In Memoriam: Grantland – The Best of Its (and Our) Kind

Some things are just too good to be true.

For four years Grantland seemed to defy this maxim.  However, last Friday, months after its founder and creative force was ousted and the site hovered somewhere between no-man’s land and purgatory, ESPN pulled the plug on its destination for sports-meets-pop culture-meets-actually great writing.  For Grantland, the clock had finally, and somewhat excruciatingly, ticked down to zero.

But here’s the thing: Grantland probably endured longer than it should have.  In fact, getting past its conception was probably it’s greatest feat, and, perhaps, for ESPN, one of their greatest follies.  Grantland was the white sheep of the family, a shining, refreshing, enlightening and often times exhilarating beacon of light in a sea of sensational if-bleeds-it-leads stories of deflated balls and battered women and Jesus-loving quarterbacks (indeed, from its very inception, Bill Simmons conceded that the site was not focused on page views).  For the most part, the core of ESPN’s online and on-air presence is about being louder, not better; first, not right; it’s quantity of bellowing, loudmouthed gasbags in pinstriped suits over quality journalism; it’s about “exclusive reports,” not about exhaustive reporting. In the ESPN family, Grantland stuck out like the first digit on Ryan Fitzpatrick’s left hand.
If Grantland didn’t quite jive with the personality and caliber of its parent company, it also did not conform to the style and construction of its online brethren, eschewing lists and listicles and charticles for terrific, original, measured, thought-provoking writing.  Dare we say it crossed over the line into actual journalism? Certainly, that case could be made.  It was the only writing on sports and pop-culture found on the Internet which could conceivably be printed out, hardbound, and sold in stores (or, well, online), which is exactly what happened (and an item I admit I need to pickup (i.e. order from Amazon)). There are many fantastic pop culture and sports and culture blogs out there – it’s why I fell in love with the medium in the first place (thank you, The AV Club and Vulture, two gleaming busts on the Mount Rushmore of whatever this is) – but Grantland was the first site that felt like it was truly reaching for something more, something academic (which is why it’s not surprising that one of the site’s original contributing editors was Chuck Klosterman, who has mastered this kind of “highbrow” approach to “lowbrow” material, and whose writing I unabashedly list as my number one favorite of all-time).  With its side-notes (and later inline citations) and abundant (and also relevant) links, reading Grantland frequently felt like reading a doctoral thesis.  Except instead of a dissertation it was an oral history of the 1990s Orlando Magic (why would I care about that? I don’t know. But sure I read the hell out of it, all on my phone) or a difficult but important defense of Cyclops (thank you for that, Alex Pappademas) or a Game of Thrones weekly column (I’m so thankful that the show has now surpassed the books and I could enjoy Ask the Maester for at least one season).  Quite simply, it was exactly the site I would want to produce (and, for quite sometime, it was the website I actually tried to produce).
In fact, in the interest of full transparency, I will pull back the curtain and reveal an email I sent to the editors of Grantland in March of 2013, an email simply and dully titled “Contribution Inquiry” (I did not receive a response, and perhaps the generic and forgettable lede was a reason why.  No hard feelings, of course!). While it was not successful in securing me an immediate full-time position with the site, I think it encapsulates nicely what I found so novel and thrilling about Grantland:

Hi there! 

Apologies for the cold emailing, but I wanted to inquire about contributing to Grantland.  I imagine there are more proper channels, but I reckoned I’d try this hopefully more direct approach.  
I’ve been an ardent fan of Grantland since its launch (and prior too, in fact, when I heard about its impending launch last year).  It offers what I truly love in online journalism, which is a genuine mixture of all things interesting – pop culture, Hollywood, sports, celebrities, and everything in between – and the articles are not just a regurgitation of what’s already been posted a dozen times elsewhere.  It’s not always easy to find an original take, but I always strive to do so, and your work consistently succeeds at it.  
[I won’t bore you with the rest of the email, which listed my (limited) credits and included a few writing samples, BUT I will pat myself on the back and note that one of the examples I sent along was an overly optimistic preview of the 2012 Mets which both touted Daniel Murphy’s potential contributions as the everyday 2nd baseman AND lauded then maligned-now redeemed former GM Omar Minaya’s draft history, two sentiments which were proven correct by this years’ (soul-crushing) post-season. So I was right, just four years premature.]
In the time since Grantland’s debut the world of pop-culture criticism, and, specifically, television recaps – a relatively recent concept that served as a major function of my blog – has devolved, for the most part, into rote, paint-by-numbers plot summaries and/or a compilation of GIFs and unearned derision, along with misdemeanor assault on the English language.  But, like Dorian Gray, as television criticism across the board has seemed to grow more empty and insipid, somehow reaching below Terra firma for the lowest hanging fruit, Grantland remained resolute and continued to present actual commentary and analysis, a panacea to the glorified TV Guide-synopses found so often elsewhere. In a Mad Max-like battered wasteland of sponsored content and “14 Photos of the Lunar Eclipse Only 90s Kids Will Get,” Grantland was an oasis. Unlike so many other online destinations, Grantland felt like it like was aiming for something more, for something better. It’s easy to get lazy and complacent, and just do enough.  Just rank the 10 Best Snick Cameos and call it a day.  That’s usually enough, if not too much.  But you could feel that the Grantland columnists and contributors, no doubt led by Bill Simmons, aspired for something special, something they were passionate about, something of which to be proud.  And although there were bumps and bruises along the away, and although the homepage is now a tombstone, Grantland, in that way, was an unquestioned success, a triumph.
Sadly, the current picture of online journalism is a cluster (and, often, clusterfuck) of content farms, but Grantland stood out as a content kibbutz, a place where good writers worked together for the good of the whole, instead of slashing and burning, reaping and sowing and ravaging the soil until it’s barren and dry. If other farms are mass-producing GMO corn, Grantland was slowly, lovingly, growing and cultivating organic watermelon radishes (which, full disclosure, I don’t like very much, but it is a beautiful fruit).  And, if we’re being honest, they were probably running the operation at a loss.  Developing less product, paying the growers more and giving away the harvest for free, it’s not a very profitable model, and one that perhaps proved untenable. But it also proved admirable, and absolutely worth it.  It just didn’t make good fiscal – or cultural – sense to conglomerate overlords ESPN Inc.
We very well might look back on Grantland as the web’s version of the ’27 Yankees, a Murderers
Row of writers, some who hit for power, others who hit for average, and some who were known for their speed.  Better yet, and perhaps more resonant with obsessive comedy nerds of today (i.e. myself), the roster of writers at Grantland might read like the list of scribes of the ill-fated and short-lived Dana Carvey Show – Louis CK, Robert Smigel, Charlie Kaufman, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Bob Odenkirk, Dino Stamatopoulos, Greg Daniels, to name a few – some of the most beloved writers and comedians of our time, but who found their success much later and, in most cases, separately. Might we one day look at names like Rembert BrowneWesley MorrisKatie BakerAndy GreenwaldStephen Hyden, and Sean McIndoe – once again, to name a few – in the same way?  Possibly, although the online journalism Superhighway is bumpy and unpaved and likely ends at an unfinished bridge that drops precipitously into a ravine, and without a DeLorean to take us up to 88mph it’s hard to know if there’s anyway to make it to the other side, if there’s a future beyond that chasm.  But we’d like to believe so, which is why I’m writing this, and why this site exists.
This is not a eulogy for good writing. If you want to make the argument that journalism is dead, that’s fine, and I’m sure there are many great articles out there discussing just that.  Nor is this is a hagiography of Bill Simmons; although, if you wanted to write that article, it would not be without merit. This is a dirge for a shooting star, a white whale, a collection of voices and talent and vision that we might not see again in this ever changing, ever precarious landscape.  It’s a tribute to an idea that was an inspiration, and a thank you to a place that stood as the gold standard in longform pop culture and sports journalism, offering what seemed like a limitless (and word-limitless) amount of first-class content.  This is not to say that you will no longer be able to find great, passionate, important writing, criticism and commentary on the web.  Not at all.  You’re just going to have a search a little for harder for it.
by Seth Keim
Seth is the founder of Jumped the Snark, but does some of his best work in 140 characters or less. He lives in Brooklyn and is currently on season 6 of Frasier.

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