This week we hear from Sean Conboy, Executive Editor at The Players’ Tribune; a sports-focused site that publishes first-person stories from professional athletes. He talks about the process they use to get content from elite athletes, and why the site doesn’t shy away from difficult stories and human rights issues, like the ones around the Qatar World Cup.

In the news roundup Chris and Peter take a look at a grab bag of media stories from the Financial Times reporting a loss, through the reinvention of Rolling Stone, to the hypocritical hiring practices of the BBC’s director general. Video podcasting killed the podcasting stars.

The full transcript is live here, or see below for some highlights:

On founder Derek Jeter’s mission for TPL

Derek thought from his experience as a player for 20 years that it was really, really hard for athletes to have a safe space where they felt like they could truly be themselves and tell their stories. The media, I think, does a brilliant job. I mean, there’s some incredible journalists that really do gain the trust of players and have broken incredible stories or told the backstories of players really, really well.

But the media landscape is very diverse, very large; there’s not one style or perspective in media. And so I think the main thing for Derek was that it was really open ended, it was a blank page. He thought, if we can get a company that was basically started by athletes, and give them the platform and a trusted space to work with creative people who could help them tell their stories.

Taking on difficult topics

One of the first things that became clear was mental health. And this is a thing now that I think you’re seeing talked about quite a lot. If you look at Naomi Osaka, if you look at Simone Biles. But if you go back, we were actually one of the first media companies… to really dive into that.

We broke a story all the way back in 2015, a couple of months after we launched The Players’ Tribune, with a basketball player named Larry Sanders. And Larry was one of the first players to come out. He had stepped away from the game in the middle of his career, and there were a lot of questions about why. There were a lot of rumours, but actually, he was having severe mental health issues, panic attacks, depression, really debilitating.

I think that was one of the most important stories that we ever did, because I think it set the tone, the ceiling, for what athlete first-person storytelling could be.

Commissioning elite athletes

I think it’s changed throughout the years. Seven years ago, when we were quite a new thing, we were doing a lot of the outreach to athletes that we just thought had potentially really interesting stories, or that were just really intriguing to us. Basically approaching them and saying, ‘Hey, you know, would you be interested in talking to us’. I think the important thing with us as well is, everything is a trust game.

I think where we’ve been successful is we lend athletes that second, third, fourth take. We try to help them talk through some of these things, put it on the page or on tape in a really compelling way. And bring out certain things that maybe they’re having a hard time articulating or bringing to the surface.

On the importance of social distribution

I mean, it’s so important at this point, right? Tim Sparv, the captain of the Finland national team, just did a piece ‘We need to talk about Qatar’. That piece was actually really supported by the athlete community, which was great to see. He doesn’t have the biggest following, but we saw a tremendous amount of traffic coming from Instagram based on him sharing that story and other footballers sharing.

In my opinion, he walked the walk. This is not just him saying things that he thinks people want to hear. He’s reached out to the migrant workers who have built those stadiums under some really terrible conditions. And it’s really trying to drive awareness for something that I think a lot of people in the football world would love to just swept under the rug and to go away.

So much of the driver for that is going to be coming from the athletes social media channels.

TPL’s commercial model

With Derek Jeter being one of the ones to found this company, and then also getting athletes like Kobe Bryant, Danica Patrick, Blake Griffin, these kinds of people involved from the start – we got a lot of patience from our initial investors, to build trust and credibility. We had to prove that it was going to be worthwhile, worth your time and real.

Now, in 2021, some of our biggest campaigns, American Family Insurance, they’re hitting on these themes of identity, social justice, mental health, and they’re putting their dollars behind that and their brand behind it and sponsoring storytelling in that space.

News in brief:

  • The FT has filed a £34.5m loss for the year, and you’ll be surprised to know that Covid is the main culprit.
  • Rolling Stone is set to reinvent itself, with a new editorial edict that instructs its writers to be ‘more immediate, more visceral’ – and tougher on disgraces like Eric Clapton.
  • Facebook en Francais has agreed to pay newspapers for content. France has always been tougher on protection of its national media than other countries in Europe – but a well-written piece in Press Gazette argues that direct payments from Facebook is a bad solution to the problem.
  • Meanwhile Facebook is set to double down on its News Tab. According to new data provided to Axios, Facebook says the News Tab now contributes to over 30% of overall Facebook news link referral traffic for U.S., U.K. and German publishers included in the tab.
  • The Guardian has appointed deputy opinion editor and columnist Joseph Harker as its new senior executive for diversity and development.
  • Meanwhile The Voice is reporting that veteran diversity campaigner Marcus Ryder was blocked from a role at the BBC because its DG Tim Davie was worried about his previous campaigning for diversity. However it is apparently fine for a senior Tory MP to demand that Laura Kuenssberg’s replacement as political editor should be “pro-Brexit”. 
  • Playboy has launched a range of NFTs. Dubbed ‘Rabbitars’, they feature a unique Playboy bunny from a set of 11,953 and are set to retail for 0.1953 Ethereum or the equivalent in old money.
  • Podcast innovation continues apace: Spotify has announced it is opening access to its Video Podcasting feature to creators (perhaps spurred by YouTube’s recent investment in video podcasts) and Vox has debuted an ‘immersive transcript’ feature for its deaf and hard-of-hearing podcast audiences.
  • And finally, an update to our main story last week. After we spent much of the episode praising Axel Springer for its handling of Politico, it turns out that:
    • a) reports of a paywall launch were taken out of context, and;
    • b) it was immediately hit by a scandal after the NYT’s Ben Smith revealed a culture of inappropriate behaviour at some of its titles, which led to the editor-in-chief of Bild being suspended.

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