What The Players' Tribune Can Teach About Storytelling

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The Players' Tribune content spans written, audio, video, digital and social platforms.
The Players' Tribune content spans written, audio, video, digital and social platforms. Credit: Players' Tribune

After spending the first 10-plus years of her journalism career focused on music, Jessica Robertson changed things up in 2015 when she joined The Players' Tribune, the for-fans-by-athletes digital media company founded by baseball legend Derek Jeter.

With roles at RollingStone.com, AOL Music, MTV and The Fader, sports may seem like a random transition, but outside of music, Ms. Robertson said sports is her biggest passion. In high school, she played basketball and softball, and she still plays basketball recreationally as a shooting guard, referring to herself as "the small girl in the corner who can post up on the wing and hit the shot."

But aside from the sports enticement, Ms. Robertson said she took the head of content role at The Players' Tribune because she thought the first-person storytelling concept was powerful. "What's so exciting is that sports is the prism we use to tell stories and they're human interest rather than sports-focused," she said. "There's not a lot of nuance allowed in post-game interviews and we want to provide that real estate."

Jessica Roberson, head of content, The Players' Tribune
Jessica Roberson, head of content, The Players' Tribune Credit: The Player's Tribune

One example is the video and article from former Milwaukee Bucks forward Larry Sanders in 2015 about why he left the NBA, which Ms. Robertson said really resonated with readers and started a conversation about mental health struggles and anxiety. Mr. Sanders revealed on The Players' Tribune that part of the reason he left professional basketball was because of his battle with anxiety and depression. "I think a lot of people were drawn to that and can relate to it," said Ms. Robertson, adding that the site's best element is "whenever we can humanize and connect with the stories we tell."

As head of content, Ms. Robertson's responsibilities range from day-to-day to long-term content strategy development, including creative ideation across written, audio, video, digital and social platforms. She also works with the partnerships, sales and business development teams to see how the content is performing and how it might create new revenue opportunities.

While The Players' Tribune is very young media company, Ms. Robertson said it's muscling through a challenge that almost all publishers are facing today: how to "grow and scale without losing that engagement and quality of content and without being overly reliant on Facebook and other social platforms." She said media companies have to adapt to distributed content models and "fish where the fish are" by scrutinizing metrics such as average time spent on site pages and platforms.

The business goal right now for the privately held Players' Tribune, which closed $40 million in Series C funding in January, is to focus on audience growth and revenue. From a content standpoint, Ms. Robertson said the company wants to expand its offerings. This year, the brand intends to create more videos, including short-form content and feature-length documentaries, as well as more audio, such as athlete-hosted or documentary-style podcasts.

But that doesn't mean the publisher is straying away from the written word, said Ms. Robertson. The Players' Tribune is looking at how to diversify its editorial features and serve up athlete-generated stories in new and exciting ways.

So what advice does Ms. Robertson have for other storytellers and creators?

Be a great human: "Someone told me once to surround myself with people who expand me and my world view, and I think about that a lot when we're building teams and telling these stories."

Empathy is as important as passion: "Passion is a strong indicator that we're moving in the right direction, but you also have to have empathy. Whether you're a storyteller or a creative person, I think one of the best characteristics you can have is empathy because it offers diverse perspectives and that's critical to success—not just for business, but as a human being."

Have an expansive media diet: "I try to be completely informed with the conversation happening in sports, but I'm also very much looking at places like The New York Times and The New Yorker because a lot of the ideas that athletes or our creative team come to us with are not sports stories, but human interest stories and socially conscious stories."

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