Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap arguably are the two most venerable faces of journalism at ESPN, a legacy nearly 40 years in the making but recently under intense scrutiny amid apparent cutbacks. That puts them in a complicated spot this month.
On one hand, the network’s wave of layoffs in late April appeared to hit staffers primarily assigned to reporting duties especially hard.
On the other hand, management is about to give shows hosted primarily by Ley (“Outside the Lines”) and Schaap (“E:60”) renewed votes of confidence, and with that a reminder that journalism still matters to the Worldwide Leader.
So, again: It’s complicated.
“Look, professionally and personally, we lost a lot of friends in the workplace, and it was devastating,” Ley said. “I think it was deeper than a lot of folks expected, and we’d be lying if we didn’t say that it was not extremely difficult for everybody. It’s not easy, and we’re still working through it.
“But what print newsroom hasn’t had to go through similar rounds of this? So professionally, you take a deep breath, you look around and acknowledge what your colleagues who are not here anymore contributed, and you look at the tools that are available to you to do what we’re trying to do and what I think the whole operation is doing on a daily basis.”
Said Schaap, “I would say, look, it’s very difficult. It’s sad to see people lose their jobs — friends, colleagues I have known for a long time, just as Bob has. It’s such a massive newsgathering organization, though, and we’ve seen what’s happened in a number of newsgathering organizations over the course of the last several decades.”
Schaap noted that the ESPN operation in general and its journalism arm specifically still are vastly more extensive than when he joined the network in 1993.
“Our commitment to journalism and newsgathering has never been stronger,” he said, “and if you reflect on the news organization that we have built up as a network, as a media entity, over the last 20 years, it’s phenomenal . . . The amount of newsgathering that we do is to the 10th power of what it was.
“That doesn’t mean what happened [in April] doesn’t hurt all of us. But I think with these shows, ‘OTL’ and ‘E:60,’ it’s doubling down on the commitment to these shows — more pieces, more journalism, more producers being hired to do this kind of work. I think that reflects how important we think the mission of news and newsgathering is.”
“E:60” will be the show most affected, moving from a haphazard evening schedule to an hour-long slot at 9 a.m. on Sundays starting May 14. In part, it will replace “The Sports Reporters,” a show hosted for many years by Schaap’s father, Dick. Its final episode is May 7.
Schaap said the news magazine’s schedule “has been a source of frustration for 10 years. We felt we’d done some great work and hard work and I think the audiences were there. They responded. The ratings were pretty good.
“But to have that regularity for everyone to know this is when we’re on, you can count on it 52 weeks a year, is an entirely different ballgame for us.”
Said Ley, “‘E:60’ has been wandering across the desert of the ESPN programming schedule, pitching their tents and always moving with the winds to the next oasis. It’s frustrating . . . 9 o’clock in the morning on Sunday for an hour, you talk about commitment, that’s a substantial commitment.”
Schaap said there will be more segments than ever now as the show expands on a decade in which it has spanned the globe doing features sometimes only tangentially related to sports.
“At ‘E:60’ we kind of made a conscious decision that sometimes we’re going to use sports as really just a jumping-off point to talk about societal issues, to talk about the Arab Spring, to talk about corporate responsibility in the wake of an industrial disaster, for instance in Bhopal, to talk about U.S. foreign relations in the former Yugoslavia,” he said.
“All of these things, the sports hook you could very fairly describe as minimal, but we said, so what, these are great stories and our audience will get something out of it.”
Ley will join Schaap on the Sunday show on a regular basis, the first time they have been scheduled together. In the past, they have been thrown together in news emergencies, such as Muhammad Ali’s death last spring.
“Who else would you rather be sitting with, live on national television, at 4 in the morning, telling stories about Muhammad Ali than Jeremy Schaap?” Ley said. “Once I was able to recover and look back on it, I said, man, that was about as neat as it gets, because they didn’t have anywhere else to go and said, ‘You guys talk.’ ”
Said Schaap, “I feel like the best work I’ve ever done has been with Bob, either when Bob’s anchoring and throwing it to me in the field or on those occasions where there have been big, breaking news stories and we end up on the set together.”
“Outside the Lines,” which is more geared toward breaking news and investigations, will be seen weekdays at 1 p.m., with both shows emanating from a new studio at the network’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut.
Ley and Schaap met with ESPN president John Skipper on May 3 to go over plans and emerged impressed.
“We see a lot of television and we bring a very critical eye, and sometimes a jealous eye, because we’re only human,” Ley said. “But this stuff is great.
“So we honor those who aren’t with us, but going forward, I think there are resources behind what we’re doing both on a long-term basis and on a daily basis, there really are.”