It’s no surprise Dan Le Batard is leaving ESPN. The news was so inevitable that if Le Batard saw it on a radio rundown, his own contrarianism would make him pick a less obvious topic. Did you guys see this Cris Collinsworth thing … ?
But his move is still revealing. When Jemele Hill made a Le Batard–style leap to TV, she dubbed herself a “former journalist.” Former journalists were print stars. A decade ago, in an odd twist of fate, they were handed the keys to ESPN. Former journalists had the run of the network; it was their playpen, their ATM machine. Not every former journalist has left ESPN for Substack yet. But Le Batard’s exit makes it clear their golden age is over.
In hindsight, it might seem obvious that ESPN would turn its creative engines over to print veterans like Tony and Mike, Michael and Jemele, Dan, Bomani, and Pablo, and the cast of Around the Horn. At the time, it wasn’t obvious at all. It seemed kind of weird, like an inversion of the typical TV hierarchy. That’s part of what made it so exhilarating.
Back in the ’90s, ESPN added news-breaking reporters like Chris Mortensen and Ed Werder. Under former magazine publisher John Skipper, who became ESPN’s president in 2012, the network hired more columnists. The idea was that their clippings gave their TV opinions credibility and weight. They could flash the names of their old newspapers like a detective flashes a badge.
Hill, who was an Orlando Sentinel columnist before joining ESPN, was once told by a producer: “I can’t teach you how to have an opinion. But I can teach you how to be on TV.” Thus, a former journalist was born.
If ESPN filling its daypart with ex-writers wasn’t the obvious move, it wasn’t clear writers wanted anything to do with ESPN, either. “Print people did not want to be on TV,” said Hill. “We looked down at television people. We considered ourselves to be the real intellectuals and journalists, not people who were on television.”
In time, print people realized that to make seven figures they had to (a) write the next Moneyball; or (b) find a TV gig that was less embarrassing than the 11 p.m. sports. “Once people started to figure out that with the radio and TV you can make a shitload of money, then that’s what changed the game,” said Hill. “It’s like, ‘Wait a minute. I can still write, but I can get paid a few thousand dollars on the side to do television?’” According to the New York Post, Le Batard earned about $3 million per year.
ESPN cast some of its former journalists as pure assholes. (In such cases, there was a direct correlation with the writer’s eagerness to first cast themself as an asshole in print.) Even so, the former journalists’ salaries and reach grew massively.
A handful of former journalists found paradise. They got an ESPN show—usually produced by Erik Rydholm—that was an extension of their personality. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon got that kind of show. So did Michael Smith and Hill, at least with His & Hers. Le Batard might have discovered it in its truest, weirdest form.
Le Batard made his relationship with his dad, Gonzalo (a.k.a Papi), the central conceit of a daily ESPN show. Highly Questionable’s other cast members were people Le Batard called friends. The ethos of Le Batard’s radio show, as described by TV writer Mike Schur, was “to mock the concept of sports radio—to make you feel bad for ever liking sports radio, or thinking it was worth your time.” The show’s brushback pitch to the uninitiated—“You don’t get the show!”—was a reminder of just how much Le Batard was getting away with.
Being a former journalist could be so fun that it disguised a few things. One was that TV hosts got the glory of slinging opinions with few of the messy side effects. “The truth is, I wasn’t writing pieces and having to walk into a locker room every day and answer for what I wrote,” said Hill. “I didn’t have to talk to any coaches or any players.
“Once you get to TV and you have so much more distance between the people you’re actually talking about, you become an entertainer.”
Moreover, the TV hosts’ old papers were crumbling. Tim Cowlishaw has noted that he beamed in to Around the Horn from a newsroom that was being thinned by layoffs and buyouts. ESPN wasn’t just a final, lucrative destination for newspaper writers anymore. It was becoming—through its website, ESPN the Magazine, and later Grantland—one of their few stable homes.
Then ESPN began to shrink. The decline of the cable model led to several rounds of layoffs, the most recent of which claimed Le Batard producer Chris Cote. (Le Batard, who called the way the network handled the layoff “the greatest disrespect of my professional career,” gave Cote a new job and paid the salary himself.)
After taking over in 2018, ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, who may not share Skipper’s interest in print stars, put guardrails on what his hosts could talk about on-air. That caused an eruption from Le Batard, who asked why he had to wait for an athlete to have a political opinion before he could have one himself.
There’s a story about ESPN and politics there. There’s also a story about control—a type of control ex-columnists weren’t used to at their newspapers, much less at ESPN. In August, Le Batard lamented that ESPN had cut an hour from his radio show just as the sports world was dealing with the issues he specialized in. “Noon Eastern, beginning Monday, Mike Greenberg,” he said. “I just want you to absorb that.”
Pitaro insists he values journalism, like Skipper. It’s more precise to say Pitaro doesn’t put the same value on words—and, by extension, the people that write them. Or wrote them. ESPN still offers great forums to former journalists like Tony and Mike, Stephen A., and Woj. But when ESPN goes searching for credibility and weight, it’s more likely to seek out Peyton Manning than a columnist.
The twilight of the former journalist comes at a horribly ironic time. The pandemic added 50 miles per hour to print’s rate of decline. Writers are pivoting to Substack. To podcasting. To … well, if you have another idea, be sure to tweet it out. Going multimedia is no longer the capstone of a print career, as it was for Le Batard; it’s a way to save your career from oblivion. These days, a former journalist is what you call a journalist who needs a job.