Completing the circle
John Skipper, head of ESPN, finds himself just where he wants to be
By Ken Kerschbaumer -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/4/2001 7:00:00 PM
From the earliest days of their children's lives, parents wonder what will become of them. What will they do? Parents look for signs, hoping for a child who will stand out.
In 1970, 15-year-old John Skipper found himself dreaming of becoming a basketball player. However, Skipper recalls, he knew fairly early on that a career in basketball would be a stretch, so he began to follow in the footsteps of his writer heroes, both Southerners: William Faulkner and fellow North Carolinian Thomas Wolfe.
In an effort to follow those steps more closely, he became an avid reader of Rolling Stone and even subscribed to the Village Voice, a not-too-common practice for 15-year-olds in North Carolina.
"That was something that upset my parents," recalls Skipper, who's now head of ESPN.com. His parents may have been upset, but, on the plus side, it was a clue that their son was comfortable standing out.
That standout status was also something that one of his Columbia University graduate-school professors sensed as well. When Skipper was looking for a summer job, his professor put the word out that he had a student seeking employment. "He called a former student who worked at Rolling Stone and said he had a knucklehead student who was looking for a summer job," remarks Skipper, whose self-deprecating sense of humor comes through quickly in any discussion about himself. The professor was told, "Yes, we're actually looking for a secretary to help us during the summer."
The key skill that Skipper brought to the job?
"At the time, I was an ace typist, and ... I put myself through college by typing other people's papers," he explains. "I could type about 65 words a minute, and that was in the era of actually having to use whiteout to fix mistakes. Typing was a much more valued skill in those days."
Skipper says he didn't really have a career plan when he was at Rolling Stone, but it wasn't long before he was put on customer service, handling phone calls from upset fans of bands such as The Grateful Dead. The Dead were not among critics' favorites for their studio work, and fans were ready to cancel their subscriptions over a bad review. Skipper thinks he was given the job for one reason.
"Because I was a redneck, they put me on customer service and people would call all hot and bothered," he recollects. "So I would say [slowing down his drawl to a smooth cascade], 'Well, if you think about it, it's not such a bad thing, and it's just one person's opinion. And yours is just as important as theirs is. 'That seemed to calm them down."
Skipper worked for more than 10 years at Rolling Stone and worked his way up to publisher of US magazine, where, in 1990, he learned what he calls a "valuable lesson." He and publisher Jan Wenner clashed over the direction of the magazine, and Skipper eventually was fired. "It wasn't fun being fired, but I learned that, if the owner tells me to do something, I should just do it," he says. "But I didn't know that because I was young and stupid."
After a short stint at Spin magazine, Skipper joined Disney, where he was vice president of magazine publishing. In 1997, he took the helm of ESPN The Magazine, and it may not be a coincidence that the magazine had a similar beat to Rolling Stone and, especially, Spin. The use of typeface, text and photos all echoed Spin's approach, while taking a television product and reinventing it for print.
Today he does the same thing, except now it's for the ESPN.com Web site, which offers a number of feature articles written by such journalistic luminaries as Hunter S. Thompson.
Seeing a writer of Thompson's stature writing for ESPN.com on a regular basis seems like one of those "full circle" events. One has to wonder how the 15-year-old Skipper would react to seeing his position at 45. Odds are, he'd be pleased.
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