Media History Exchange, 2018 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference

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Bill Simmons: The New Journalism Tradition in the Internet Age
Connor Harrison

Last modified: 2018-01-29

Abstract


Bill Simmons is well-regarded as a wildly successful online journalist, a pioneer even, who reached superstardom by penetrating and understanding the sensibilities and hormones of millions of sports lovers - because he’s one of them. When he was still “The Boston Sports Guy” on AOL.com, Simmons wrote a few modern-day gonzo pieces, crediting Hunter Thompson for inspiring a running diary piece about his trip to Las Vegas in 1999.[1] In a 2009 column written in the same style, Simmons recounted the 20th season of his East Coast fantasy football league and a friend's 40th birthday party: “He hadn't embarked on a full-fledged Vegas weekend in eons, a shame because once upon a time there was no better 5 a.m. drinking/smoking/stuttering blackjack wingman than Grady.”[2]

By traditional journalistic standards, Simmons is the ultimate unprofessional – a historic, positive trait in the eyes of millions of fans. Aided by an early obsession with the Boston Celtics and the sports narrative tradition of David Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game, Bill Simmons has unintentionally become the internet era’s Hunter S. Thompson, bringing gonzo to digital media and revitalizing the wider tradition of The New Journalism Movement laid out in Tom Wolfe’s 1972 New Journalism Manifesto. These legends were not simply talented narrative writers; they were celebrities who fundamentally changed journalism for the next 60 years.  Bill Simmons has embodied their style and celebrity since he was “The Boston Sports Guy” on AOL in 1997.

A 2013 USA Today College article is the only secondary piece of literature that likens Simmons' career to that of the new journalists. The author, Jarred Saffron, suggests that Simmons had used digital media to accomplish something Hunter S. Thompson was never able to: “set a plausible business model for young aspirants to follow…who, like Simmons and Thompson before them, believe journalists can still have a blood-red heart and soul.”[3] There seems to be no other concrete belief that Simmons has, intentionally or unintentionally, carried on Wolfe’s lessons and embodied Thompson’s style. Thompson helped pass along courage for Simmons to think outside the box of professional ethics.[4] The new journalism writers had something to break them out of the monotonous drag of being “any other reporter” – for Thompson, it was drugs and revelation that drugs could drive his writing. For Simmons, it was sports and the internet.

While just 48 years old and growing his new platform, The Ringer, I believe Simmons’ highly-unique writing style and career story have already had profound historical influence in digital media, drawn from the new journalism tradition. I will form these comparisons by drawing from pieces written during his widely-publicized career as an EPSN.com columnist and as editor-in-chief of the long-form sports and pop culture blog, Grantland. In addition, I will draw excerpts from his two books – The Book of Basketball and Now I Can Die in Peace.


[1] Bill Simmons, “Farewell, Hunter”, ESPN., http://www.espn.com/espn/page2/story?page=050225/hunter/simmons.

[2] Bill Simmons, “You're never too old for Vegas.”, ESPN., last modified September 3rd, 2009, http://www.espn.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/090903.

[3] Saffren, Jarred “Viewpoint: The Bill Simmons model and how the Internet changed journalism,”

USA Today College, http://college.usatoday.com/2013/06/11/opinion-the-bill-simmons-

model-and-how-the-internet-changed-journalism/.

[4] Simmons, “Farewell, Hunter.”


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