Jim Brady, former Newsday intern, will 'explain, critique' ESPN in new role
It was not long after ESPN named Jim Brady its first "public editor" last week that one segment of the public took note of his Twitter feed.
His header featured a large Mets logo, and his posts included many comments about the Jets.
No surprise for a former Newsday paperboy and former Newsday sports intern who grew up in Huntington.
But some fans of the Patriots -- a team that has generated more than its share of controversy -- wondered whether he could be objective as he prepared to start his new job Sunday. (Even if he does happen to have a catchy last name.)
Brady, 48, mostly laughed off such feedback, and said he has nothing to hide even if his new job involves explaining and sometimes critiquing the Worldwide Leader in a role formerly was known as "ombudsman.''
"I went to every Jets home game from 1974 to '85, before I went to college, so the roots are pretty deep on that,'' he said. "Also, it's an era of transparency. I'm not trying to hide who my sports teams are.
"It is funny because people were saying, oh, why didn't you go in and clean up your Twitter feed? It's because anybody who knows me knows where my sports loyalties are. I could wipe out my entire Twitter feed and it would not make much of a difference. People might as well know going in these are the teams I like.
"Separating your job and your sports fandom is not nearly as complicated as people make it out to be. It's the job I chose, to be a journalist, and to keep any kind of a reputation in this business you have to view that part of it through a different prism from rooting for your team.
"If you're an EMT in Boston and you're a diehard Patriots fan and they call you to rescue some guy's life who had a heart attack and he's wearing a Jets jersey, I assume you are going to save him. At some level you have a professional responsibility to the craft that you choose.
"It's been fun to read my Twitter feed the last couple of days and see all the anatomically impossible things people are suggesting I do to myself. So that's fine.''
Brady noted sports fans usually distrust those who hide or waver in their loyalties more than they do fans of teams that are rivals of their own.
"Messing with sports loyalties is a dangerous place to go,'' he said. "I think people respect that. My Twitter feed is very much stream-of-consciousness, smart -- Jets comments. There's no point in hiding who you are. It's part of the deal.''
Brady's term expires in 18 months. ESPN instituted the role of ombudsman in 2005 by hiring former Washington Post sports editor George Solomon -- a former boss of Brady. There has been an 11-month gap since Robert Lipsyte left the job, during which it was renamed and re-imagined. Brady will be free to critique, but he also wants to explain.
"I think it's finding more of a middle ground between the two,'' he said. "It's not saying critiquing and being a critic is not part of the job. It absolutely is. But it's also trying to explain things that might not be burning at that moment.
"There may be times in which you want to review, OK, what are ESPN's social media strategies? Do they break news on Twitter? When something goes awry on Twitter, how do they deal with that? That might not be prompted by a specific thing. It might be some things that are more thematic that might not be triggered by something live.
"It's still dipping into the big issues like (the closing of the website) Grantland, the relationships with leagues and all that. So it's probably turning the dial back a little bit more to the middle where it's more explanatory.
"Why did this happen or not happen sometimes is a really interesting question. And it doesn't always have to be on a controversy. It could be about sports that folks think should be covered, and maybe there's a reason why they're not. Maybe it's a rights issue.
"They have a lot of years of history of understanding that the audience for this while loyal is not big enough to sustain a business. Whatever it is. But I think sometimes those deserve answers, too, and what I'm trying to find is a middle ground.''
Brady has not set a schedule for how frequently he will weigh in with pieces on ESPN.com, but he is expected to do so more regularly -- and probably at shorter lengths -- than some of his predecessors.
Brady graduated from Huntington High in 1985, attended American University in Washington, D.C., and returned to Long Island as a Newsday sports intern in the summer of '89.
In the mid-1990s he oversaw first sports and later all news at the Washington Post's digital arm and has worked on the digital side of journalism ever since, including at AOL. His current venture, BillyPenn.com, seeks to provide local news digitally, with younger consumers -- and their mobile devices -- a key target audience.
Philadelphia was the first market chosen in part because of its recent influx of millennials. The goal is to expand into other markets over time.
Brady is the first individual ombudsman/public editor who will juggle that with a full-time job, someone who is in the business trenches himself. That was part of the appeal for ESPN.
"I think that informs nicely because a lot of what you do day-to-day you're seeing the same challenges (at ESPN), obviously on a greatly different scale,'' he said.
One of the challenges is dealing with the magnitude of ESPN's reach and diversity.
"I've worked at some pretty big places but nothing that publishes on this many platforms and has so much of a television presence, and clearly that's what I have to bone up on,'' he said. "My weakness is I don't have a massive amount of experience in broadcast. Very little, in fact, so it's a pretty daunting task.''
Still, there are standards that should cut across all divisions, Brady said. "It's, how do you maintain across all of that, how to maintain the ethics and the consistency, and that's I think the challenge everybody's facing now. But they may be facing it on a bigger scale than most.''
Long Island has produced a disproportionate number of media executives and journalists over the decades. Add Brady to the list, in a job that most sports fans likely are not aware of but that people within the industry watch closely.
Brady said that is no accident.
"I think we were exposed to so many different types of media,'' he said of growing up in the New York area in general -- and in the '80s in particular.
"Yeah, there were a lot of two-newspaper towns when we were growing up, but New York was essentially a four- or five-newspaper town, and we saw that level of competition.
"I always find it ironic when people talk about, oh, my God, Internet journalism is junk, it's all click-based! What was A-1 of the New York Post on a newsstand in Manhattan every day? That was essentially trying to achieve the same thing. Come to me, don't come to the guy sitting next to me on the rack. I have a better headline. I have a better presentation.
"We're all trying to get consumers to use our products and not the next guy's products. That's kind of what we lost in newspapers when we lost the two-newspaper towns. You just won because you existed, not because you won fighting every day.
"My senior class award at Huntington High School was the Newsday carrier award, because I was the only kid who brought a newspaper to school every day. It was like I was some kind of freak for doing that. But I consumed a ton of media growing up and that helped me when I got to digital, because I never took anything for granted.
"You have to fight every day for every ounce of attention you get from an audience and I think a lot of people in newspapers in the monopoly era kind of lost that at some point.
"I've always been a little bit more focused on the consumer side and that's why when I got into the web in '95 some of the first things I did at post.com when I was the sports editor there was opening up the audience to be able to react to what we were doing because we didn't do that at the paper.
"It's seeing all that competition and seeing how hard it is to compete that I think a lot of us knew when we got to the web the monopoly era was over and you were going to have to fight for every reader the same way those papers in New York did when we were growing up. So a little more pugnaciousness probably does come from growing up there and consuming the media up there.''
Brady has not lived on Long Island since that summer as a Newsday intern; he lives in northern Virginia now. But he still watches most Jets games with his father.
(He said he had the Mets logo on his Twitter page only for the playoffs. He since has removed it in favor of an image of the William Penn statue in Philadelphia.)
Fear not, Patriots fans, there will be no reporting slant against your team or in favor of the Jets once he starts the job. But he reserves the right to cheer.
Said Brady, "My bias for the Jets is 1-4 every Sunday.''