Outside the Lines, long considered ESPN’s bastion of strong journalism, faces a seemingly dichotomous existence.
On one hand, its work continued in full force this summer, including an exposé on questionable responses to sexual assault at the University of Missouri.
On the other, OTL’s television product gets supplanted by football once the season starts, moving to a much less visible time slot.
In light of that dynamic, Awful Announcing’s Ken Fang conducted Q&As with two OTL staffers: Senior Coordinating Producer Dwayne Bray and deputy editor for investigations Chris Buckle.
Bray addressed accusations that ESPN has buried OTL and its mission:
“Journalism is a very, very strong part of our DNA here…I was in newspapers for almost two decades before I came here and have never seen a greater commitment to investigative journalism anywhere whether it’s sports, news, business news, it doesn’t make a difference.”
He cites a staff of “nearly thirty” dedicated to investigative reporting at ESPN.
Buckle, in the interview, points to a multi-platform approach for OTL that has, in some ways, actually increased its reach.
On Thursday, ESPN dropped a bombshell of a profile on Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, as written by investigative reporter Don Van Natta.
From takes on Johnny Manziel to Jimmy Johnson, the story featured candor hard to find in a modern age where high-profile sports figures keep a distance from the media.
In a post for ESPN Front Row, Van Natta explained his methodology that led to the revelatory story.
“When I was assigned to do a profile of Jerry Jones, I had two choices: Dig deep into his background, talk with as many people as possible and then, near the end, try to interview Jones. Or while digging deeply, I could try to go through the front door, tell Jones what I’m doing and see where that leads,” Van Natta explains.
“I took the latter approach.”
Van Natta reached Jones through a tactic as old as journalistic time: the hotel bar. The writer admits, though, that “in nearly 30 years as a journalist, Jones is one of a kind.”
Van Natta previously spoke with National Sports Journalism Center students about his book, “Wonder Girl.”
ESPN (and concurrently, ABC) features a large fraternity of ex-coaches in its college football coverage. Heading into a new season, they added yet another with gravitas in ex-Texas Longhorn helm-holder Mack Brown.
In an article by Barry Horn from the Dallas Morning News, Brown promises to leave his “coachspeak” behind and speak more freely than he could when he was leading the Longhorns.
But when it comes to covering the Longhorns, specifically, he’s walking a fine line in the land of conflict of interest.
“Brown won’t do interviews and answer questions about goings-on in Austin,” Horn writes. “That’s a fact. But if the Longhorns are relevant and they come up for discussion on the ABC set, he’s all in. That’s at least, according to Brown and ESPN, which is paying him considerable cash not to stick his head in the sand.”
Brown says he and Charlie Strong (Texas’s new coach) agreed that the old ball coach wouldn’t talk about his old program as it goes in a new direction.
ESPN, though, also has a stake in Texas’s future: it owns the Longhorn Network. Added conversation and relevance likely only helps the cause.
Miami Herald readers looking for their Florida International football fix will have to look elsewhere.
According to a report from the Herald’s Linda Robertson, the paper will suspend coverage of the team after a credential was denied to beat reporter David J. Neal, who had seemingly gone through a gradual blacklisting at the school before it pulled the plug completely.
“Neal’s access to FIU coaches and athletes had been dwindling for months, to the point where he was no longer permitted to attend football practice or conduct interviews,” Robertson writes. “Last week, when Neal attempted to write a story on the FIU women’s soccer team, he was told no one was allowed to talk to him.”
FIU’s athletic department has not offered reasons as to why Neal’s credential, specifically, was denied. Herald editorial leaders have inquired with the school, searching for explanation or evidence of unprofessional behavior from Neal.
They’ve offered no such justification.
ESPN’s Josina Anderson made news instead of breaking news when her report on Michael Sam, the St. Louis Rams and the shower dynamic fell under heavy criticism.
Now, Anderson has spoken for herself. An excerpt from her statement:
“I’m particularly sensitive to those who feel the content therein worked to perpetuate stereotypes surrounding the LGBT community, or was just overall insensitive. In all humility, I truly understand these viewpoints and have taken time to reflect on how our story had this unintended consequence.
In my role as reporter, it’s also important for me to emphasize that I highly value accuracy and in this case gathered facts using well-accepted journalistic standards. I can also appreciate that there are always lessons to be gained in any situation regardless of experience or tenure.”
Some have already noted that Anderson’s response doesn’t exactly mirror her employer’s apology.
This summer serves as a sobering reminder that, sometimes, sports media needs to look at the workings of its own locker room.
Matt Yoder of Awful Announcing offered his thoughts on Michael Sam and the storyline that constantly called into question if Sam or the St. Louis Rams could survive the distraction. He concludes that the “distraction” purported by the media was self-made.
Whether it be Tony Dungy’s comments about drafting Michael Sam or ESPN’s Josina Anderson and her shower-themed report, the common theme of the sensational stories was this: Sam did nothing.
“Perhaps it speaks to our wider need in the media and our society as a whole for sensationalism,” Yoder writes. “We thrive on controversy, debate, and divisiveness in today’s America. And we will use Michael Sam in whichever way possible to fill those needs, as troubling a statement as that makes about ourselves. Because when the NFL’s first openly gay player is as normal a rookie as one can be, it’s up to us to fill in the gaps.”
Sam, like many rookies, will know his status on the Rams roster by Saturday.
There is no denying this: digital metrics have changed editorial direction. What is debatable, however, is the level of nuance between treasuring traffic and valuing great stories.
For the Nieman Journalism Lab, Angele Christin revealed the results of her intensive study on newsrooms and journalistic websites in the digital age. She reaches many conclusions on how the culture has changed with the added focus on clicks, including a complicated relationship between the journalist and his or her metric imprint.
“I find that journalists are particularly likely to have conflicted reactions to metrics when working for publications with high editorial ambitions facing financial instability,” Christin writes. “In this case, writers criticize the chase for clicks, but also understand online success as a signal of professional value.”
It’s a contradiction, she contends, mirrored by the industry.
“The need to find workable arrangements between editorial ambitions and economic realities is as old as journalism itself. It is also the only possible way to secure the future of the media, online.”
Not only did Michael Sam miss the cut, but reports indicate that St. Louis will not sign him to their practice squad. [Sports Illustrated]
The now infamous ESPN report about Michael Sam in the shower got the Jon Stewart treatment. [Deadline]
The Dan Patrick-hosted game show will debut Sept. 24 on the Crackle digital network. [Hollywood Reporter]