The producers at The Players’ Tribune knew they had a big story when Kobe Bryant chose their small but emerging website to announce his impending retirement.
Then, as readers flocked to read Bryant’s poetic farewell, the screens went blank.
“The volume was so high we crashed,” said Gary Hoenig, the editorial director. “I was furious.”
Only later, as his site got back online, could Hoenig appreciate the significance of the moment.
In the year since former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter helped establish a digital platform for athletes to publish first-person essays, The Players’ Tribune has made national news on several occasions and seen its readership grow fivefold.
“It’s a sign,” Hoenig said, “that we’ve become a part of the media landscape.”
Not everyone is thrilled about that.
Critics fret about a lack of objectivity and balance, wondering if sport’s biggest stars will eschew conventional media in favor of placing major announcements on a site where they can control every word.
Long before Bryant announced his retirement, he invested an undisclosed amount of money in Jeter’s digital venture.
“During the last decade, athletes have realized the importance of public relations,” said Daniel Durbin, director of the Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society at USC. “This is really a logical progression – to create a story that is advantageous to you and can promote your agenda.”
For much of his two decades in professional baseball, Jeter had an uneasy relationship with the media, so it came as no big surprise that he chose Facebook to announce he was leaving the game.
After retirement, he took this notion a step further. The Tribune launched in October 2014 with a small staff and a mission that might appeal to athletes who felt they had been misquoted or mischaracterized by mainstream media.
“My goal,” Jeter wrote, “is for the site to ultimately transform how athletes and newsmakers share information, bringing fans closer than ever to the games they love.”
The Tribune staff began visiting clubhouses and locker rooms throughout the country, building relationships with players.
They established a simple process by which producers spend considerable time with athlete-contributors, outlining stories and recording interviews. Transcripts are edited and shaped into first-person essays with the contributors retaining final say.
“In some cases, you want that right of last refusal,” said Dodger catcher A.J. Ellis, who has appeared on The Tribune and also written for The Times. “You want to make sure that what’s going out there is what you want said.”
Bryant’s announcement notwithstanding, little of what appears on the site qualifies as breaking news; most pieces tend to be smaller in scope and more personal in nature.
Former Lakers forward Robert Horry reminisced about his early career and NASCAR driver Kyle Busch described, in detail, the sensation of hitting a wall at 90 miles an hour. Former UCLA offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden listed the five toughest pass rushers he faced in the NFL.
Ellis, who has long been a thoughtful interview and a favorite among baseball writers, described his experiences catching Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
“The great thing about The Players’ Tribune, they want you to look good,” he said. “We changed some things and reorganized some things that made me sound really smart.”
Other essays have been more controversial.
Last spring, Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz was allowed to rant freely about reports of his testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Clippers forward Blake Griffin sniped at former owner Donald Sterling and Tiger Woods fired back at a writer who had parodied him in a golf magazine.
“Are we really getting an accurate picture?” asked Welch Suggs, an associate journalism professor at the University of Georgia. “Is this enough for fans or do they want the added verification we think journalism ought to provide?”
As a veteran journalist who has worked at Newsday and ESPN the Magazine, Hoenig understands such criticism. But he says his staff fact-checks each piece and warns contributors about the consequences of lying.
“We make it clear that their reputation is more at stake than we are,” he said.
With Ortiz as an editor-at-large and NBA superstar Kevin Durant as a deputy publisher, the site has become increasingly popular among athletes. It also seems to have struck a chord with readers.
Monthly unique visits have increased from 225,000 in the spring to more than 1.1 million in October, according to comScore, which tracks online traffic.
If anything, Hoenig believes his site is upholding a journalistic tradition of first-person stories, which have appeared in mainstream newspapers and magazines for decades.
“We have no intentions of replacing conventional journalism,” he said. “We’re not going to cover games and we’re not going to become analysts. …We’re here to provide athletes with an opportunity to speak out.”
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