Breaking down Deadspin’s breakdown of SB Nation Longform’s Holtzclaw story

For the last couple weeks, I’ve been watching the reaction to SB Nation Longform’s “Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw” story. I’ve read just about everything, I think, that has been published online about how the story came to be, and then the aftermath, which included SB Nation’s firing Longform editor Glenn Stout and then Deadspin’s attempt to explain how the story happened, a poorly-reported piece that put the blame solely on Stout.

I’ve watched this as someone who is completely, 100 percent biased in Stout’s favor based on my own experience in working with him. Stout edited all five of my stories for SB Nation Longform, including “The Gyms of Holmes County,” the piece that went up one week before the Holtzclaw story.

I read the Holtzclaw story too, and came to the same conclusion just about everyone else did. It was bad. It was supremely bad. It was much too long, and it did come off, as many critics have said, as overly sympathetic to a man who was sentenced to 263 years in prison for using his position as a police officer to rape and sexually assault 13 African-American women. Jeff Arnold should have never been the writer on that piece (he couldn’t pull off what he had initially pitched, which, by the way, was a good idea). And it wasn’t Stout’s best moment as an editor, as I’m sure he would admit now.

But what has resulted has not been a discussion on how these types of stories should best be told (and they can be told, just read Tom Junod’s “The Rapist Says He’s Sorry,” which ran in GQ in 1995), but rather a character assassination on Stout. There has been this attempt to show Stout as a sexist, racist, white-privileged old man who pushed this story through, disregarding so many objections. That has truly baffled me, because that is not the Glenn Stout I’ve worked with.

Quite the opposite, Stout has been the most compassionate editor who has ever laid eyes on my words. And also the best. I’ve worked with a lot of editors in my career as a journalist, and no editor has ever worked so hard to make my stories better.

The narrative regarding what happened with the Holtzclaw story has largely been driven by Deadspin, which is part of the Gawker family (the website currently being sued by Hulk Hogan for posting a sex tape featuring the former professional wrestler). The Deadspin piece “How SB Nation Published Their Daniel Holtzclaw” came out 10 days after the Holtzclaw story was originally published and then retracted entirely.

In the Deadspin piece, Howard, who was recently selected for a David Carr Fellowship at The New York Times, argues that Stout ran roughshod over other editors at SB Nation and that he marginalized the voice of a female, African-American editor who had concerns about the Holtzclaw story. And he makes an argument that Stout equated long stories with good stories, and that he only wanted masculine pieces in which every word was “dripping with gravity.”

Stout fired back the other day, with comments from his lawyer, who said the Deadspin piece was “false and defamatory.” In comments from his lawyer, Stout outlined his side of the story, particularly regarding how the Holtzclaw piece came to see the light of day.

I read the Deadspin piece multiple times in order to get some separation from my adoration of Stout. Because the publication process Howard outlined didn’t match my own experience, and because the description of a Stout was completely foreign to me, I wanted to look at Howard’s story as an exercise in reporting. Who did he talk to? Who didn’t he talk to? What was present? What was missing?

As I looked at the story that way, I saw a piece that, in my mind, conveniently scapegoated a freelance writer and the lowest ranking editor at SB Nation, one who worked remotely in Vermont, and let everyone who works at the SB Nation offices in New York off the hook.

Howard’s story — and again, this is the story that has driven the narrative — consists of interviews only with SB Nation/Vox staffers and leaked memos from SB Nation. He relies heavily on anonymous sources. He didn’t approach any of the most regular or most recent freelancers that Stout worked with, the writers who knew Stout and the entire SB Nation Longform process, the best. And he marginalizes all of the amazing, diverse work Stout did in the nearly three-and-a-half years leading up to the Holtzclaw story.

***

The process for publishing an SB Nation Longform story that Howard describes in his piece doesn’t resemble the process I have experienced, or many other freelancers have experienced.

Howard describes a situation where Stout is running a “fiefdom,” in which all other SB Nation editors are afraid of him, including Managing Editor Brian Floyd. This ignores that fact that, in the SB Nation food chain of editors, Stout was at the bottom. Still, Howard paints a portrait of Stout as a man who runs the show. He commissions the stories, oversees the reporting, edits the stories and then tells higher-up SB Nation editors to run them.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. First off, all stories that Stout assigns have to be signed off on by Spencer Hall, the SB Nation editorial director. I know this, because when I’ve pitched stories that Glenn ultimately accepted (and he didn’t accept all of my pitches, not even close), it came with something like, I love this story idea. Let me run it by Spencer.

Additionally, to my knowledge, my work was always read by higher up editors like Hall and Floyd before it went live, as was the work by other freelancers. And those editors often made changes, or suggested changes that were ultimately made. It was a truly collaborative process, one that worked wonders for more than three years. It was hardly a fiefdom (which, by the way, would be incredibly hard for Stout to run from Vermont).

The piece that Howard’s story hinges on is an interview with Elena Bergeron, a senior editor at SB Nation and experienced journalist. I have never worked with Bergeron, and indeed, I had never seen her name in relation to SB Nation until Howard’s piece. All of this to say, I don’t think she had ever been brought in to look at my work as an editor. But then again, I rarely did a story that was controversial, as I tended to stick with straight-forward feature-type pieces.

Howard reports that Bergeron had to read the story twice because it was so bad, and that she sent an email to Hall, Kevin Lockland (vice president of editorial at SB Nation), Stout and Floyd on Monday evening expressing her concerns. She then told Howard about a conference call with Stout and Floyd on Tuesday (according to Howard, Hall was on vacation and Lockland was traveling) that “devolved into an argument” with Stout disregarding Bergeron’s objections. Ultimately, the three hung up and nothing was resolved. This account has been disputed by Stout’s lawyer, who says the call was productive and that Bergeron ultimately gave her approval for the story and even thanked Stout via email for listening to her concerns.

“With Hall and Lockland gone,” Howard continues, “Floyd had more editorial power than he was accustomed to, but, according to sources at the site, still didn’t feel he had the authority to unilaterally pull the article.”

This sentence creates all sorts of problems journalistically, particularly the fact that Howard is essentially using anonymous sources to get inside Floyd’s head. The question remains; was the source Floyd? If it was Floyd, why did he feel the need to be anonymous? After all, Bergeron is named in the piece, and she ranks below Floyd in the SB Nation hierarchy, and if Bergeron had permission from the company to let her name appear in the story, certainly Floyd would have as well.

It would have been helpful for Howard to talk to Floyd, given that he was also on the phone call with Bergeron and Stout, and yet there are no comments from Floyd in the story. In many ways, Floyd is completely invisible here, given a pass. Not only are there no comments tied to his name, there’s not even a mention of whether Howard tried to get a comment from him; if he did, there is nothing to say that Floyd refused to comment, and this despite the fact there is a mention that Stout refused multiple times to comment.

But there are even more problems with the reporting, particularly in relation to this phone call and what happened in the next 24 hours. What Howard doesn’t answer in his piece is what happened after the phone conference.

As it is, in Howard’s piece, we’re left with an unsatisfactory phone conference; with Floyd not pulling the story; and then a producer scheduling the story for around noon on Wednesday, which is about the time Longform stories always went live.

If I’m the reporter on this story, and I’m talking to Bergeron, I would have a lot more questions. For instance, what was Floyd like in that conference call? Did he side with Bergeron or Stout? Was he as concerned about the story as Bergeron was? What did Bergeron do after that phone call if she wasn’t happy with the fact the problems were not resolved? Did she contact Hall or Lockland? Did she send more emails?

Surely there was a way to contact Hall while he was on vacation. Surely someone could have gotten hold of Lockland. Why were both of them so unreachable?

One thing that would have been hugely helpful to include in Howard’s story is the original email Bergeron sent to the four editors. Howard either didn’t ask for it (most likely) or he asked for it and was turned down (least likely given one would assume that would show up in the story somewhere).

If so many people at SB Nation were so concerned, surely someone pushed back harder, trying to convince Floyd to pull the story. Surely Floyd was concerned himself. Surely someone was in contact with Hall as soon as he showed up on Wednesday morning.

Instead, Howard makes a point of saying that Hall spent Wednesday morning — just hours before a 12,000-word story that copy editors, producers and senior editors were all convinced was unpublishable would be published — “getting settled.”

That doesn’t sound like what a top editor would be doing when he returns from vacation to find shit hitting the fan because a really bad story was about to be published. This leads me to believe that those in the New York SB Nation offices weren’t nearly as concerned about the Holtzclaw piece as they now claim.

If you look closely enough at Howard’s reporting, you see only an interview with Bergeron. You see Kevin Lockland denying that he had read the Holtzclaw piece. You see Hall, at the very end of this 3,100-word story, saying that Stout had been fired. And you see nothing from Floyd.

***

Howard uses comments from freelancers to build a picture of how SB Nation Longform worked, but not one of the freelancers is named. And he didn’t contact any of the most regular freelancers for Longform, the writers and reporters who worked most closely with Stout.

Brin-Jonathan Butler, Brandon Sneed, Eva Holland, Michael Graff, and I contributed 32 of SB Nation Longform’s 200 stories. All of our work was edited by Stout. Additionally, the three most recent stories published immediately before the Holtzclaw story were written by Butler, Graff and me.

And yet, Howard did not reach out to any of us for a comment on this situation. Instead, the only time a freelancer’s name shows up in the story is when he quotes one of my tweets.

The tweet Howard used said “My story on Stella Walsh went through 9 drafts, all based on feedback from Glenn. The first draft of that story was bad. He made it better.” It was one of eight tweets I pushed out after reading the first Deadspin piece that speculated that Stout had been or would be fired.

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This was, apparently, Howard’s attempt to show he was giving the “other side” their chance to defend Stout.

Most of the anonymous freelancers are used by Howard as ammunition to set up this idea that Stout cared more about the number of words in a story rather than what those words actually said. But why grant anonymity to freelancers who are simply talking about how long stories typically were or about how contracts contained a word count? That hardly rises to the level of information one typically grants anonymity for.

“When Stout launched SB Nation Longform in the fall of 2012, the idea was very much that Stout could bring prestige to the site by regularly running long stories — not stories aspiring to a certain complexity, note, but long ones,” Howard writes.

I was one of the first people to write for Stout when the Longform site launched. Back in 2012, he sent out a description of what he was doing and what he was looking for. He said he was looking for writers to pitch the kinds of stories that, “after I read them once, I want to read them again.”

“We hope to create a place where writers feel their work is valued and respected and attract readers who love good writing,” he said.

Nowhere in Stout’s initial outreach for the project did he mention word counts. Even after I started doing stories with him, the word counts were simply there as a placeholder, a spot where he thought the story might land, but understood it could go longer or it could go shorter. As long as the story was right, well, that was all that mattered.

***

“Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw” was a supremely bad story. But it’s not indicative of the work that appeared on SB Nation Longform under Stout’s leadership. Not even close.

Not every story that ran on SB Nation Longform was bad. Nor was every word dripping in “gravity,” or, “about embattled men, many of whom are white.” And if “most every piece reads as if the writer is trying to make it into The Best American Sports Writing, well, then, shame on those writers for attempting to write well.

“A pitch about a college football player,” Howard goes on, describing the Holtzclaw piece, “with professional ambitions who became a cop only to find himself rotting in jail for the rest of his life was precisely the kind of grim, muscular story Stout would go for.”

If Howard had simply looked at the site, he would have realized that the story run one week before the Holtzclaw piece was about high school girls’ basketball in Amish country. That story is not about embattled men. It’s not grim. It’s not muscular. It was about community. It was about history. It was about a different way of life.

That was the type of story Stout was looking for. A story that would tell him something he didn’t already know, and that would be written in a compelling way. He wanted characters he could latch on to, characters who would move him from point A to point B, and once he had made the journey, if the story was good enough, he would want to take a ride again.

To make the claim that Stout was only interested in stories about white guys and football, which is essentially what Howard has boiled him down to, is ridiculous and completely ignores the vast diversity of writers and stories he shepherded through SB Nation Longform.

I wrote about Stella Walsh, a gold medal sprinter from Cleveland in the 1930s. Stella was murdered in 1980, and the autopsy, leaked to the media, said she had male sex organs. The story focused on Stella’s life, how she was very much a woman no matter what the autopsy said.

Latria Graham, a new writer Stout brought into the Longform fold very recently, wrote a story on Josh Norman, the Carolina Panthers cornerback who got in a preseason fight with Cam Newton during a preseason practice. The story is about how Freeman ended up in the NFL, as well as how he overcame the fight with his team’s star.

Jacqueline Kantor wrote a story in December that followed the Frederick Douglass High School football team in Baltimore for the 2015 season, a season that started in the wake of the Freddie Gray killing and riots.

Dan England wrote about a woman, who, as a recovering drug addict, found solace and refuge in ultrarunning.

Eva Holland wrote about women climbing mountains, paddling in the world’s longest canoe race, and competing to be named Alaska Wilderness Woman.

William Browning wrote about a fugitive who was caught on the Appalachian Trail.

Kim Cross wrote about a quadruple amputee who rides a road bike and competes in wheelchair rugby at the highest level.

Brin-Jonathan Butler wrote about Cuba and human smuggling and rehabilitation and institutional racism in prisons.

Brandon Sneed wrote about a man who touched so many lives in Greenville, North Carolina that it didn’t seem possible, but it was.

I could go on and on and on.

Howard can call Stout whatever he wants, but he can only do so while willfully ignoring the amazing body of work Stout helped assemble at SB Nation Longform. He worked with more than 100 different writers. He edited more than 200 stories.

He screwed up, badly, on one of them.

But instead of using that as a pretext to belittle and misrepresent all the good work his writers did, Howard should be asking: Where were Spencer Hall and Brian Floyd in all of this?

***

Michael Brick was a former New York Times reporter who recently passed away from colon cancer. Many of his friends and fellow reporters collected an amazing body of Brick’s work into a book titled “Everyone Leaves Behind a Name.”

I just read that book earlier this week. It’s an amazing collection. But still, the one thing that stands out most to me is a quote from Brick included in the foreword, written by Dan Barry of The New York Times.

This is what Brick once said, regarding writing and editors.

“That word, though, if it is a word: Overwritten. In recent years it’s become a sledgehammer in the hands of too many cowardly, unambitious, ladder-climbing, cow-in-a-swivel-chair editors. The good ones know how to tell you where to dial it back, and finding a good one is mission critical. I’ve been lucky in that regard. The bad ones are hanging a kneejerk, uninspired, boardroom groupthink scarlet O on stylish writing.”

As I read that paragraph, I immediately thought of Stout and Greg Howard’s piece on Stout. While Howard may not have used the word “overwritten” in his piece, he certainly used that idea as a sledgehammer to try and smash Stout’s legacy.

But for me, the true measure of an editor is who will follow him. No matter where Stout ends up, if he is editing work for a publication, that’s a publication I will write for. Brick said that finding a good editor is mission critical, and in Stout, I found not a good editor, but a great editor. And I know I’m not the only writer who feels that way.

 

 

 

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