You've got to care.

On the death of SI, a leadership vacuum in college sports, and more:

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Like everybody else stubborn enough to attempt to make a living by writing words, I’ve been thinking a lot about the latest avalanche of layoffs and cutbacks in the media industry. Just in the past week, the venerable LA Times took a chainsaw to their newsroom and laid off 20% of their employees. Time and Business Insider laid off additional writers. And of course, Sports Illustrated died the most ignoble death possible in the media industry…a historic publication cut too deep to ever properly live again, but not so deep as to actually die. 

It’s a sad story for writers and consumers, but it’s hardly a new one. Today it’s BI and SI. Yesterday it was Barstool, Vox, BuzzFeed and ESPN. Tomorrow it might be CBS, Gannett or the Ringer. The Sword of Damocles hangs over us all, only worse. Damocles got to enjoy vast riches, after all. Most of us just get Marriott points and press box buffets.

In response to the latest media bloodletting, I saw Jeff Pearlman, a man who has forgotten more about sportswriting than I’ll ever learn, offer some advice to young writers, encouraging them to become “indispensable” by constantly reinventing themselves by learning new skills, accepting new assignments, and building audiences independent of their employers.

Here’s the thing. It actually is good advice. I’m a walking testament of this principle. The best way to increase your odds of staying in the game is to essentially work three jobs, so you can build the skills and audience to give yourself a tiny modicum of leverage. It’s exhausting, terrifying and unreasonable, but it is the best way.

Aaaaand it won’t be enough. Superstars get laid off. Award-winning, multi-platform, indispensable writers, producers and editors, will all eventually get canned. There is no way you can guarantee projection by your efforts alone. The game is not a meritocracy.

And a major reason why is because the folks in charge simply do not care.

Bhargava, Ross Levinsohn, or any other suit at The Arena Group transparently did not care about the actual written product of Sports Illustrated. They did not care about the magazine’s legacy, they did not care about the subjects the magazine covered, and they didn’t care about fans and consumers who desperately wanted something interesting to read.

They might have cared about other things, like stock prices or arbitrage opportunities or licensing deals, and they might have had a plan to address some of the other stuff (if they did, that plan sucked), but from their actions, it’s clear to me that they didn’t care about those other things.

That’s been my professional experience at some of the other places where I’ve worked, and it’s been the lived experience of many, many of my professional writer peers.

There aren’t many things more deflating in one’s professional career than recognizing that your employer does not care nearly as much about the quality of work as you do. It’s the fasted pathway to burnout, disengagement, and a poisonous organizational culture.

This is not a problem unique to media. It’s an everything problem, which also makes it a college sports problem

I think almost all of my readers would agree that, structurally, college sports aren’t in a great place right now.

A major reason for that dysfunction, in my opinion, stems from the fragmented and discordant leadership of the enterprise.

The folks who are tasked with the most authority? Those are college presidents, many of whom do not care about the true blood and guts of college sports. They might care about the enrollment dollars, the political goodwill, the prestige, the student engagement, and perhaps other measurables, but the long-term health of college athletics are not a key priority.

And they probably shouldn’t be! You don’t hire somebody to lead an R1 research university with a four billion dollar annual budget because they’re the most thoughtful speaker in the Knight Commission. That’s not the gig!

Beyond the university presidents, we have a cacophony of other stakeholders…from broadcast executives to agents, athletic directors to search firms, MMR giants to collectives and more, who may or may not deeply care about the blood and guts of the enterprise over a long period of time. Some may be deeply invested on a personal level in the human development and education of athletes, or in the cultivation of lifelong fans, or in being stewards of the history and legacy of various programs. But that isn’t truly their gig either!

The result? Dysfunction at a scale so dramatic that what passes for executive leadership is now begging Congress to come and provide clarity.

Not great.

Passion alone isn’t enough to ensure success, of course.

I’m sure all of us can sit and think of some coaches or ADs who really loved their fanbase, their institution, and their craft, but things didn’t work out. Heck, we can probably think of leaders in other organizations we’ve been a part of where that was the case too.

Success also requires successfully executing a plan. It requires great management. It requires luck. Understanding the assignment and being invested in it are only part of the battle.

But it’s hard to imagine organizations achieving their full potential without their senior leadership having that deep investment.

When I talk about caring, I’m specifically talking about being invested in the long-term interests of all constituent groups and evaluating success as something beyond a spreadsheet.

In the case of a media outlet, that means stepping beyond the pageviews and subscriber counts and vanity metrics and asking about how the publication is specifically serving its readers…how it is earning or maintaining their trust…and creating the best possible work.

For an athletic industry leader, it’s about caring not just about topline revenue, the 247 Recruiting Ranking and the Directors Cup, but about the long-term interest and needs of the department, the athlete and the fan. How it is earning or maintaining trust…and producing the best possible experience.

I don’t think you necessarily have to be a former reporter to be a great media executive, or a former coach (or athlete) to be a great athletic director or conference commissioner. Executive leadership requires different skills from the core practitioner, after all.

But I increasingly believe that you can’t be that successful leader without at least really, really caring about the product or organization you’re leading. You’ve got to understand why the customer cares about it, why the junior staffers care about it, and why the entire dang thing exists.

A media world led by people who care more about extracting rather than building has turned dozens of institutions into smoldering rubble and left consumers poorly informed and served.

What makes anybody think, long-term, that’s going to be any better?

If they can tear down the Chicago Tribune, The Denver Post and Sports Illustrated, they can tear down Purdue and Kansas State athletics too.

That’d be a terrible obituary to read. If there’s going to be anybody left to write it.

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