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Apr. 26, 2017 — The ESPN 100 and what it means for print journalism

In an era of high unemployment since the financial crisis of 2008, thousands of job cuts befell the likes of MCI-World Com, Enron, Bear Stearns, and other failing businesses. But the names of those cut from the rolls of these companies were made public.

Today, however, is seeing perhaps the most unusual public airing of job losses in history. Every news outlet has been waiting with bated breath for announcements surrounding about 100 layoffs at ESPN, the most valuable cable television network and the self-proclaimed “world-wide leader in sports.”

With a declining subscriber base and bills coming due on ESPN’s voracious rights fees for both college and professional football, ESPN has been cutting staff at a regular rate. Indeed, today’s announcement is only about a third of the size of cuts which were made in October 2015.

But today’s 100 layoffs — The ESPN 100 — come on the heels of a number of notable departures from the network over the last year or so. Nearly the entire Monday Night Countdown crew from two years ago — Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, Keyshawn Johnson, Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis, and Mike Ditka — are gone. This is the group that is the lead-in to Monday Night Football, the network’s highest-rated program.

Also gone in recent months were Keith Olbermann, Mike Tirico, Skip Bayless, and Bill Simmons. Simmons, a notable writer, put together a tremendous staff of writers to create an enterprise site called Grantland. But when Simmons was fired, Grantland was closed in October 2015.

And while tomorrow’s headlines will concentrate on some prominent on-air personalities as part of The ESPN 100, I think the biggest impact are the dozens of columnists and writers that ESPN is letting go. This goes all the way from award-winning Johnette Howard to ESPNW’s Melissa Isaacson to Jean-Jacques Taylor, who was with ESPNDallas, which was supposed to compete against the sports staff of The Dallas Morning News.

Indeed, I think today’s layoffs are a sign that ESPN’s experiment with trying to pull eyeballs away from stablished media organizations is meeting with abject failure. Columnists from Nashville to the West Coast have been let go. You may not know their names, but you might have seen their work on an ESPN web presence.

The ESPN experiment in print writing has compounded its initial colossal failure with cuts that could very well imperil the network’s ability to cover the beat adequately.

But The ESPN 100 also tips the network’s hand when it comes to its future priorities. The network’s most senior motorsports reporter, Dr. Jerry Punch, who worked at the network for three decades, was furloughed. Given the fact that the network shows exactly five automobile races a year, this is perhaps in a prelude to the dropping of all motorsports coverage.

The NHL division took huge cuts; the network does only a handful of ice hockey games a year. Golf commentator Dottie Pepper was also jettisoned, the sport having long since moved to NBC’s Golf Channel.

But that’s what happens when your “world-wide leader” forgets its core competency and goes off into these incredibly expensive flights of fancy. Anyone remember when “SportsCenter” showed actual sports highlights and delivered news?

Not a good long-term sign.

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