Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham teamed up on one of the sports stories of the year, which was published on ESPN.com early yesterday morning. ‘He was free and clear’: How the leak of Jon Gruden’s email led to the fall of Commanders owner Dan Snyder dominated conversation for an impressive amount of time in our increasingly fractured times and spawned all kinds of aggregation. The Big Lead was among the hundreds of outlets who stood on the shoulders of that greatness and repackaged it for their own purposes. Our link to the original reporting was in the first paragraph with both writers acknowledged by name.
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk included the hyperlink, which like TBL’s opens in a new tab, in his very first sentence and sent out a tweet promoting the blog post. It’s something he and many others do many, many times per day.
Very early this morning, Van Natta encouraged Florio to do better.
And just like that we have a good old-fashioned ethics in sports and pop culture discussion on our hands. Brace yourself to consume some fence-sitting here. It seems like both parties in question have some valid arguments. First, the ESPN reporters should absolutely receive all the praise. Breaking and cultivating a bomb like that and seeing it have the impact it did is a high-wire act and this duo is perhaps unmatched across the industry. It stinks to have things poached without being given the appropriate amount of credit. Meanwhile, Florio’s handling, like ours, seems rather appropriate and, unscientifically, has been widely accepted for many years. Providing a link is the bare minimum and those who don’t do it are flat-out wrong. Mentioning the specific newsbreakers is not a large ask in-text and yet doesn’t happen as often as it should.
It would be helpful, if not necessary, for the great Algonquin Round Table that is the internet to get together and establish some best practices. Like an AP Stylebook of aggregation. Florio is a wildly successful blogger and does original work but Pro Football Talk largely runs on the fuel of external news stories. There’s nothing wrong with that and one could make the argument that getting secondary pieces written about primary stories is an integral part of the process as it boosts SEO, strengthens brands, and introduces the first report to a wider audience.
Since the link in PFT came right out of the gate, a potential issue here is that neither ESPN or the reports were noted in the social media blasts. This is not a new frontier and every company makes their own decisions and we should all be able to agree that we should all share the sugar and shine more than we currently do.
But this conversation cannot exist without acknowledging that ESPN has long been criticized for playing a bit fast and loose themselves in co-opting other people’s stories and slapping a source on there. Make no mistake. This isn’t an accusation of any type of nefariousness. It happens in headlines all over the internet over and over and over through every news cycle. For instance, if you visit the dotcom right now, the third story on the top headlines bar is about Everton midfielder Dele Alli revealing a rehab stay for addiction after childhood sexual abuse. In the second paragraph it cites The Overlap, on which Alli made the revelation. One can quibble if this is a one-to-one comparison but it does feel a bit instructive.
With no hard and fast rules codified for publishers to follow, they are all individually left to make up their own standards. It may be too optimistic a view yet it seems like an overwhelming majority of them at least attempt to do the right thing. And those who do not are both clearly identifiable and open to worthy criticism.
Doing it the right way should matter. It’s depressing that, as more microphones have been turned on and laptops opened, professional respect has eroded. Zip around any of the social platforms and it becomes bewildering how many are trying to build their own brand by simply yanking the hard work of others and doing as little as possible or nothing at all to make it their own content. Perhaps some of that is generational and it absolutely should not be something that stops mattering because it very much does matter.
Reasonable minds can disagree but for our money both ESPN and Pro Football Talk come across as two places that do this relatively well compared to the crop of other competitors. They have divergent methods of news-gathering and dissemination yet share the same goal of filling up hours and navigation bars with engaging content.
Closing with some navel-gazing, The Big Lead has survived by heavily relying on aggregation for a decade and a half now and it’s very important internally to operate in a way that isn’t solely poaching from others. At times we’ve definitely fallen short and, honestly, that feels bad because it’s not something anyone wants to do intentionally. Maybe it’s a fool’s errand to get consensus answers on how to best do this going forward but it definitely would be a productive conversation if anyone feels up for leading it.