This afternoon, SB Nation’s Longform vertical published 12,000 words on Daniel Holtzclaw, the former Oklahoma City police officer who was convicted of abusing his position of power to rape multiple women over a seven month period. It was, in many ways, a disaster of a story, and after a wide outcry that amounted to nearly everyone who offered an opinion asking “What the fuck is this?” the entire story was deleted five hours later, memory-holed along with tweets promoting the story.
In a statement published more than an hour after the story was deleted, SB Nation editorial director Spencer Hall writes,
“The publication of this story represents a complete breakdown of a part of the editorial process at SB Nation. There were objections by senior editorial staff that went unheeded. It was tone-deaf, insensitive to the victims of sexual assault and rape, and wrongheaded in approach and execution. There is no qualification: it was a complete failure.”
“Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw?” lives on, of course, in cached form. It should be read—it should be taught—as an exemplary failure of the longform economy, the writer-driven idea that length is tantamount to quality. These are the pieces that people praise without reading, and this specifically was a piece that, however many firewalls it went through to get to publication, reads as if quantity was mistaken for complexity.
The article, written by a freelance sportswriter who covered Daniel Holtzclaw’s college football career, went wrong in any number of ways, all of which will be exegeted at length for some time to come. A brief rundown:
- It starts off with expressions of full sympathy for Holtzclaw, hinting that perhaps there are two sides to this story. It tells only one. The side based in reality—that Holtzclaw violated and brutalized at least eight poor, black women and is in jail for the rest of his life—is never given more than cursory attention.
- It presents an endless litany of character witnesses for Holtzclaw—his lawyer, his family, former teammates—all expressing their disbelief that Holtzclaw could be guilty, which is among other things a monotonously boring thing to hang a story of this length upon. Basically, this is the local news interviewing the shocked neighbors—“He always seemed like such a nice kid”—over and over again for 12,000 words.
- It makes the mistake of thinking the unremarkable amateur football career of a vicious criminal is worthy of inspection, or tells us anything about the man.
- It irresponsibly speculates whether PED use or disappointment at not making the NFL could have been responsible for Holtzclaw’s crimes—if indeed he committed any.
- It gets real fucking messy with race. Holtzclaw’s beat was “a dangerous assignment that regularly brought him in contact with people and lifestyles with which he had little prior experience.” It speaks of tension “between members of Eastern Michigan’s football program and locals within the Ypsilanti community.” It notes that Holtzclaw had a “number of black friends.”
- It repeatedly portrays the victims as having had “troubled pasts”—eliding the fact that Holtzclaw used his power as a cop to obtain sex in exchange for promising to let them off on minor offenses. Somewhat incredibly, this attempt to humanize Holtzclaw succeeds only in dehumanizing his victims.
- This kicker:
I don’t know how this story happened, or whether the author came out of it (or went into it) believing in Holtzclaw’s innocence. One entirely plausible scenario—which I’ve seen play out with much smaller stakes—is that the intent was to paint a complex portrait of a villain, which can be done if done well, but that one-sided reporting that involved mainly or only speaking to Holtzclaw’s supporters ended up producing a piece of propaganda.
I don’t know if the pitch resembled the story that was filed. As an editor, I know that it can be very hard to kill a piece, especially one of this length. I also know that killing a piece is almost always better for everyone involved.
I do know that soon after this piece was published, it was praised and shared by those both within and without the company. We saw the same thing play out, over a longer timeframe, with Grantland’s Dr. V controversy. Here is the dirty secret of longform: most people, even those who urge its consumption, don’t actually read it. Longform may win awards and it may bring prestige, but it remains at least as subject to Sturgeon’s law—90 percent of everything is crap—as any other format.
SB Nation has poured resources into its longform vertical, hiring the respected Glenn Stout—who was listed as the editor on this story—to solicit and shepherd lengthy features. Many of these have been great—the Mel Hall piece still stands as an example of how to cover a sex offender—and most of them go largely ignored. There had never been a complete failure of concept and execution quite like this one, but it was nearly inevitable. If a company has a gorgeous CMS designed for longform, and a mandate to produce longform, and staff in place to present longform, it’s going to publish longform—whether the stories are there or not.
“The untold side of an American monster” is an intriguing pitch. “Twelve thousand words on it” is praise bait. “Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw?” turned out to be an irresponsible, offensive disaster, an uncomplicated hagiography of a man who deserves one about as little as anyone can. But it appears that when it was cloaked in the presentation of what we’ve been conditioned to recognize as quality journalism, the people whose job it was to notice this simply didn’t.