Update (2/17/15): Simmons has officially given this new venture a name. Welcome to the world, The Ringer!

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On September 26th, 2014, ESPN’s ombudsman Robert Lipsyte was tasked with trying to poetically clean up the mess that was the company’s suspension of uber-popular editor/writer/podcast host Bill Simmons. With some impressive wordsmithing, he tried to spin it as a teaching moment for a man he called “by no stretch a leading journalist,” relating an anecdote that proved the two had at least known each other:

On his 45th birthday Thursday, my gift to him was recounting my favorite quote from basketball coach Butch van Breda Kolff: ‘Everyone’s strength is their weakness.’ He said he liked it.

And Bill should have liked it. Because until a few months ago when ESPN president John Skipper announced Simmons’ contract wasn’t being renewed, effectively relieving him of his duties, he had been one of the Worldwide Leader in Sports’ greatest strengths and, in the company’s view, one of its most glaring weaknesses.

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One of the few sports journalists out there who could be considered a legitimate celebrity, Simmons owns a sizable cult following of fans, not to mention the credit for coming up with the whole 30 for 30 documentary series that will continue to rake in money and awards for ESPN for decades. But his unorthodox “intelligent fan” tone#, shoot-from-the-hip style, and infamous stubbornness were always perceived by his bosses as a slap in the face to the empire of sports journalism they had built over decades. While at ESPN, Simmons blatantly mocked his colleagues, he pushed censorship boundaries to the limit, and he even once openly dared his bosses to suspend him for calling Roger Goodell a liar. It was only a matter of time before he and the corporate hydra finally went head-to-heads for good, so when the marriage of convenience between the two was consciously uncoupled back in May, it was to the shock and awe of no one.

Last week, during the third episode of his new podcast, Simmons summed it up from his point of view:

I don’t want to come off like Grantland was the greatest thing that ever happened, but we achieved our goal and it was a really good site and I thought it was heading in the right direction. The problem is, websites are like plants, you gotta water them.
 
And unfortunately ESPN is good at building stuff and creating stuff and launching stuff, but there comes a point when you have to decide ‘Alright, what does it mean? How can we get from Point A to Point B to Point C to Point D to Point E?’

But what was ESPN supposed to do about a torturously-named boutique website that boasted Pulitzer-level writing but not enough readers to support its existence#, especially one helmed by a rabble-rousing insurrectionist who actively ridiculed the industrial complex signing his paychecks? Sure, they could have added more links to Grantland on the ESPN homepage or actually treated the Grantland writers like they were part of the ESPN family as opposed to the black sheeps of the brand, but Grantland was always incepted as a sort of capitulation between two global powers, the website equivalent of a bandaid on a bullet hole (and you know what Taylor Swift says about those).

More importantly though, if we assume the goal that Simmons referenced was establishing a site where one could find consistent, quality, trustworthy journalism and op-eds#, what does it mean that achieving that goal wasn’t enough to ensure its survival?

It means, rhetorical asker, that something is broken in the finance department of the media industry.

That’s why Bill Simmons should steal Patronizing from us whenever he starts Grantland Part II: Electric Boogaloo…

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To let you in on a little secret, Grantland was the site I had in mind when I first began sketching out the idea for the Patronizing model on the mental chalkboards where it was conceived. In fact, when I was interviewed by Rock Creek Radio about Random Nerds a few months ago, I brought up Grantland’s Rembert Browne as the kind of writer who I thought would really benefit from the opportunity to receive tips on individual pieces. I know I would have thrown $5 at his Rembert Explains America series without even blinking. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

When I was at this past year’s Trillectro festival, I actually ended up meeting Rembert backstage and walking around the pavilion grounds with him for a little bit. Only we couldn’t make it fifty feet before a few college-aged rapscallions sidled up to us and asked if I could take a photo of the three of them. With smudged underage X’s adorning their hands, through incredulous shit-eating grins, they made sure to let him know how religiously they followed his writing.

I have to admit, it was a little surreal to see a ‘celebrity journalist’ be treated as such, but as someone who is banking on audiences’ ability to discern and support quality writing, it was also pretty damn validating.

https://twitter.com/rembert/status/637735292665991168

You see, I’m a big subscriber to the popular theory among content-creators that Kevin Kelly dubbed the “1,000 True Fans Theory.”

You can read a lot about it here, but essentially what it argues is that as a content-creator, you don’t need 200,000 views on a piece in order to justify making the ~$100 paid to you by a publisher for said work (as Noah Davis eloquently explains is the current status quo). Instead, all you need is 1,000 “true fans” that are willing to give you $100 a year, and voila, you’re raking in $100,000 a year.

If you’re Rembert Browne with your 87,000 Twitter followers, that means all you need to do is to get 1.114% of them to Patronize you $8.33 a month and you’re making that $100,000 a year. Or if that sounds like too high an asking price, you get 9% of them to tip you $1 a month on whatever piece they like the most that month. Then you’re getting $100,000 a year and some valuable consumer analytics.

And if you’re Bill Simmons, with your 4.65 Million followers, you could do it with pennies.

You’ve already got that nice HBO contract money anyway. Why not try something new?

In an interview with Jonathan Mahler of the New York Times right before Grantland launched, Simmons admitted that “The worst thing that’s happening now is that people are writing things just to drive traffic and get attention.” But until someone with enough power and influence does something to shake up the system, that’s going to continue to be the case.

That’s why I think you, Bill Simmons, should steal the Patronizing model from us.

To quote myself

Right now, almost all other media outlets in the world work like this:

  • Users are able to access content from a website for free.
  • That content is put together by a writer who is paid a predetermined, finite amount by that site’s parenting company.
  • That company gets the money to pay that writer by selling ad-space# to a bankrolling third-party, who is betting the invasive shittiness of their ads will be forgiven in exchange for access to that site’s ‘free’ content.
  • The more users that view that content (and thus that third-party’s shitty ads), the more money the website’s company makes off their ad-spending bankrollers.

Which I think we both know is an inefficient model that leads to an influx of view-courting clickbait.

It’s also pretty damn unfair to that writer who actually came up with the content in the first place, since they’re the ones driving all these financial transactions.

Here’s the model we at Random Nerds use (and that I think you should use too):

  • Users are still able to access content for free.
  • That content is still put together by a writer who is paid actual money in exchange for their work by us (the company).
  • However, instead of that being the end of the financial arrangement, we’ve developed a one-of-a kind tipping engine that allows readers to ‘Patronize’ writers directly as a reward for their quality work. Any money received is split 49/49 between the writer and us (the other 2% goes to a predetermined charity that we choose each month).
  • That ad-space and that bankrolling third-party who doesn’t really care about the reader are left out of the equation entirely.

Now the only problem with this model is that in lieu of selling your soul to the advertising devil, it relies on the reader’s ability to not just discern quality writing but understand the need to support it. It’s the mountain PBS has been trying to climb for years.

But this model has been working in other media industries for a while now. Just this past week Steven Hayden wrote a piece on Grantland about Radiohead, the band that lets listeners pay what they want for an album. Louis CK has shown comedians that its possible to self-produce a comedy special. Adam Carolla and Marc Maron are making a noteworthy chunk of their living from their podcasts.

So why not push it even further? What if Dan Harmon just tried to crowdsource the next season of Community and have it live on his personal website? What if Jon Stewart said he wanted to do a once-a-month, hold-nothing-back webcast from his basement but you had to pay $1.99 to tune in? What if Bill Simmons just asked all his loyal readers to throw him $10 to help him continue to do what he loves, with no corporate overlords this time?

In that Jonathan Mahler interview, all the way back in 2011, Simmons wondered about a possible end to Grantland, saying, “I don’t know, I think I have one more big sellout contract in me.” But if he just stole the Patronizing model from us, he’d never have to sell out again.

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***

At the end of every mailbag, Simmons signs off with a “Yup…these are my readers,” a winking acknowledgement to the diehard community who have supported him since he was just a guy writing on Page 2; the same community that I’m betting, if asked in the right way, would be more than happy to put their money where their mailbag questions are.

As a great man once said, “In life or sports, you never get what you feel you deserve. You get what you have the leverage to negotiate.”

Media Industry Apocalypse Guy, over and out.