Last week, Kevin Manahan, sports director of NJ.com, posted on his Twitter account to let the public know that he was looking for a Philadelphia 76ers beat writer. You couldn’t quite call this a job listing, as he was offering a monthly stipend rather than a salary or benefits; whatever it was, his posts were as condescending as they were self-aggrandizing. Working on the terms he outlined would be a bad deal even if the boss didn’t sound like a raving lunatic, and I wrote as much in a blog post titled “NJ.com Sports Director Advertises Shitty Job, Is A Real Asshole About It.”
Perhaps predictably, some of the worst people in sports media took the criticism of Manahan as an opportunity to actively defend the general idea of paying workers badly and treating them poorly. This overshadowed a more interesting and, for now, more pertinent sub-discussion about Kevin Manahan and what he is like as a boss.
After I wrote that he sounded “demanding and steroidal” and called him a “weirdo,” well-known sportswriters like Manish Mehta, Jordan Raanan, Robert Klemko, and Mike Garafolo vigorously defended Manahan, saying that he was a good editor and boss. Meanwhile, I was flooded with anecdotes from people whose experiences working with Manahan were, they said, very different. They described him as a manipulative bully who deliberately created an atmosphere of fear at a desk that sees significant turnover. So which is it? Is Manahan a tough but effective editor, or a power-tripping petty tyrant?
The answer to this question matters; Manahan’s shop is no small concern. NJ.com, part of Advance Publications’ vast media empire, has drawn a monthly average of about 13 million unique visitors in 2018, according to ComScore data, and covers professional and college teams in New Jersey and New York, making it a dominant player in the greater New York metro area.
To try and figure out exactly what Manahan’s deal is, I spoke to more than a dozen current and former NJ.com employees, people who worked with him at other companies, and various other people in the industry who have come into contact with him. I reached out to people I had never met or spoken to to ask about their experiences working with Manahan, explaining that while I certainly had my own opinions, I was ready to be proven wrong. What emerged from these hours of conversations, which at times had the tenor of therapy sessions, was a near-uniform picture of Manahan as an alarmingly aggressive editor who relies on fear to motivate his writers, sets a debilitatingly hostile tone between writers and editors, and recently took over a newsroom discussion of issues facing women in sports media to deliver a 20-minute monologue that ended in him claiming that female reporters who had left the company had been hired out from under him simply so that ESPN could hit a quota.
Manahan declined to comment for this story, and, though I also emailed NJ Advance Media president Steve Alessi, Manahan, seemingly speaking for the company, was the one who responded. “No one,” he wrote, “from NJ Advance Media will be commenting.”
A testament to the lasting effects of this management style is that everyone I spoke to requested anonymity because they feared professional repercussions and/or Manahan’s personal vindictiveness. (Dom Cosentino, who worked for Manahan for nearly three years and is now my colleague at Deadspin, was the only person to publicly describe Manahan’s management style as borderline abusive, in tweets he later deleted because of his own fears of repercussions. He has since decided to go on the record expanding on the points he made in those tweets.)
Privately, it was a different story.
“You live in fear,” one source with experience working with Manahan said. “Get an email from Kevin and you think you’re on the verge of being fired. [...] I had heard horror stories about what it’s like to work with Kevin before I started, so my approach was just to hunker down and use it as a springboard.”
“[There was] a constant adversarial attitude between him and his employees, just constantly living in fear of getting an angry email, berating you or even threatening your job,” a different source said. “Even if you just made an honest mistake.”
The subject of Manahan threatening his staffer’s jobs or otherwise belittling them in emails came up over and over again; Deadspin reviewed several emails from Manahan that corroborate descriptions of this behavior.
Yet another source put it like this: “It wasn’t based in mutual respect, it was just fearful. I definitely did not see him as a mentor.”
A fourth source was even more blunt:
“I mean, what more can I say? Dom’s tweet was completely accurate,” the source said.
“He’s an insecure bully who routinely mind-fucks his staffers and sows a toxic culture of intimidation and fear,” Dom Cosentino wrote in the tweet in question. “He’s a lying shit stain who gaslights staffers by displaying my old ID badge during performance reviews in his office and gesturing toward it to pretend he fired me. He ‘works you hard’ by acting like a sociopath.”
In a follow-up conversation, Cosentino said he was told Manahan pointed to his ID badge and said something along the lines of “I’m not afraid to make a change” to scare staffers into thinking they were going to be fired. (He was not fired, Cosentino says, but rather quit because he had had enough of working for Manahan.)
“I saw people like [Mike] Garafolo and Jordan [Raanan] and Manish [Mehta] tweeting about how he’s a great editor and all this,” said Cosentino. “Sure, he has a good reporting sense, and he can be aggressive in a lot of really good ways. But to frame his management style solely around that—to present him like he’s just some hard-boiled mentor who grooms the occasional big shot—is to ignore how noxious and defeating he can be toward those stuck working for him, those who fear quitting because they’re scared they won’t get another job in the industry or they just need the paycheck.”
One source lamented that Manahan even felt like he had to act like this to gain respect.
“I was at [three other national and regional publications] and I have had several editors who are amazing. They made me a much better reporter and writer and none of them come anywhere close to being like Manahan,” this person said. “Like, ‘Oh you have to be this tough guy who is going to throw you on the ground and break you’—it’s just not how it has to be.”
Three sources mentioned NJ.com senior sports producer Mike Rosenstein as part of the management problem; he is known as a micromanager who may send writers “dozens” of emails throughout the day and get mad if they don’t respond fast enough.
An email to Rosenstein went unanswered.
The website features tabs for the Giants, the Jets, the Knicks, the Nets, the Devils, the Mets, the Yankees, Rutgers football, Rutgers basketball, the Eagles, the Flyers, the Red Bulls, the Rangers, the Phillies, Seton Hall, and the 76ers. It’s unclear how many of these teams are covered by part-time staff and how many are full-time. (It’s worth noting that full-time staffers are paid competitive salaries and receive benefits.) In an email to the president of NJ Advance Media, Steve Alessi, I asked about the size of the sports department; Alessi did not respond.
Several people pointed to Manahan as the reason there is so much turnover at NJ.com. Some leave because they get other jobs; Manahan sours on some; others won’t put up with him and quit. In the past year alone, at least seven employees have left the NJ.com sports department for various reasons.
“He’s a bully to his employees, and I think there’s a reason why so many people left after such a quick time. With some people it’s in a matter of days or weeks,” one source with experience at NJ.com said.
Of all the people I spoke to, and all the people I reached out to to ask about their experience working with Manahan, good or bad, only one person spoke about him glowingly. Joe Giglio, whose NJ.com bio describes him as a “Sports Engagement Specialist,” emailed me saying:
Kevin’s been nothing but a good boss to me. I’m not available (two little kids and two jobs!) for a longer conversation, but nothing but positive things from my perspective, on or off the record.
Thanks for reaching out.
The next most positive review came from a different source who worked with Manahan and said that he’s “not a bad guy.” This person also described Manahan as someone who was quick to “blow a gasket” and was bad at communicating.
The defining pattern that emerged through all these conversations? People were wary of allowing specific anecdotes to be included in this story because they feared Manahan would have the ability and the vindictiveness to identify them and seek revenge.
Why Manahan has been able to attract talent even when offering poor pay to work under bad conditions is clear enough: Young writers are understandably eager to jump at the chance to cover a pro sports beat. Thirty, 20, or even 10 years ago, when newspapers still reigned supreme, there were plenty of entry-level sports reporting jobs to go around, and the career track was clear: A writer would make his or her star at a small local paper, move on to a bigger regional paper, and then maybe make it to the big leagues, writing for a national publication. As newspaper jobs have dried up, the traditional reporting paths have changed. Places like the Athletic, whose stated goal is to make local newspapers’ sports coverage obsolete, primarily hire people with sizable social-media followings, meaning that to make it there, reporters have to have built a following somewhere. One way to do so might involve writing for little or no money and no benefits at somewhere like an SB Nation team site; another might involve working for a monthly stipend and no benefits at a place like NJ.com. One sportswriter recounted a conversation in which Manahan was frank about the realities of the industry, and about the ways he understands the dynamics involved.
“He essentially said why would he pay a Yankees writer $100,000 when he could pay two kids $50,000 apiece and run them into the ground for a few years,” the sportswriter said. “Then when they move on to something better or burn out, he can replace them with more young, cheap labor.”
This mentality isn’t unique to Mahanan or to NJ.com. What sets him apart—aside from the domineering, manipulative tendencies described by so many sources, which are unusual in the industry—is the vigor and ruthlessness with which, as sources describe it, he treats writers as gears in a machine: inexpensive, there to be ground down and replaced. The reason Manahan posted the 76ers job description in the first place, according to people familiar with the situation, was that the incumbent writer, Anthony Gilbert, had been let go after only a few months for not drawing enough traffic. (His bylines are still appearing on the site every day, as he is apparently finishing out his month’s contract. Gilbert declined to comment.) Such a short amount of time doesn’t seem like enough to judge a new writer’s ability to work sources, develop their beat, or even see if they’ll be responsive to the training Manahan’s supporters claim he offers. Manahan’s primary interest, though, seems to have to do with none of that; he seems strictly focused on raw page views and on getting them on the cheap.
The $50,000 the sportswriter said Manahan bragged about paying to writers he’d then run into the ground is, for instance, far more than Manahan paid a “kid” recently to cover a beat for NJ.com. For writing 15 or 16 articles a week and doing video hits after home games, this young writer was paid $2,300 a month.
This writer has no issue with Manahan, with whom he rarely worked directly. (He fell under the supervision of Mike Rosenstein.) “I thought he was a nice guy. He’s a North Jersey/New York kind of guy, so a little brash maybe,” said the writer, who requested anonymity because he didn’t want to jeopardize a potential working relationship. “He seemed like he wanted to mentor me and help make the jump as well.” When the work became too much after a few months, and the writer called Manahan to tell him that he was putting in his notice, Manahan, he said, “was understanding.”
“I don’t think the tweets [about the job posting] looked great and how he went after some people in the follow-ups wasn’t great, but I don’t think he meant it maliciously,” the writer said. “If anyone wanted the job and they talked to Kevin they’d probably see that. Granted the money’s not great, but that says more about the industry than NJ.com.”
It’s true that the industry is fucked: Sports media is chock full of companies like the previously mentioned SB Nation (which is facing a collective action lawsuit for not paying its worker as employees) and Sports Illustrated’s FanSided (which no one takes seriously), which exert downward pressure on wages by selling young writers on “exposure” and telling them it’s normal to work for little or no money. The scam digital sweatshops are running, though, is simply the logical extension of the similar one newspapers have been running since time immemorial, one that has in addition to exploiting workers for corporate profit worked to keep sportswriting far richer, far whiter, and far more male than either society generally or the part of society it covers. This is part of why it was so strange last week to see not just veteran sportswriters who’d worked with Manahan defending him, but others defending the system of which his shop and his shitty listing for a non-job are merely expressions.
After my post ran last week, there was a lot of discussion on Twitter and elsewhere among sportswriters (who love more than anything to discuss sportswriting) about gatekeeping in media and how jobs that require near-full-time hours for low pay, often with little guidance from editors who are concerned only with bottom-line metrics, can by default work to exclude lots of people from breaking into the industry: anyone, say, who doesn’t have a financial safety net, or anyone who needs insurance, or anyone who values their work and thinks they should be paid fairly for it. Many people shared thoughtful perspectives about how they were able to “make it” and pointed out that while they worked hard, they benefited from their family’s financial stability and the ability to take unpaid internships and/or poorly-compensated early jobs. Other people, including the likes of Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, the crust in an NFL owner’s box, and Jim Brady, the stupidest man alive, bleated about the value of hard work and paying your dues, as if the subject under discussion were young writers wanting to avoid both things and simply leave college and enter into such cushy, well-paid jobs as “NFL flack” or “guy who pretends he was once the EIC of the Washington Post.” Sports media is a healthy industry in which people like us have thrived, they essentially argued. Why tamper with success?
Among the many things Breer and Brady missed—that dignity and fair pay in the workplace are human rights; that people who have advanced to enviable positions in their fields have a moral obligation to make things better for those coming up behind them, not give them the same or worse treatment than they received; that wanting to be treated and paid fairly for work does not equate to not wanting to work hard—was the necessary link between the embarrassing homogeneity of sports media and the indefensible system they are attempting to defend, and the ways in which one is the reflection of the other. It’s neatly demonstrated by perhaps the single most ridiculous story I heard about Manahan in my reporting.
In June, NJ.com held a meeting intended for women to speak about the challenges of being a women in media, and to help the men in the newsroom understand these obstacles. That, at least, was the goal, until Manahan derailed it.
“After ONA [the Online News Association conference] this year, some female reporters from the newsroom came back and hosted a reporting/sourcing as a female workshop here. It was a space where men were also welcome and encouraged to listen and learn how to help out their female colleagues,” one newsroom source said. “About halfway through, we were talking about how it feels to be a female reporter in male-dominated spaces, and how that often happens in sports. Manahan took over and started talking over the women who were present and didn’t listen when they tried to explain how it can feel to be a female reporter in a men’s locker room, or how to navigate being condescended to.
“He was essentially [saying] that being condescended to was part of the job, while being condescending,” the source said. “The fact that he talked for so much of the meeting and was so tone-deaf in what he was saying was kind of talk of the newsroom that day and among the female staff.”
This source’s description of the event was confirmed by a second newsroom source.
“He spoke for 20 minutes,” this person said. “And ended it with, ‘ESPN keeps taking my female reporters to fill their quota.’”
I sent Manahan a specific accounting of what I gathered in my reporting along with a request for comment. He declined to comment, twice.
After spending more than a day trying to defend himself on Twitter last week, Manahan deleted his whole account on Thursday. He did not answer a question asking why.
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