In February, SB Nation published “Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw?,” a lengthy profile of a college football player turned cop turned convicted serial rapist. The story, by freelancer Jeff Arnold and edited by Glenn Stout, was so roundly criticized for showing one-sided sympathy to Holtzclaw that it was deleted within hours and replaced by an editor’s note calling it “a complete failure,” and Stout was shortly fired. Today, SB Nation released the findings from a panel made up of five editors (four from within Vox Media) tasked with investigating the process of publication.
Accompanied by an editor’s note, the 15-page report (which you can read in full at the bottom of this post) identifies a series of failures along the way. It begins with the pitch and the acceptance:
Arnold’s note was brief:
Glenn, I hope you’re well. I’m wondering if there is a story for SB Nation with the sad tale of Daniel Holtzclaw, the former OKC cop who was just convicted on 18 counts of an array of charges. I covered Daniel at Eastern Michigan for four years and find it interesting how in the matter of less than 10 years, he goes from AllAmerican linebacker to shamed cop who is now looking at 260 years in prison for what he apparently did to 13 women while on duty as a cop. It would take a lot of digging and sensitive storytelling, but I think there is a long and winding story there.
Stout vouched for the story and the writer to SBNation.com editorial director Spencer Hall, who signed off on it. According to the report, no one else at the company dealt with the story again until nearly eight weeks later—six days before the story was ultimately run.
The report identifies Stout’s autonomy as a major factor in the editorial process’s breakdown:
Throughout our interviews, several SBNation.com editors referred to Longform as Stout’s personal fiefdom, meaning he ran Longform as a largely independent department within SB Nation. (“The Longform program was Glenn Stout’s blog,” says Bankoff.) Only a very small group of people — sometimes just Stout and Hall — knew what stories were in the Longform pipeline.
While Stout and Hall had to agree on a pitch for Stout to make an assignment, once the assignment was underway, Hall allowed Stout to edit as he saw fit and publish as he wanted (and, Stout says, Lockland told him he could overrule Hall if he wanted to). That’s a highly unusual amount of autonomy when the product is a long, reported, and potentially controversial feature, which at most other publications would be read by at least one other editor, often many more. No one questioned Stout’s calls, including his bosses.
The first person to read the story was senior editor Kurt Mensching, who recalled thinking it was “just a really, really bad story.” But, Mensching said, he thought it was “above his pay grade” to raise any issues with it and just made some minor copy edits.
Spencer Hall, who was on vacation, said he skimmed the story and noticed issues, but did not act, instead trusting that managing editor Brian Floyd and senior editor Elena Bergeron would handle it. Bergeron, according to the report, read the story and was “horrified.”
Bergeron sent an email to Stout, copying Floyd, relaying her concerns. The next day Stout wrote a reply email to Floyd (leaving Bergeron off), reading as follows:
“So what’s the expectation here in regard to Holtzclaw? It’s quite something to get a note like that from Elena five days after the story has been turned in and one day before it’s running.”
Floyd said he’d call Stout shortly and then sat down to read the piece. “I read it in a fairly hasty fashion just to get a general idea before I talked to him,” he said. Then Floyd spoke with Stout. “He was pretty forceful about wanting it to [publish],” Floyd recalls. “And I think he was imposing his own pace” to push the story through.
A conference call was set up to discuss Bergeron’s concerns. Before that, Stout called Arnold and, in Arnold’s telling, tried to assuage the author’s fears about the story not being published on time.
Arnold recalls Stout dismissing Bergeron’s objections while also not communicating them specifically to Arnold (who was worried and, he says, willing to make changes).According to Arnold’s recounting, Stout’s description of the conflict — unbeknownst to Arnold — mischaracterized both Bergeron’s seniority and her reasoning.
“He described it more as, ‘This is a lower level editor who is a climber,’” says Arnold. “He’s like, ‘This happens a couple of times a year. People try to make a stink about a story as a way of making me look bad.’ That’s the way that he played it off, as, like, ‘Hey, this is who it is. She’s a female, and she’s pretty opposed to the angle of the story that we’re taking.’
(Stout denies this version of events, telling SB Nation’s commission that “I didn’t even know what [Bergeron’s] position was. I have no idea to this day.”)
Stout also disputes Bergeron’s and Floyd’s version of the conference call:
Bergeron and Floyd both describe the call as unpleasant, condescending, and ultimately unproductive, with Stout unwilling to hear Bergeron’s concerns. Floyd describes Stout’s attitude as “forceful and disrespectful,” and says he seemed intent on pushing the story through with no changes. Bergeron recalls that as she went through the story beat by beat, “every point, Glenn had a rebuttal to, or he would just start talking over me, which made me angrier than it did anything else.” She describes the call as a series of stalemates: She would bring up an issue, Stout would defend it, and she’d say something like, “No, I understand what you’re saying. I don’t think this achieves what you’re saying.” And then Floyd, who adopted the role of mediator, would suggest they move on to the next point, in most cases without resolution.
“After we got off the phone Brian called me back, and we were just both flabbergasted,” says Bergeron. “It was like a cyclone hit — ‘What just happened?’”
Stout perceived the call very differently. “It seems to be Brian has already decided it’s okay, based on what he said that morning, and we’re having this discussion as a courtesy, as we should,” he says. He recalls the conversation, which lasted 10 to 15 minutes, as awkward but not combative. “We discussed that center section, we discussed the changes being made, and we said goodbye,” he says. “This was not an argument. I’ve had arguments before, and this was not an argument.”
Some minor changes were made, which Floyd tells the commission was a mistake. “I didn’t feel that I had the power to [challenge Stout] in that situation,” he says. The story went up as published.
The report makes several recommendations going forward to prevent similar messes from happening again, including:
• An overhaul of the longform program, including insuring that it is not so siloed from the rest of the company: “Require all significant stories to be read by more than one person.” In the editor’s note, Spencer Hall said SB Nation intends to introduce a new features program later this year.
• A clearer chain of command, so everyone knows who reports to whom and whose job it is to work on a given story.
• “Promote a culture of speaking up about editorial concerns,” and “make it clear that editors can hold publication on controversial or sensitive pieces without retribution for being cautious.”
• “Incorporate general journalistic training” into the newsroom, and specifically “a training component addressing journalistically responsible approaches tosensitive topics.”
• Increase newsroom diversity. SB Nation’s staff self-identifies as 89 percent male and 87 percent white, and the report says stories on “sensitive topics” were regularly forwarded to women on staff to informally sign off on.
That it is left to the newsroom’s two senior-most women, one of whom is of color, to be the people asked to identify issue-related editorial missteps in stories about sexual assault or race or LGBTQ issues is inexplicable and unacceptable. They should not be seen as the gatekeepers of sensitivity.