SB Nation’s come under a lot of fire since publishing and subsequently pulling an almost-12,000 word piece on convicted rapist Daniel Holtzclaw Wednesday (cached version available here), and now it seems that piece may have larger implications for the site’s longform program. Sydney Ember and Daniel Victor of The New York Times wrote Thursday night that SBN parent Vox Media is “planning to conduct an internal review that will be led by Lockhart Steele, the company’s editorial director,” and Deadspin’s Greg Howard obtained a Vox Media-wide memo from SB Nation vice-president (editorial) Kevin Lockland Friday that not only goes into detail about that review, but includes that the site’s longform program will be suspended while the review is ongoing:
We are launching an internal peer review on the process and sequence of events that led up to our publication of this story as well as systemic and organizational factors ranging from how our team is resourced to our efforts to build a more diverse and inclusive culture. Because the review involves my team, I cannot be involved as an objective reviewer. Vox Media Editorial Director Lockhart Steele will lead the review, about which he’ll have more to say.
While the review is being conducted, we have agreed with Lock to put the SB Nation longform program on temporary hiatus. Following the peer review, before we resume longform publishing, we’ll make whatever adjustments are necessary to prevent something like this from happening again. In addition, we are severing ties with the freelancer who wrote the story and will not be working with him again.
Howard adds “Going by what we’ve heard, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Glenn Stout, proprietor and editor of the Longform vertical, is done at SB Nation.” That would certainly be a major change, but it’s notable that the Times quotes Stout as praising the Holtzclaw article extensively when it came out:
The article was “a nuanced portrait that never loses sight of the fact that women were victimized,” the editor, Glenn Stout, wrote. “I think people will be talking about this one.”
He was right, but not in the way he had hoped.
Stout is a huge name in the sportswriting world, as he’s the long-time series editor of the annual Best American Sportswriting books. He’s also overseen a lot of very impressive longform pieces at SB Nation, including ones on Mel Hall, mountain climbing and a 2008 street-racing disaster. Parting ways with him over this piece would be a huge change, and not necessarily a good one. However, we don’t know what happened behind the scenes here and what his involvement was. It’s positive that Vox is doing a major review, and that it’s being led by a long-time web media executive in Steele (who was Gawker Media’s managing editor and also founded and ran the Curbed Network, now part of Vox); we’ll see what it concludes and what, if any, personnel changes happen as a result.
It’s also possible SB Nation may be rethinking their overall commitment to longform in the wake of the criticism this piece has brought, and the wake of pieces like this one from Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky that blasted longform in general, not just this specific story. Those critics aren’t necessarily right, but they have made longform appear less positive overall, and it’s certainly entirely possible that SBN could change its course on longform after seeing the blowback here. It would be unfortunate to see them abandon or move away from a medium that they’ve produced great work in, but it’s not an inconceivable outcome.
A lot of what happens next for SBN may depend on the outcome of this review and what’s found there. We’ll also see how much of the review and its conclusions, if any, they make public. A request for comment to Vox Media communications director Fay Sliger Friday wasn’t returned by publication.
SB Nation editorial director Spencer Hall wrote Wednesday when they pulled the piece that “We’re reviewing all of our processes in light of this failure. There are a lot of them, and I promise to talk in detail about them publicly while we work through all of them.” Hopefully SB Nation will live up to that. This was a major mistake; Hall wrote that this was “a complete breakdown of a part of the editorial process at SB Nation,” while Lockland wrote to staffers that “You have every right to be angry and disappointed. We are committed to taking appropriate actions to earn back your trust.” It’s not just staffers’ trust they’ll need to win back, though; there are also plenty of readers that were hurt and disappointed by SB Nation’s decision to run this piece. Making this review as public and transparent as possible would be a significant step towards regaining those readers’ trust.