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Deadspin vs The Toledo Blade – how new media is changing reporting

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When Deadspin’s Doug Brown broke a lengthy investigative story earlier this week about the sexual harassment claims that brought down a University of Toledo track coach, he wound up scooping the local paper – the Toledo Blade. The Blade’s Ryan Autullo’s coverage of the event came shortly afterwards. And while it was clear he had been working on the story for some time, it was Deadspin that got the scoop. Inevitably, the Blade felt the need to defend themselves and why, as the local paper of record, it was not first to the story in their own backyard.

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Dave Murray, the Blade’s managing editor, took a shot at Deadspin by commenting (emphasis added), “The difference between the coverage of this story by The Blade and Deadspin is that Autullo is a professional journalist who has named sources and you can believe what he reports.”

Murray’s comment certainly sounds like he whipped out his Jump to Conclusions mat in a state of panic. Naturally, Deadspin wasn't going to take that very obvious slight lying down. Deadspin editor Tommy Craggs responded to Murray's diss in a comment to POLITICO:

"If Dave Murray wants to say something about the veracity of our reporting, without which the Blade's story likely never would've existed, he should say it," Craggs fired back in an email to POLITICO. "Otherwise he's just another asshole leaving bad comments on the Internet."  

With both sides firing shots at one another, it was Murray who backtracked, saying in a later email to POLITICO:

"There are a couple misconceptions I'd like to clear up. Deadspin posted its story about the UT coach at 2:45 a.m. on Tuesday and The Blade posted its story at 7:13 a.m. on Tuesday. We published an updated story in today's editions of The Blade and on toledoblade.com this morning. We knew we were in competition with Deadspin for the story and could have published the story on Monday, but Ryan Autullo, our sports writer, hadn't confirmed a couple key facts so I made the decision to hold off until he was able to confirm on the record important parts of the story. We think it's important to use named sources whenever possible.

My comments responding to a reader this morning were to explain why we used the name of the young woman who turned text messages from the coach over to the University of Toledo. My comments about Ryan Autullo being a professional journalist who uses named sources was meant to praise him, not "diss" Deadspin and its reporters. I have no idea what their professional backgrounds are and I welcome their competition on this story."

That email has “my PR department is really mad at me” written all over it. It sure looks like Murray had to quickly cover his tracks after the public spat with Craggs. Not only was his newspaper definitively beaten to publication, it was beaten by a website that didn't have the "professional journalists" the caliber of the Toledo Blade.

Deadspin has more than proven its credibility as a sports news outlet. Most recently, the site’s breaking of the Manti Te’o hoax earned them nationwide praise from the likes of ESPN, SI, CBS, etc. Everyone’s jaw dropped when that story broke, and mainstream national and local news outlets were left to wonder how they missed the biggest story of the year happening right under their noses.

How has Deadspin been able to beat local and mainstream outlets on significant news stories?  Tim Burke, who co-authored the Te’o story with Jack Dickey, told me, “I think we've become the prominent site publishing investigative work outside the sports mainstream, so it's natural people looking to leak information about something come to us first.”

Deadspin has certainly earned its reputation over the years. Since the site is not a “traditional” news outlet, the writers do not have the same restrictions when it comes to posting. For example, in regards to the Toledo story, they posted Coach Kevin Hadsell’s texts in their entirety, which could have earned him an A+ at the Brett Favre School of Texting.

Being an older newspaper, the Blade decided it had traditional standards to maintain, not only printing the coach’s denial, but leaving out the incriminating texts that Deadspin included and getting certain elements of the story on the reocrd.

Kurt Franck, executive editor, of the Toledo Blade, even admits to this in a letter to Jim Romenesko:

"Credit goes to Blade sports reporter Ryan Autullo for developing good sources and for getting on-the-record interviews with both the ex-coach and the athlete who brought the sexual harassment charges. And credit to Deadspin reporter Doug Brown for the lengthy piece he wrote, the long list of text exchanges he shared, and his ability to include full content of some of the more profane texts that were sent, reflecting again the different audiences for the two Web sites."

Again, that seems like a back-handed compliment to Deadspin. "Hey look, our sources were REAL but you get to print the f-word."

Side note: Hadsell’s quote to the Blade, “She initiated those conversations with me. I wasn’t just having those conversations out of the blue.” That's a typical blame the victim mentality but hey, whatever helps him sleep at night.

Deadspin started as a blog – and still considers itself ‘Sports News Without Access, Favor or Discretion.” The site does not restrict its coverage out of fear of offending people– and because of this, they can get more granular, including things that local papers will clearly leave out.

Brown’s story was worlds different than Autullo’s. Brown didn’t start by waxing poetical nonsense about Hadsell’s good deeds of caring for his sister’s children while she struggled with alcoholism. Brown’s picture of the situation was much more cutting than the Blade’s. He paints a much uglier picture of Hadsell being an alcoholic himself, blackmailing athletes into staying on the team, forcing them to run when they didn’t want to, being responsible for a number of eating disorders, and being an overall bully in general. We can only assume Autullo was forced to hold back on reporting certain things for whatever reason.

While the Te'o story may have been Deadspin's unveiling to a larger audience nationwide, their breaking of the Toledo scandal proves they have the ability to do investigative journalism anywhere in the sports world. Because of their presence outside the mainstream and their ability to go where newspapers and networks won't, Deadspin is better equipped to break some of these stories and beat local outlets. As Burke told me in an e-mail:

"Doug Brown is simply a better reporter than anybody they have at the Toledo Blade. They can say whatever they want to about "professional journalists," we're fortunate to have the readership to be able to support a small but highly-skilled staff. And I say that as somebody who is from the Toledo area and read the paper daily for ten years.

I'd say any news organization that is based in and covers a region will never be able to adequately cover investigative news in that region because of the conflicts of interest that naturally reside at the nexus of where you live and where you work. Because Deadspin is, basically, nowhere (yes our offices are in NYC but neither I nor Doug nor my Te'o co-writer Jack Dickey live there, at least not officially) and we are not at a constant grind for future access we have more flexibility for coverage of these things."

In regards to Deadspin's reporting moving forward, Burke puts it perfectly: since they are nowhere, they can be everywhere.

Reva Friedel

About Reva Friedel

Reva is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and the AP Party. She lives in Orange County and roots for zero California teams.

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