Last week, ESPN sent a loud statement that quality reporting isn’t its top priority. On Monday, they made a somewhat quieter statement that good journalism remains important, announcing a new contract for investigative ace Don Van Natta Jr.
Van Natta, a two-time Pulitzer winner, is one of the top writers at ESPN the Magazine. He’s produced a number of memorable pieces, often about the NFL. Most recently, he teamed with Seth Wickersham on a piece on the Oakland Raiders’ move to Las Vegas called “Sin City or Bust.”
In the wake of an Everest-sized mountain of bad PR, ESPN is trying to spin Van Natta’s new deal as evidence the company is, “strengthening its commitment to investigative and longform journalism,” which is a little bit hard to take seriously but also seems to contain a kernel of truth.
The fact is, when you scroll through the list of layoffs, you see a lot of team beat reporters and TV analysts and play-by-play announcers and not many long-form writers. Laid-off writers like Dana O’Neil and Ethan Strauss have certainly produced good longer pieces, but that’s not their principal responsibility. As far as investigative and long-form goes, ESPN seems to have left its magazine pretty much alone and retained the people who write those kinds of pieces.
Van Natta is as good as any investigative sportswriter in the country, as ESPN exec Chad Millman pointed out in the news release announcing his new contract.
“Don has a proven ability to dig deep for compelling narratives that reveal truths about the highest-profile issues and personalities in sports,” Chad Millman said. “He’s helped raise the bar for storytelling at ESPN and it’s fantastic he’ll keep doing it for years to come.”
After the layoffs, ESPN reportedly offered to renegotiate contracts for employees on the chopping block, and it’s possible that’s what happened here, but it also could be that Van Natta’s contract was simply running up and he got a new one.
Regardless, there’s been a huge amount of bad news out of Bristol lately, but the fact that Van Natta is sticking around is a small bit of good news.