super Bowl Central” not only has the game story, box scores and play-by-play but it offers short reaction pieces from bloggers, best-of lists from staff writers,  interactive features such as poll questions, and coverage from ESPN.com’s regional sites such as New York and Boston (Isn’t it nice when the Super Bowl teams are from major markets?)

ESPN.com readers are happy to scour the site on the day of the Super Bowl for coverage. But users looking back on the Super Bowl who come to the site much later are served extremely well by this landing page — a method of curating content that is a great example of using the web to its fullest.

The other type of story ESPN.com covers particularly well is the major breaking news story. The most recent example is the Joe Paterno scandal at Penn State. Similar to the Super Bowl, ESPN.com created a landing page for this story, which spanned several months — starting from allegations against assistant coach Joe Sandusky and ending with Paterno’s death in early 2012.The page includes thoughtful columns about Paterno’s legacy, video reaction from coaches and players across the country, and a timeline of his life.

Because ESPN has such immense resources, editors and designers have the good problem of bringing together a range of content in a short period of time. The site makes great use of video, audio, photos and text whenever a major event or a major breaking news story unfolds.




ESPN.com: The Long and the Short of It

ESPN.com includes a range of content

When you think of a typical ESPN.com story, what comes to mind?

Struggling to make a generalization? That’s because the preeminent sports website prides itself on being everything to everyone. Short breaking news stories, game recaps and reaction columns: check. Medium-sized personality profiles, best-of lists and opinion pieces: check. Long form, first-person articles and investigative reports: check.

ESPN.com has such a range of content on its site, and such a range of reporters, bloggers and columnists that it is nearly impossible to answer the question “How well are stories written and presented?” in a universal way. So let’s answer the question in several different ways.

Much of the site’s content is of the quick-hit, read-while-you-take-a-work-break variety. These are the no-frills sports game stories and analysis that readers have come to expect to read almost instantly after a game has ended. The links provided under the “headlines” section on the upper right-hand-corner of the site are typically 500- to700-word stories either from the Associated Press or written by ESPN staff writers in a manner that the Associated Press would approve of: mostly formulaic, inverted pyramid articles. These stories are written in a style that is generally easy to read and most importantly easy to skim. The stories are typically presented with a video or photo at the top of the page and the article below.

ESPN.com presents even the most mundane stories in a visually interesting manner — with graphics, multimedia content and interactive elements. In a recent story about MLB agreeing to expand its playoffs, instead of including a dull picture of Bud Selig the story is packaged with a related column and a poll question. The site prominently features its reporters and bloggers by most often including their mug shot with content they produce.

Bloggers on ESPN tend to write in an informal manner. The NBA blog TrueHoop is particularly casual. Many writers on the site write in the first person. They adopt a conversational writing style, as illustrated by this pre-Super Bowl article that opens with: “I know we are all in the midst of thinking about the Super Bowl. But it can be assumed that most of us who aren’t from Boston or New York are already thinking about what their team is going to do next season.”

But don’t mistake informal, often opinionated writing with sloppy writing. ESPN.com has as few copy editing errors or poorly written stories as any online site I know. Some of my colleagues work for the site and comment on the abundance of editors at all levels. ESPN knows that its audience wants a range of content and caters to both the work reader and the person sitting at his computer on a Saturday wanting to read in-depth stories or watch videos.

Which brings us back to evaluating writing quality. Many of ESPN’s longer pieces, both columns and investigative reports, run longer than the typical newspaper article (and sometimes even the typical magazine article). That’s the beauty of the web: There’s an endless amount of space. With Grantland, ESPN has proven that there’s an audience for long form sports journalism. Many readers are devoted to the site’s founder, Bill Simmons, and his 3,000-plus-word NBA essays on everything from the state of the league to who should have made the All-Star team. As with the shorter articles on the site, ESPN’s longer articles often keep with the informal, first-person style and often include a variety of multimedia options for readers.

So while it’s hard to identify the typical ESPN.com article, it’s safe to say that many writers on the site adhere to the following principles: Get content up quickly, highlight the news but don’t be afraid to provide analysis and opinion, be informal and interact with readers in any way possible.

ESPN editors appear to follow the credo: Use a mixture of video, audio, photographs and related content to make each page visually interesting and keep readers on the site for as long as possible.

Check back next week for a look at the kind of stories ESPN.com covers particularly well.