In this episode of the SLN Podcast, Chad Capellman had a chance to re-connect with Jim Brady, the person who hired Chad for his first online job when he was the sports editor for the just-launched Jim is currently CEO of the consulting firm Spirited Media, and in between has held roles that included Executive Editor of, Editor in Chief of Digital First Media, General Manager of TBD, Head of News and Sports for America Online, and public editor of ESPN from 2015 to 2018. Jim looked back on some of the more free-wheeling days at ahead of a 25th-anniversary reunion. They also talked about how local publications should think about measuring success, the generational divide from both a journalistic and a digital perspective, his favorite management lesson, the value of extended road trips, when being cursed at can be a good thing, and how, as a NY Jets fan, he has dealt with the infamous Butt Fumble game.

Podcast Highlights

1:55 – On Memories of the early days of after more than 25 years: “Oh yeah. In 26 years of being in digital journalism I don’t think there was ever a funner time than that. And it’s something that younger folks who work on the web can’t possibly fathom.”

“It’s happened more than once where on one of these anniversaries, I’ll put up the first homepage, the launch page, and people will comment on Twitter “my God, did you guys forget to hire designers?” It’s like, you know, this stuff was pretty hard back then, you know, 1996, you weren’t just in a position to make these pages do all the things they do today. I mean, you were dealing with a very limited set of tools to deal with. And it’s you just kind of, that kind of shows the I mean, ignorance is probably a little harsh word, but the lack of understanding of what you’re dealing with back then.” 

“I mean, we talk about it all the time, and I remember when TWA 800 went down and the only two people in the newsroom are the two sports guys, me and Gagan Nirula who were preparing for the Olympics. And we were the only guys who could do anything because the other thing people don’t remember is you couldn’t just do stuff from home. You couldn’t do anything if you weren’t in the office. So we were the only two people empowered to do anything about TWA 800. And I just remember, we were asking questions like, “Does TWA have a website yet?” It wasn’t even linked to TWA. Do they even have one yet? How do you cover a plane crash? What do we put on this story that we couldn’t do in print? I think we went to Boeing and got a link to the model of the plane. And that was like, we were inventing that cause it didn’t exist yet.”

“And I remember with RFK Stadium, we did a what the field looks like from every seat. And that’s kind of like, so routine now, right? Every stadium thing has that, but we were literally like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could …” I’m sure we were not the only one who did that, but it was totally freewheeling. And you just, figure it out, whatever you could figure out to cover things. And it was just so freeing.”

“And of course, as you mentioned on the technology side, you are also capable of forgetting to close one bracket and taking the entire website down for a while, until you can figure out what character you left out. So, you know, I could easily kill the entire site with one bad publish and did many times. So it was just a totally different time, but it was so fun because you were literally inventing this thing. And I think if you worked at in 1996, if you jumped that early to digital, you were a true believer that not just that you were launching something new, but you were launching something that was part of a revolution from a media standpoint, which it was. So it was amazing.”

5:44 – On the factors that made local sites, including Denverite in Colorado, the Incline in Pittsburgh and Billy Penn in Philadelphia successful and what others should be considering if they’re looking to emulate them: “Well, I think it starts with, it was never predicated on an advertising model. So it was never built on the idea that we had to get a crazy amount of page views. What we realized is if we were going to build our revenue model around events and around membership, it was about connecting with the audience. And that doesn’t necessarily require you to get crazy page views. It means you have to get a few thousand people who think what you do is worth paying for. And there’s lots of ways to get them to feel that way, which is the story selection, quality of the events you throw, your voice on social and on the site. And so I think, and those sites were purchased and two of them were bought by public radio stations, which really wanted the kind of newsroom that we had built inside theirs because it was a different kind of newsroom. Public radio newsrooms are a little less edgy than Billy Penn and Denverite were. And I think there was a sense of putting those two together would help both. It would help the legacy newsroom, maybe see a slightly different metabolism and attitude and it would give the Billy Penns and Denverites of the world, more insight into sites with more resources and some skill sets that they didn’t have that they could tap into. So I think it was a good, a good mix. And, but I do think it comes down to, you have to speak to the audience and I always tell the story. I won’t use the profanity since, I don’t know if profanity is going to be cool here, but is it fine? Okay. So I went into, I went to Philadelphia once to visit Billy Penn and I was just waiting for a friend at a bar. The bartenders asked me why I was in town. I said, “I run a news site here in Philadelphia and I’m just visiting it.” It’s like, “Oh, what news site?” And I said, “It’s called Billy Penn.” And she slapped the bar and she’s like, I fucking love Billy Penn.” 

“And I was like, see, this is how you win. You get people who feel this way about you. It’s not the kind of thing people traditionally say about their local newspaper, right? They say, “I really respect their work” or “they do good things” (with a) kind of golf clap, but they don’t necessarily have that, that passion. And I think when you’re in a world where you’re trying to build a membership program, people have to feel something it’s not enough to say, “Well, we produce –I think newspapers make this mistake when they talk about, a lot of them will put these notes in the paper-like, “you’ll miss us when we’re gone.”

“What we do is important and, without us, what will be left?” I get the message, but the message is really about you. It’s like “we’re going to go away. This community will suffer if we’re not here.” If you focused it more on empowering that community to help you, to help fund you and to help preserve you, I think you’d be a lot more successful than just basically saying “Wouldn’t it stink if we’re not here anymore?” How does that compel somebody to save you? I don’t think that’s the right model, and I think what made Billy Penn and Denverite and the Incline successful was people, they liked those sites. They felt they had a connection to the people who worked on them because they met them at events. The sites, we wrote stories about things they cared about and we wrote it in a voice that sounded like a human being talking rather than a kind of stodgy institutional voice, which is fine when you’re trying to build a massive audience and sell advertising against it, but doesn’t work as well when you need to make the people feel like they’re part of something.”

9:37 – On what ESPN and others need to have in place in an era where media companies need to frequently adapt as he spoke about in his farewell column:Yeah. Well, I think it has to start with an open mind. It’s funny, there are a fair amount of people that got into digital early, who I would say at some point fell into the same trap that we were trying to break out of, which was kind of thinking about how it was done and how it ought to be done. It’s continued to change for 26 years and I feel like one of the things that feel proudest of, personally, is that I never get settled in, like, “This is how it has to be done forever.” Because everything just changes too fast. And there are people, I think it was five years ago where, somebody used the term “old school, digital guy” which I thought, “Wow, we’ve been around long enough now that someone can be an old-school digital person”

“But in fairness, there are some who I think like if you had a certain you know, certain kind of song they made that made a couple of top 10 hits and they keep making the same music. You know, tastes have changed. And I do think there’s some element to that. So I think part of it is just have to be open-minded. I used to have a standard line in a presentation I did at conferences, which is “My rules of the road or when somebody asks you where things will be in 10 years, tell them you have no idea. Cause anybody who tells them they do is lying and you shouldn’t hire them.”

“The whole idea is what you want to do is you want to put a newsroom full of people who are willing to adapt. And who are willing to move on a dime. It’s not finding all these people who know exactly where things are right now, and feel strongly that it needs to stay that way. You need to fill a newsroom with people who don’t have any idea where it’s going to be in five years, but are willing to move quickly to get there when the hints start to appear. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that over the years. ” What do you think this is all going to be in five years?” I have no idea. Why would I even answer that question? And so it’s much easier to say the truth, which is that my success in digital is less because I always know where things are headed next. I’m willing to learn and adapt and study those new things and try to apply them in the journalistic realm. But it’s not that I’m always seeing around the corner. So I think that you have to just keep your mind open, even when it could get inconvenient at times for things to keep changing. Because for a lot of people, it’d be a lot easier to build a good consulting business, making money on the same five things for 20 years, but, you know, good luck with that. I mean, things change too fast to be able to keep beating the same horse for too long.”

12:28 – Is it harder to instill the right journalism practices into a younger digital-native generation, or is it harder to get older journalists to embrace the new and experiment more in ways that are effective with digital?: “I think they’re both hard. I mean, I think for me the, all the way through, I had an epiphany, maybe 15 years ago, kind of early in my time at the Post where I kind of figured it out. I think in terms of having managed a generation that was, older than I was, or even my age and just didn’t care about the internet. And I think it was this classic kind of break down. People would always say “Does this person get it or not get it?” And I always thought like that always sounded a little wrong to me, and I finally realized why it was wrong. But that’s not the right question. There’s not two categories of people. There’s not those who get it, and those who don’t get it. There’s three categories of people. There’s those who don’t get it and want to get it. There’s those who don’t get it and don’t want to get it. And then there’s those who get it . And if you split it into three categories, it gets a lot easier to manage because the people who get it, you’re good with already. The people who want to get it, and don’t get it, if you can win that group over, that third group kind of has to start to come or else they expose themselves as being way behind. So to me, the focus was always break your newsroom into those three categories and then aim at the people in the middle. Say, “these are the ones who don’t understand what we’re trying to do, or don’t understand digital, but they want to. So if I can figure out how to get them to join the ones who already get it, then I have critical mass and the others will either come or they will have to be replaced, you know, to be blunt. So that was the way I always broke it up. And then the way, of course, you motivated them individually, which is to try to find ways for them to help their own.”

“And the one thing, the internet that hasn’t made everybody into a national journalist, or at least a journalist with national reach, or global reach, immediately. So, start to plan to that and say, well, even the Washington Post, one of the great papers of history, was still a local newspaper in terms of distribution, in terms of same-day distribution. You couldn’t get the Washington Post same day in Dallas or Denver. So this gave a lot of people, the opportunity to suddenly become national names and the ones who jumped on early, I think got that and took advantage of it. So it’s just knowing how to motivate them. And of course also knowing how to motivate journalists by pitting them against other journalists. And I don’t mean like in a Hunger Games type of way, but basically saying, here are the people who generated the most page views for the website last month, here’s a list of reporters. And of course, people want to be on lists like that cause they know executives see them . So there’s a lot of tactics around that.”

“I think the younger generation’s challenge is a slightly different one. This is not global either. I think it’s more directional, but there’s obviously just a war over the future of journalism. That’s being fought in newsrooms right now over objectivity versus moral clarity or however you want to define it. And I think that’s a real challenge because , it’s hard for newsrooms to have 50% of each. I think those who believe in the moral clarity version of journalism will be offended by the 50% who believe in objectivity and vice versa. So you just end up with these battles and you see them at the New York Times and you see them at other places where it’s a real, it’s a real struggle. And it’s creating a debate over where journalism ought to head , which I think any craft or anything should be debated constantly about whether it’s being done right. So I don’t think the debate itself is the issue, but it does play itself out in some ways. I do meet far more journalists now under the age of 30 or even 35 for that matter, who really believe that the old way of doing things was terrible, and thank God it’s gone. My argument against that would be, trusted media has never been lower than it is right now. And I think part of that is because there is a perception that most people who are doing this have an opinion, and that opinion is often quite easy to spot. And so I do think that’s a really interesting battle we’re going to see fought over the next couple of years.”

“I have my own position on it, but I do think it’s going to be a challenge. I think it’s when you combine, in fact, the two groups you asked about, kind of the older journalists who maybe are not web-savvy versus the younger ones who are, but maybe feel differently about journalism, those two groups are at odds right now in a sort of catastrophically large way.”

“And so it’s going to be fascinating to see what happens with that because there’s been a long argument made over the years that journalists should just be upfront about what their biases are. People will trust them more if they know what their biases are, and I’ve always thought that was delusional. I don’t know a lot of Republicans who watch Rachel Maddow and say, “I totally buy what she says, because I know she’s a liberal” or vice versa. I don’t think there’s a lot of liberals watching Sean Hannity saying, I totally believe what he says, because I know where he stands. I don’t think that’s true. I think it actually makes it harder to believe. But others will disagree with that. And I think that’s fine. Let’s debate it. The problem becomes when the debates sit inside the same publication, where sometimes, the types of journalism you see, even inside the Times or the Post, you see some articles that feel very much like they’re of the generation that says moral clarity should rule the day. And then the other half are written from a pure objective standpoint. And they don’t always sit comfortably in the same publications. And I think that’s made a lot of places, a little choppier reads than they used to be.” 

17:51 – On the collaboration between the sports departments of the Washington Post print and websites compared to others and the value of fostering trust within departments: Yeah. It wasn’t as good, always, in other departments. I think there was, there was some power struggles going on early on where I think there was a sense that paper felt like they should’ve been in charge of the website and I think you can go back now. Len Downey put his memoir out not too long ago. And Len is a dear friend and he wrote in there that basically thank God I didn’t have the website. I don’t think I would have done the right thing with it. You know, at the time I felt like our journalism is being displayed there and we should have the ultimate say in how it’s displayed. But I think in the book he sort of gets it. He kind of didn’t understand how different it was. And thank God, you know, Don (Graham) had a separate team working on it that did understand that. And I think that’s where we had a lot of battles early on. I was lucky I’d come from the sports department of the paper to be the sports editor of the website, so I was the bridge back to the print side. Not everybody had that in other sections. We had hired people from outside who had come in and tried to build the relationship with the national section, the business section, when you didn’t have that connection, it was a lot harder. So we definitely had, we had it good there and not everybody else did.”

19:09 – On management advice that has helped him in his career: “Best advice I ever got from anybody was advice I got from my father early on. He’d been an exec his whole life. And he said, one of the keys of management to him was when somebody is in front of you when they’re upset and it sounds like they’re upset 90% of the time, this is about them. It’s not about you. Don’t take things personally. If somebody is upset, trying to figure out why they’re upset before you respond by being upset back. You can solve so many problems, when you take a deep breath and not respond to the emotional stimulus right in front of you. Sometimes it’s like somebody comes up and yells because they are so mad that story didn’t get the placement they thought it should get, and they’re barking to you about it. Try to figure out what was it about that story that you felt was so worthy of promotion? Let’s talk about if there’s something we can do. That was something I was able to do about 90% of the time. Ten percent of the time I probably just lost my shit to someone who was just being a little too rude. So nobody’s suggesting you can be an automaton and just turn that off. But if you can just take that extra step to just solve the problem and don’t respond emotionally. There’s a solution to this that is not me yelling back.”

“But I think the other one is always, don’t ever be a boss that too busy. I don’t have time to walk the floor. You have to get to know the people. You have to understand what makes different people tick. I got to we had a hundred plus people and I had coffee with every single one of them. So I just think it’s (you) got to take the time. And if you let meetings run the day and say “I’m too busy to talk to anybody” you got to ask yourself, what you’re doing wrong. You just got to have time. That’s the only way you can succeed. You’re never going to succeed because you’re just incredibly smart. You succeed because you’re smart and you understand how to motivate the people underneath you. That gives you the ability to do a hundred times more than you do by yourself. So it’s just, it’s patience and it’s and it’s homework. The old days when I first got into journalism as a copy editor, I was 20 years old and got hired at the Washington Post sports department as a part-time copy editor and composing room guy. And people just drop-kick trash cans across the room, and they’re mad at something you did. It was a totally different … It was sort of a just do it kind of world and it just never, it never sat well with me. I’m fine taking orders. I’m fine being told what to do, but I’d rather have a discussion about it rather than have to acknowledge the flying trash can that’s headed towards me as motivation. I’d rather us have a discussion about it. Sometimes you don’t have time for that, but a lot of times you did. And you have to take the time and slow down and not move at the pace the medium sometimes moves at. Because it’s a 24/7 medium people get really stressed out about it. But I’ve always viewed it as “we can always publish,” which means you don’t have to be stressed out all the time about publishing.”

“It’s like “it’s 24/7. It never stops.” It’s like, but it kind of always stops too. Right? You can always publish five minutes from now. When a newspaper hits, it’s like you’re costing the place thousands of dollars if you missed the deadline by two minutes. So there was real pressure to get it done in a very fixed time. Because if you miss that window, you missed that window. There is no window on the web, in a sense you can always publish. And so I’ve never been one of these crazy, never stop all day long, publish a thousand stories a day … Nobody can sustain that and it’s not good for your newsroom. It’s not good for your health. So I think it’s just move with a speed, but sort of a well-researched speed.”

22:33 – On how much he adapted vs having specific career goals: “I always feel like I’m personally not a fan of the goal. The example I used to always give was like, well, I want to be a vice president by the time I’m 30. That was never my goal, but I’ve heard people say that. But like, you could go take a vice-president job at a startup that has no staff and maybe not even much of a future, but  you could say you are a VP by 30, but for what? Or you could be at a place like the Washington Post and be at that director level at 30 and have a staff of 15 people. I mean, would you choose the other one over it because you’re a vice president versus a director? I’m not a big fan of those kinds of goals, but some people like to go that route. I don’t. I’ve never had any goals and it’s pretty obvious in the sort of series of jobs I’ve had, I’ve never had two jobs in a row that you can really say are the same. I’ve gone from big organization, small organizations, I’ve done intrapreneurial, pure startup, online-only with AOL and TBD and newspapers with DFM and Washington Post and public editor job, which is a writing job … I’ve always bounced back and forth and it’s funny because someone just asked me this the other day, “what’s been the best job you’ve ever had?” And I said, “well, I always leave when they become jobs.” I’ve barely had, I always say I barely had a job in my life. I’ve had something I’ve enjoyed doing that I get paid for, and then the minute it feels like a job, I get out. Because I don’t want it to feel like a job. I was the kind of kid who got a 98 in subjects I liked and 65 in subjects I couldn’t stand. I just couldn’t engage in things that did not interest me. And so if a job gets to the point where I’m just not doing something that interests me. It’s not even that I just leave because I don’t want to do it. I leave because I know I won’t do it very well. So you just try to get out ahead of the curve a little bit. I personally like to take different challenges on here and there. I don’t wanna just do one thing and continue to repeat it. I like learning new skills. I’ve had jobs where I’ve been running the revenue team. I’ve had jobs where I’ve overseen the product team. I’ve have had jobs where I’ve overseen editorial. I don’t have a sort of a template for a job. It just kind of sounds really interesting and I like the person I work for. If I’m finding the boss who you really respect and is honest with you. That’s still a thing that I have to have. I just can’t work for people I don’t trust.”

25:01 – On the kind of perspectives he gained from taking multiple 40-state-plus road trips: Journalistically, it’s a great perspective to have. For example, one of the things I worked on from a consulting standpoint is a collaborative of websites in Oklahoma called the Oklahoma Media Center. I’m not as involved in it anymore. But there was definitely a feeling I got at times when we were on calls with that group that like, “why should we listen to this guy? He’s lived his whole life in New York and Washington.” It’s like ” what does he know?” And it’s kinda like, man, it’s too bad because I probably had traveled this country more than 99.9% of people.”

“But you still can’t escape sort of the perception that you’re like an East Coast elite or something like that. But part of the reason we love those trips so much, as you find yourself, you know, cramming into the corner of a bar or a rib joint in Alabama somewhere. You really start talking to people. And that’s what journalism is, you get out and you talk to people. You get their perspectives. I just think it gives you a better sense of what makes people outside of where you live tick. So I think it just gives you a little bit better perspective about the country, and it weeds away some of the stereotypes. And I’m sure those stereotypes exist in reverse, obviously. The other important side of that though, is they don’t get to write it as much as we do because the media’s all here.. So we get to write about our stereotypes of the rest of the country, less than they get to talk about their stereotype of the East Coast.”

26:25 – As a New York Knicks and a Jets fan, do you consider yourself a masochist?: “Yes. And a Mets fan, but was the Mets got me ’86. The thing that always cracks me up is when people say “if the Mets and the Jets and Knicks drive you so crazy, why don’t you just root for somebody else?” And my response is always, ” you’re not a sports fan, are you?” It just doesn’t work that way. You don’t just get to decide this team that I’ve rooted for 45 years, I’m just going to stop rooting for it. It’s much more emotional. I’m not picking stocks here. And this is, I went to every Jets home game from ’74 to ’86, I think. So I’m in whether I want to be or not. But yeah they drive me absolutely crazy. And it’s really one of the last things I still tweet about is the Jets. I’ve pretty much given up on Twitter for most things. I find it to be a time suck and a soul suck, but I don’t need but I still will go gripe about the Jets on , 14 Sundays out of 17 . And of course, the three where they win is the week my friends are always like, your Twitter feed wasn’t nearly as good today.”

“Great, so, when they win, the feed sucks. So I hope my feed sucks a lot more next year.”

27:34 – On how he dealt with the infamous Jets “Butt Fumble” game: No, I’ll never give it up. I mean, it was terrible, but I laughed when it happened and my father did not, but at some point it just became a classic. It was part of an incredible couple of minutes of football. Butt Fumble, that was just one disaster scene in a Towering Inferno-like series of events. It was something though. My father always is angry about the Butt Fumble. It makes him very mad when it’s shown every year. But I get it. It was symbolic of how incompetent that team was and how incompetent the franchise was. I didn’t get too offended by it. That season was a lost season.”