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March 4, 2014, 9:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production
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Q&A: ESPN’s Henry Abbott on TrueHoop, serving readers, and the future of sports blogging

“There is this kind of band of oddballs like me who’ve been scouting around the fringes for a while and have some sense of what feels like it might be handy.”

The reason Henry Abbott started writing a blog was simple: It seemed like the only viable route he had to being a sports writer.

henryabbottThat was almost a decade ago. Now the founder of the NBA blog TrueHoop will be taking over the reins of basketball coverage on ESPN.com. Abbott’s ascent was a gradual one; after ESPN bought TrueHoop in 2007 it expanded the blog into a network of similarly inclined (analytical, passionate, bordering on obsessed) up and coming beat writers. Abbott’s story was an early version of one increasingly familiar in journalism today: the outsider brought in to help a media company build online savvy and reach new audiences. It’s also a formula that has worked well for ESPN, from Bill Simmons and Grantland to Nate Silver’s new FiveThirtyEight.

As the NBA deputy editor for ESPN.com, Abbott will have a different kind of task. Instead of building a new franchise from the ground up, he’ll have to apply lessons from TrueHoop to take ESPN’s NBA coverage in a new direction in order to meet fans needs — and better compete with the future TrueHoops of the world. Abbott’s excited about what comes next, but realistic about the challenges facing everyone in the media business. “All in all, I think the exciting and terrifying part of this is we really can’t do things the way they’ve always been done,” he told me.

In our conversation, we talked about how the path to becoming a sports writer has changed, what kind of coverage NBA fans expect, my poor Minnesota Timberwolves, and the rise of sports analytics. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation

Justin Ellis: What do you think NBA fans are looking for in their coverage of the league today?
Henry Abbott: I guess I’m in step with everybody in this industry in that I don’t really know. We know it was different than it was in the past, right? But we’re not navigating roads where we can say “Oh, we’ll follow these signs — this is how you achieve success.” What I’m thinking about is we’re navigating by stars. Some of the stars [the audience] want it mobile, they want it fast, they want it accurate, they want it thoughtful, they want it with good storytelling.

I think we’re probably too distant from the players. Social media is making it clear players have all this infinite personality, and I think the audience wants it up close. They want to feel the character of the game too.

We’re trying to achieve all those things and how that’s best done is a process of experimentation for the next couple decades.

Ellis: Contrasting when you started writing and today, there was that whole era where people were questioning whether blogging was a good or a bad thing for journalism. How do you think blogging has changed sports coverage and reporting on the NBA?
Abbott: It definitely shook up the snow globe big time, right? It used to be a very small channel of entry to be able to write about basketball all day every day. Basically, you had to know your local newspaper editor and get entrusted with a beat job or covering high school sports. That was just one subset of the population who got to have an audience on basketball.

Blogging just let everybody who wanted to try it try it. And that was a subject of concern for a lot of people. I think most of the concern boiled down to “With no barrier to entry, do these people who are doing this have any reason to do this? Should we believe them and are they accurate?” I guess the answer is now all over the place.

The blogging that matters to me, that has at the forefront of the TrueHoop network, and that has launched a lot of careers over the last few years, is blogging where people are very scrupulous about being accurate. You can’t shoot from the hip and say, “This guy is a jerk.” You have to make evidence-based decisions. I think blogging has opened the door to everybody, but what’s especially interesting is opening the door to this kind of new, more analytical, evidence-based thinking. Which is interesting and important.

At the Sloan Conference, researchers from all over the world know all kinds of bits and pieces of things that totally matter to the game of basketball we’ve all known and loved our whole lives. What package does that go in? Is that a news story? That three-pointers are more valuable than we thought they were? It doesn’t really have that urgency, but it’s massively weighty if you care about basketball. I think blogging has been a conduit for that kind of knowledge, generally. Most people who write about that stuff started blogging. That’s something I appreciate about blogging: the idea of just letting in people.

Ellis: The NBA has people who do coverage on the NBA. It has its own network. And at the same time, you have players with their own Twitter accounts who can connect directly with fans. How has the speed of digital media from the league and from players affected the way journalists cover it?
Abbott: The rosy answer to that is that it’s harder to lie. There’s so many different people chiming in to call you on it if you do.

I wrote for magazines — including the NBA’s official magazine — and I don’t know that we ever heard from anybody about anything. You just wrote what you wrote, did your best. Nowadays everything is reacted to and cross-checked and triple-checked within seconds. You have to think really hard about exactly how you’re gonna break that.

I think we’re digging into things with more accuracy, all in all, than before. Which is great. The downside is it’s kinda a mess. It’s just hard to figure out what’s going on minute to minute. Where’s the handy rundown of what matters today? Everything is all over the place and there are so many platforms and channels to keep track of.

Ellis: When TrueHoop became a network, what was the benefit of building a network of writers? And looking at it today, how well do you think it worked?
Abbott: It solved a lot of problems. One problem was there was a lot of talent in the long tail, as they call it. There are all these really good writers out there who — where are they gonna go, what are they going to do? It seemed nice to affiliate with all these smart, hard-working people. I don’t think anyone was really in a position to be like “Hey, we got jobs for everybody!” But we could offer them some kind of platform and endorsement.

These are really earnest, hardworking, truth-telling bloggers. That’s still the reason to keep it going. But I think what we’ve found as it progresses is that the best stuff, we don’t want to have on an affiliated blog — we want to have it on ESPN.com.

So all these characters — like Ethan Sherwood Stauss, who’s 100 percent a product of the network, but we elected to give him space on ESPN all the time. And I think that’s been great for us.

Ellis: You were an outsider bringing TrueHoop to ESPN, and now you look at someone like Nate Silver, who’s was brought in first at the Times and now into ESPN. What does it say that people who started as outsiders are being brought into these large media companies?
Abbott: I think it goes back to what I was saying in the beginning, that there’s not a well-worn path here. I think the ESPN honchos have been pretty wise to recognize that things are going to be different in the future. There are no push-button solutions, but there is this kind of band of oddballs like me who’ve been scouting around the fringes for a while and have some sense of what feels like it might be handy.

It’s shifting in a digital way. It’s shifting in a multimedia way. It’s shifting in an evidence-based way. Daryl Morey’s weird stat geek conference is suddenly the epicenter of networking and hobnobbing for NBA jobs. That’s a shift.

I just think there are more and more editors, and people in positions of power in publishing who are like, “You know, those guys who have been out there on the web doing this for a while? They know things we want to know.”

Ellis: Statistics have gotten smarter and more complex, through things like Player Efficiency Rating or this presentation at Sloan about Expected Possession Value. How do you think this explosion in stats has helped people understand the league?

Abbott: For me, it’s not a hobby. For some people, stat geekery as a category is in and of itself fun. I think I’m probably like most readers where I kinda want to get into this.

Neurological research these days is so fascinating, because we thought humans worked one way, but now that they do MRIs and learn about hormone secretions and all these things. There’s so many parts of us we leave to vague descriptions from doctors who didn’t really know — to now it’s, “No, this is how your brain operates.”

Basketball is working like the brain, where now — you’re describing this research — as the ball moves around the court, we’re going to know the expected points value of that possession, moment to moment. Which suddenly means you gotta pass that ball to the open man right there. Now we’re actually saying the expected points for that possession go from .69 to 1.1 — and that’s how you win a game. Which is what we all want to know.

So the fact of the matter is the best knowledge we have is that complex now — or a lot of it is. It’s not categorical, it’s not emphatic, but it’s insightful as heck. I think that’s where a lot of the interesting knowledge is now.

When you put on your little detective hat digging for the truth, you end up talking to a lot of Ph.D. students, with their spreadsheets and their SportsVU. Whereas you used to talk to the trainer, I guess? That’s where the insight is right now in a lot of cases, so that’s where we have to go find it.

Ellis: One of the things you’ve been doing a lot lately with TrueHoop is TrueHoop TV. How does that add to what TrueHoop is doing and what does it provide to readers
Abbott: From the early days of TrueHoop, I felt like I wrote a lot of long, boring, smart things where I was just sure I was right about everything. But the fact is not many people wanted to read that. So I’ve learned a lot from Royce Webb and Chris Ramsay and people here at ESPN about how do you package ideas so they’re more inviting to a general audience.

I don’t want to be the expert of experts in some ivory tower somewhere. I want to actually get ideas across to basketball fans. So TrueHoop TV is just way more inviting. I can’t do all the same essay-ish stuff, but you can watch it in five minutes on your phone and it can be insightful.

All kinds of people at ESPN have all this knowledge, and I just think short-form original video conversations that are fun and inviting are probably one of the better tools we have to get that across to people. And people seem to like it.

Who thought that two oddballs talking from their desks by Skype would ever get 300,000 people to watch it? But that actually happens some times, which is amazing. And encouraging.

Ellis: So Twitter. It’s a way to keep updated on stories and follow writers you like, but it also becomes very interesting in real time during a game. Watching something like the All-Star Game, which is always a so-so affair, becomes more interesting when you’re following it on Twitter. What’s your approach to social media?
Abbott: I mean, I love it for the eight times a day there’s something I couldn’t have known any other way. I hate that I have to wade through 5 gazillion things to get to those eight. There’s no simple solution there.

So you’re a Timberwolves fan. If you’re out with a friend at dinner and coming back from the bathroom you want to know how the Timberwolves game is going, you probably want to know the kind of stuff that’s on Twitter. But you don’t have time to scroll through everything that Twitter has to say about that without delaying your dinner. That’s a riddle to solve, the density problem — how do we get higher density of the best stuff from social media.

Ellis: You’ve been moving on this arc, from TrueHoop, to the network, and now this, where it seems like you get further and further away from writing. This might be a silly question, but do you want to have more regular opportunities to do the types of writing you were doing when you started out?
Abbott: That was a big decision and a big thing to think about in doing this job. I basically just told myself: Let’s try it. I’m gonna put my head down for a few years and just do this job, and I’ve got so many things I’m excited to do in this job. If at the end of those two years, we figure out that I just miss writing so much, there’s always that.

Also, it’s not like I can’t write. It’s just a question of time management. If there’s something I’m just dying to write, I’ll just write it. But I’ll definitely have less time for that. And it’s not really fair to all the great writers here to take time from helping their stuff get the best spotlight it can, where I’m just like “Oh, no, I’m working on my story right now.” I don’t want to compete with Marc Stein for anything.

I think I’ll do a lot less of that. I don’t know how much I’ll miss it. I occasionally do find myself on the phone with some other writer here saying, “Hey, you should really write this, but you should write it this way, and you should say this, and say this.” And then I have to stop because I realize what’s actually happening is I’m writing over the phone. We’ll see how much that happens and how much I annoy people.

Photo of Justin’s unfortunate Timberwolves playing by Doug Wallick used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 4, 2014, 9:30 a.m.
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