The story is ubiquitous, perhaps as it should be.
On every news website, on every television station, in every morning paper. If you didn’t know who Donald Sterling was before this weekend, you certainly know who he is now. As a fan and follower of the NBA, I did, and I also knew about his checkered past. But at the same time, I count myself among those who were caught off guard by the egregious racial comments attributed to him that have become the biggest story of the current news cycle.
This time the big story didn’t come through the mainstream channels. When the late Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott used racial epithets in reference to outfielders Dave Parker and Eric Davis, The Cincinnati Enquirer was on top of it. And when football commentator Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder’s spewed his opinions on the genetics of black athletes and coaching opportunities for blacks on the landscape, they flowed from local TV station WRC in Washington to other media.
No, this time it was a representative of a fairly fresh branch of media that broke the story, one still struggling to achieve full legitimacy as a news organization: TMZ. The entertainment/pop culture site somehow gained access to the purported Sterling recording, which then exploded onto the country’s collective awareness thanks to the viral nature of social media.
It should be noted that the authenticity of the recording hasn’t yet been verified. That may come as early as Tuesday when the NBA plans to hold a press conference on its investigation into the recordings.
So far, we only have the attorney for V. Stiviano, the woman involved with Sterling whose voice is also said to be on the recording, insisting that it is Sterling’s voice. Stiviano claims she did not release it to any news outlets, including TMZ, according to the Los Angeles Times.
An expanded version of the recording then surfaced on Deadspin, Gawker’s sports site, which if authenticated, adds to what would be Sterling’s racially charged language — comments that have angered other NBA owners and led to calls for his suspension and dismissal.
The Clippers and Sterling have not out-and out-denied it is him on the recordings. Instead, the team’s official line is the remarks do not reflect the team owner’s “views, beliefs or feelings.”
It’s worth considering whether entertainment and pop culture websites like TMZ are turning a corner in the industry, establishing themselves as solid competitors for the top headlines.
Remember, it was TMZ in 2009 that broke the news Michael Jackson had died, arguably the story that defined viral news. The site was far ahead of other news outlets on the story. Even more recently, Deadspin first reported that Notre Dame football hero Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend was a hoax.
Rob Ford’s undoing came after Gawker reported that it had watched video of the Toronto mayor smoking crack cocaine. The Toronto Star, which also saw the video and redeemed itself in subsequent coverage, scrambled to follow up.
While not necessarily hallmarks in media history, these examples point to the increasing ability of non-traditional news outlets to break news that occupies the cycle and influences broad coverage of their stories.
Why might this be a trend? One possible reason is Internet sites take breaking news seriously and when sources hand them recordings like the purported Sterling audio, it equals a major victory. TMZ, Deadspin, BuzzFeed and others are web-ready; they have a better understanding of the power of the Internet than many mainstream news outlets.
Here’s something else they understand, a point made by BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith in a Poynter interview a year ago: “Good stories get a lot of readers. That’s true across journalism and history. But more people care about entertainment. A great Beyonce story will get more attention than anything else.”
But Rob King, senior vice president, SportsCenter and News at ESPN and Poynter national advisory board member, said that although TMZ’s scoop is commendable, and they are good at what they do, it can’t yet be said that this win represents a new trend.
“I can say for certain that competition makes us very mindful of our standards and makes us mindful that we’re doing what we need to do to serve our audience and stokes our competitive fire.
“But I don’t think this represents that much of a change because there’s been competition out there for quite some time.”
What’s clear is the Clippers story moved from TMZ and Deadspin to the larger news organizations like ESPN and Sports Illustrated, where it was and will be dissected, discussed, added to and analyzed for weeks. Companies that sponsor the L.A. Clippers are pulling or suspending their funding for the team, and now the question is whether Sterling can hold on to the franchise in the face of mounting pressure.
Less clear is whether more readers will turn not to mainstream outlets, but to TMZ, Deadspin and other non-traditional organizations for the next turn of the wheel on this story.
Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. The Detroit native has written for TIME.com, the Associated Press, and the Detroit News among many other news outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @madisonjgray
Correction: An earlier version of this story made reference to a Sterling videotape. That has been corrected to say Sterling audio.