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Grizzlies Strike Back: Jason Wexler and Chris Vernon on Grind City Media

Chris Vernon told us to ask. So we did. And both Vernon and Jason Wexler were both generous with their time and quite open about their vision for Grind City Media.

New York Knicks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Are you ready for this?

A blogpost from a non-journalist about conversations with people employed by the Grizzlies who have created a content vertical that partially serves to cover the Grizzlies...

-Starts chanting-

TWENTY SIXTEEN! TWENTY SIXTEEN!

Last week the Grizzlies announced the creation of their in-house media brand, Grind City Media. This was met mostly with excitement. The excitement seemed to be driven by the impressive names hired to join the enterprise. However, and I’m sure much to your surprise, Twitter had thoughts.

You could even call them...hot takes.

Amid what seemed to be mostly positive comments, a fair number of skeptics emerged. I would say the skepticism is more than legitimate. I would say it’s essential and that's kind of the point.

*screeching brakes*

I want to stop right here and clarify a couple of things including what the focus of this story is meant to be.

  • A lot of things fall under the umbrella of Grind City Media, and if we’re going to discuss the potentially problematic aspects, we need to separate the harmless ones.
  • GCM (Grind City Media) made new hires across multiple platforms. This story is designed to focus on the parts of GCM that could result in restricted access for traditional media leading to nearly complete control of message.

*the engine revs and we move forward*

Since we are talking transparency, I’ll show my cards here. Fair warning, they are blurry, faded cards. What I mean is that on one hand I am merely a fan and excited for all the content GCM will provide. The hires are impressive and the concept is flexible enough to provide some truly fascinating content. In that way I couldn't be more thrilled for GCM.

On the other hand, I graduated with a degree in journalism and while I did not pursue journalism as a career, I do care about it. I also enjoy the behind the scenes drama of an NBA franchise. Reading about good palace intrigue (h/t Kevin Arnovitz) beats a Wednesday game against the Nets every time.

The problem is that palace intrigue and more importantly, the real story about scandal, injury news, and front office shakeups, is hard to come by when an organization has the ability to withhold access and produce their own version of the story under the guise of journalism. In that way I couldn't be more concerned.

And to complicate things even more, those are far from the only angles from which to view GCM. Another point I’m open to is that this is just sports. Proponents of this view might say it isn’t traditional news and it’s not meant to be treated as such.

I’d argue this falls apart pretty quickly. This isn't only about potentially restricting the flow of information about a tweaked ankle or pick protections on the latest first rounder the Grizzlies traded for magic beans. It’s about the leaders of one of the most important organizations in our city creating something that could allow them to craft a message while selling it to the public as legitimate news.

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Three Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The one thing we do know is that “Brand Journalism” (it hurt my fingers to type that) or whatever super cool buzzword you want to use is here to stay. What the Grizzlies are doing is not unique in sports, and certainly not in the corporate world. This is going to be the new normal. It all comes down to execution and distinction, and that's why I talked to Jason Wexler and Chris Vernon.

Both men were extremely generous with their time and answered all my questions despite me fumbling around with all the grace you'd expect of someone who works in contract office furniture but is pretending to be a journalist for a day. And as you can tell from the format and tone of this post, I’m failing miserably at being even a fake journalist.

Their responses weren't astonishing, but I was mildly surprised and perhaps even somewhat impressed by their candor in some respects.

Did I come away reassured that Grind City Media will allow independent media to thrive and that the content generators within GCM will be harsh when warranted?

Nope.

Did I come away thinking that Vernon might be a little more uncensored than I thought he would be?

Maybe a little.

Did I come away thinking that the team Wexler and company have assembled is impressive and that they're going to generate some incredible content?

Absolutely.

Did I come away thinking that the relationship between the Grizzlies organization and independent journalists is going to become more adversarial?

Oh yes. Yes, and yes again.

A real, live journalist would probably gather all the juicy quotes he got and craft them into a beautiful story. I’m going to drop these quotes on you in simpler form because they are good enough on their own.

Highlights from my discussions with Chris Vernon and Jason Wexler about Grind City Media with occasional commentary from yours truly:


Chris Vernon - Grind City Media, The Ringer

On continuing to criticize players, coaches, etc. in his new role

“I think it’s natural and it has become natural for me over the last several years, and people can lie about this if they want to, but with access and knowing people I’ve probably softened more over the years.”

“You end up knowing these people and you know their families.”

“I’m going to do my show and I guess I can’t speak to what it’s going to be like subconsciously. I’m going to watch the games or I’m going to be at the games and I’m gonna talk about what happens at those games.”

“There are some people that just crave being negative. It gives this…if you do say something negative then you are allowed to put off this aura of objectivity. But let's be honest, I’ve never been objective about them before or after I worked for them.”

On criticism from other media (with his willingness to ask Chandler Parsons about his knee on Facebook Live as a starting point)

“What am I gonna do? I’m gonna act like his knees are fine? That’s what I just didn’t get, right? With the criticism that’s levied, right? If this means this and this means this. If this means that this is how it’s gonna be and that was typically, you know, levied from…I mean The Commercial Appeal saying anything is laughable to me. As you know, for many years I mocked their coverage as being literally a PR arm and for god’s sake the freaking guy that runs the paper sits on the front row in a Z-Bo jersey. You wanna preach to me about objectivity? Get the hell out of my face. It’s insane!”

“Again it was one phone call away. All you had to do was ask. Ask what is this. Ask how you're gonna be talking about things. Ask if there is any different access toward the media that they didn’t have before. I mean some of these guys, they're great at what they do because they can sit back and they can write about what they are seeing from a wide scope. They ain't tryin to break stories or whatever else. On the other hand it can just be a threat, right? Because now all of sudden you've gotta work a little bit harder.”

I prompted this rant by pointing out that I was a bit surprised that Vernon was allowed to go in-depth with Parsons about his knee issues in a live broadcast setting. Parsons gave a little bit more info than we had heard previously. The one thing I let the guys sell me on is the idea that Vernon will be allowed to say whatever he wants in most cases. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but we shall see.

On ability to report on front office and ownership stories

“I would suppose I’m just gonna have to cross that bridge when I get there. I don’t know the answer. Will I talk about it? Yes. What am I gonna…Am I gonna frickin ignore what's going on? I mean that's outrageous. I don’t know. I just don’t get it. I mean if that’s what is being written about and that's what people are talking about then I’m just going to be sitting there ignoring it?”

“We’re not talking the 95% of the stuff I’m gonna be doing, right? We’re talking about the 5% of things that might be controversial. Some of the things, yeah, we’re gonna have to cross the bridge.”

On disclaimer on team site

“You think the Grizzlies want to be held responsible for the things I say? You know what I mean? They don’t want to be held responsible for the things I say. I don't want to have to submit to all those rules (that Grizzlies team employees are bound by) where I can’t speak on this, I can’t speak on that. Some of this stuff is just going to be trial and error and we’ll see as time goes on.

Jason Wexler - Memphis Grizzlies President of Business Operations

On the genesis of Grind City Media

“It’s been an idea that’s been percolating for awhile. Robert saw digital content as an opportunity generally in sports media, and in our media, and encouraged us to think about how we could go about activating that.”

“It didn’t start to crystallize until the late spring, early summer. There was kind of a few things that happened that really helped us drive the need and the opportunity and made it clearer for us.”

On initial criticism

“Whenever you change the game on people there are people who are directly impacted.”

“We’re not surprised by that reaction. It’s a little amusing from time to time around the office when you see how it works. Now that I’ve been in this job a little over three years and you see how the sausage gets made more clearly with the media, you tend to be a little skeptical of their skepticism. Overall we’re not really worried about it. The reality is you’ve gotta trust the audience and I guess that’s kinda where I distinguish our point of view maybe from theirs. I don’t know, maybe over a period of years they've learned to be skeptical about trusting the audience. Maybe we’re naïve in trusting the audience but my take on it is if we don’t put out authentic voices writing and talking and doing commentary in a meaningful and thoughtful and analytical way, then people aren't gonna watch.”

“People are certainly entitled to their skepticism and hopefully they'll keep an open mind as this pushes forward. It is always a little bit funny when people make presumptions about what we will and won’t cover and how we will and won’t cover it without really asking first. But truthfully a lot of it we’re gonna have to figure it out on the fly anyway, so that’s all fair.”

Shot fired a little bit? Throughout both conversations I heard multiple mentions of people not calling to clarify. I’m gonna go way out on a limb and guess they are talking about the traditional media members who criticized GCM after it was announced. Honestly, I get why those guys didn’t make that call. It doesn't make a ton of sense for them to cover this in that way. Both parties would just be reiterating their feelings on the matter and this type of story doesn't make sense in, for example, the Commercial Appeal.

That’s why we are here.

On journalistic integrity

“The failsafe on journalistic integrity is if you don’t have integrity people are gonna not listen, watch, or read, right? It’s not like people in general think the media has a ton of integrity already. That’s why they've not been watching, listening, or reading in the same numbers as when we had a monoculture 20 or 30 years ago. Our take on it is if we do great stuff and we give talented people a lot of rope to do awesome things, people will want to listen, watch, read because it will have that integrity. If we tried to make them shills and good frickin luck if I’m gonna try to tell Chris Vernon what to say. Anyone who’s ever heard Chris for five minutes knows that’s not gonna go well. The last thing I want is his first day of work to drag me into a Twitter battle with the local media.”

Chase here! This is probably the thing I disagreed with the most from these conversations. I hope that Grind City Media operates with the utmost integrity but even if they don’t, people are going to devour the content. If GCM produces aesthetically pleasing content that is also part of controlling a message, few people will notice and even fewer will care. A huge percentage of any fan base is made up of people who have a distaste for any negative coverage of their team, regardless of validity.

“The media is there to sell ads too. So I get that the writers themselves think about themselves as the people who help shape opinion for the public, but they also are a business that’s selling advertising. The CA (Commercial Appeal) is owned by Gannett. Gannett is a privately held corporation that’s trying to generate as much revenue as possible.”

On the distinction between news and PR, and if one needs to be made

“I think every media outlet whether independent or not struggles with that. We’ve all seen retractions have to get made. We’ve all seen articles that certainly don’t capture a story particularly accurately. I’ve seen stuff that’s just flat out false that gets published in some way, shape, or form. The lines between opinion and journalism are always being blurred and the lines between native advertising and content are being blurred. When you look closely throughout sports journalism and journalism in general there's conflicts of interest everywhere. It’s just a question of what degree.”

“Even the Commercial Appeal is a sponsor of the Grizzlies. They've been a sponsor partner on a six-figure deal for years and years and years. You look at all that stuff and so there's always some degree of difficulty in distinguishing that.”

On new hires

“Michael Wallace was embedded with us in the playoff run for ESPN a couple years ago. He was here through the Portland series and the Golden State series. I remember we did our Memphis vs. Errrbody game and you don’t expect national journalists to get that Memphis take on things and get it right and get the tone of it right because it is so unique to our team and our city. And I remember he wrote a piece where he just got it.”

“Alexis (Jones) has a masters in journalism from Columbia but she is totally focused on digital content and we thought she was the best one out there.”

“With Amara we specifically told her we want to make sure we don’t have that same sort of hipster NBA voice that so many teams do through their social media feed.”


Jason had some interesting thoughts about the stagnation of digital content as well as the diversity of the hires and of the fan base.

I’ve got a lot more good stuff and we will break it out into other posts at some point, but that’s the highlights of what was said about GCM.

I strongly advise you read this for a more coherent explanation of the potential issues with a venture like Grind City Media. The concerns are real and legitimate but it’s not hard to see who is ultimately going to win this battle, so smile and enjoy the content?

BONUS: Much was made of the Michael Wallace story that posted on ESPN after he had already started working for GCM. It looked like something that belongs on GCM and I thinks it’s embarrassing for ESPN, though I don’t fault the Grizzlies. I did ask Wexler if Wallace will continue writing for ESPN while employed by GCM. Wexler said he doesn't know the details and that he is in transition.

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