In February, the sports website SB Nation ran a 12,000-word feature on its aptly named “Longform” vertical that toppled the editor and led to the vertical’s own undoing. The feature, which focused on the college football career of Daniel Holtzclaw – the police officer convicted of raping multiple women last year – was taken down within hours after publication due to a collective outrage from readers and fellow journalists.
In an effort to “help prevent another incident like [the Holtzclaw feature],” Vox Media, SB Nation’s parent company, put together a Peer Review Board of “editorial leaders within the organization” in order to “investigate the structural, editorial, and communication issues that led to SB Nation’s publication of the story.” The result was a report with findings that should surprise no one who is familiar with the lack of diversity in newsrooms, particularly in the field of sports journalism.
The main findings state that a lack of diversity within the staff led to the failure, a deficiency that was exacerbated by the fact that what diversity did exist in the newsroom was concentrated among people who did not feel like they had editorial power to stop decisions they did not agree with. For example, editor Elena Bergeron, a black woman, had flagged the feature as problematic. Despite being a senior editor at SB Nation, the report indicates that she did not feel she had the ability to stop publication of a story that had been approved by editor Glenn Stout, a white man who operated in near isolation as the head of the Longform vertical.
AllDigitocracy reached out to SB Nation, and Vox Media, to find out why Bergeron didn’t feel like she had the authority to speak up. But more important, AllDigitocracy wanted to learn SB Nation’s and Vox’s plans to ensure another debacle similar to the Holtzclaw story wouldn’t happen again.
AllDigitocracy declined SB Nation’s offer to speak with a top editorial manager on background only. However, one of the authors of the review committee’s report did briefly speak with us.
In a note to readers, SB Nation leadership said, “If there is one key, unmistakable takeaway from the Holtzclaw story, it is that an organization cannot afford to wait to be diverse, particularly if that organization is one that wants to tell stories.” This, of course, is something that marginalized writers and editors have been saying for a long time. In fact, All Digitocracy mentioned this recently in regards to sports journalism itself when we examined how insensitive reporting about a Latino athlete was indicative of a larger problem in the field. As we noted then, a 2014 report from The Institute For Diversity and Ethics in Sports found that 91.5% of sports editors were white and 90.1% of sports editors were male. The 2014 TIDES report contains the most up-to-date demographic data available about sports editors.
What this lack of diversity means, as noted by the report about SB Nation’s failings, is that monolithic newsrooms fail to create the checks and balances necessary to catch potentially offensive content. When All Digitocracy reached out to SB Nation for comment, Editorial Director Spencer Hall said via email that the site has “an internal plan in place, and is working with our People and Culture staff, to emphasize diversity across the board at SB Nation.” Hall also notes that there is a timeline in place for these changes to go into place, but “that timeline is internal.”
Hall, who advised he was limited in what he could talk about publicly, did not say what SB Nation’s new emphasis on diversity might look like.
But a renewed commitment to increasing diversity isn’t the only change to come out of the report. SB Nation also ended its Longform program — and fired its editor. Hall said SB Nation plans to launch a new features vertical within the coming year. “[It] will be part of the online magazine’s main editorial body, and not isolated from the rest of the organization” as Longform was, Hall added. The hope is that this integration will allow for more checks and balances along the editorial staff and result in pieces that are “properly resourced for scope and complexity.”
What remains unclear is whether editors like Bergeron would not only be empowered to speak up, but listened to when she does speak up.
Ultimately, the publication of the Holtzclaw piece at SB Nation is something that could have — and does — happen at publications on a regular basis. As authors of the Holtzclaw report noted, diversifying staff cannot be something that happens at a later date. It needs to be something that newsrooms are built on, and that is prioritized from day one. This diversity is a matter of journalism ethics and ensures that journalism is of the highest quality. Not only that, it shouldn’t be just the burden of women and people of color on staff to flag egregious cultural miscues. Diversity can also help white and male editors identify potentially problematic reporting as well.
“Like a lot of processes that are worth it, there is no quick fix for this,” says SB Nation’s Hall. “It’ll take time. And at the end of that time, we’ll be a better and stronger organization for it.”