The first, as Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch reports, came to ESPN late on Jan. 10. The second came to Deadspin on Jan. 11. Both were similar: Something seems fishy about this Manti Te’o girlfriend story, you should check it out.
What happened after?
ESPN reporters pursued the story but weren’t able to nail down all the details, ESPN Senior Vice President and Director of News Vince Doria told Deitsch. “What ESPN really wanted,” Deitsch reports, “was an interview with Te’o.”
Eventually ESPN got that interview, when Te’o sat down for an audio and photo session with Jeremy Schaap. But it came after Deadspin writers had nailed down the story and broken it to record-breaking traffic.
Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Ken Armstrong of the Seattle Times speculates to Deitsch in a separate post why Deadspin may have won the race:
Look at Deadspin’s signature line: “Sports News without Favor, Access, or Discretion.” That’s funny, yes, but it’s also telling, particularly the part about access. Deadspin could care less about pissing off Notre Dame – or anyone else, for that matter. (Just ask Donald Trump.) Deadspin breaks the story; ESPN, which is all about access, gets the Te’o interview in the story’s wake. Deadspin comes out ahead. Deadspin crushed this story, going from tip to publication in a matter of days. At most newspapers, there would have been meetings. There might even have been soul searching and thumb sucking and earnest conversation. The folks at Deadspin – two reporters, two editors – crashed the reporting and cranked on the writing. Good on them.
ESPN’s Doria addressed that concern: “In a perfect world, we get the story first and an interview along with it, and he would be able to answer questions that we were having a hard time getting answers to. … We have never tied our reporting to having to get an interview. Sometimes you have to get an interview to complete the reporting.”
Student photojournalist Ryan Jones tells the back story of how he ended up getting a last-minute assignment to shoot still photos of the Schapp-Te’o interview for ESPN:
It was 4:47 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 18, when I had just finished washing several dishes used to prepare what would’ve been the evening’s dinner when I saw I had a missed call and voicemail from Steve. After listening to his message, I called him immediately. Most of what Steve said to me has been forgotten as it all happened in a flash, but what gist I do remember went something like this: “Do you have plans tonight? No? Good. Pack your camera gear, you’re driving to Bradenton to shoot the Manti Te’o interview. I’ll send you the address.” …
My mind was racing as I threw my gear into my bag and printed out the directions Steve sent in a text. At 4:59 p.m. I received a call from Bob Flanagan of ESPN Images and was briefed on what would be happening and what I should do upon my arrival in Bradenton. Te’o’s interview was scheduled for 7 p.m., but the crew was doing what it could to stall the talk for at least another 30 minutes.
At 5:00 p.m., only 13 minutes after receiving Steve’s voicemail, I was in my car and headed toward the ramp that would put me on I-75 South.
Jones took three photos before the interview began then was asked to leave the room; two hours later he was granted permission to take more:
Photographers are sometimes said to act like flies on the wall, but in a situation like this, it’s impossible. In a room no larger than maybe 150 square feet, with three other people, you can’t hide; especially when you’re armed with a D600 attached to a 70-200mm lens. I spent the next 10 or 15 minutes shooting as much as I could without shaking my camera to pieces as I was still so nervous. This was unlike anything I’ve ever done or could’ve ever imagined doing.
After sorting through the photos, I settled on nine to send ESPN. The rest, as they say, is history.
… around 12:45 a.m. … I heard a voice from down the hall, inviting me in to watch the live coverage that was happening just outside the building. It was simply uncanny; there I was, eating pizza with Manti Te’o while watching Jeremy on ESPN.
Related: South Bend Tribune editor explains how the paper reported a meeting between Te’o and his “girlfriend” that clearly never happened | Notre Dame student newspaper editor: “my turn to apologize” | “Journalism requires verification,” Kent State professor says.