Manti Te'o saga: The latest chapter in digital media disruption

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The Manti Te’o saga shines a bright light on the power shift taking place between traditional media and digital upstarts. But not for the reasons you might think.

Traditional media brands including Sports Illustrated and ESPN have come under significant criticism for not digging more deeply into the Te’o story regarding his deceased girlfriend, Lannay Kekua. Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel, who wrote the October cover story that helped bring Te’o into the national spotlight, admitted to some “red flags” after he interviewed Te’o in late September:

“When I checked Lexis Nexis to find out more about Kekua, I couldn't find anything, though that's not uncommon for a college-aged student. Nor was there anything on her supposed brother, Koa. I was unable to track down any obituaries or funeral notices, but that might be explained by the fact that she had three recent places she called home, or by her family not wanting publicity.”

Thamel and SI’s fact checker were also unable to confirm any details about Kekua’s time at Stanford or the car crash she allegedly was involved in. Thamel told sports radio talk show host Dan Patrick that he was able to “write around” these gaps.

Traditional media bemoan the demise of fact-checking teams amidst downsizing or a 24/7 news cycle that favors speed over accuracy. But that’s not what this story is about. It took just five days for Deadspin’s writers and editors to turn the story exposing Kekua's existence as a hoax, working initially off of an anonymous tip. Their approach was nothing fancy, as Deadspin's Timothy Burke, who co-authored the story, described to CNN's Anderson Cooper:

"What do you do when you first want to know something? You Google it. And Google searches for 'Lennay Kekua' only showed up articles about her dying and inspiring Manti Te’o. There was no evidence of her existing in any way, other than after she had allegedly died. We thought that was a little weird."

The difference is that Deadspin didn’t “write around” these holes. The writers kept pushing. They tracked down the woman whose photos were used for Lennay’s Twitter persona. And they worked the phones. Burke told CNN's Cooper:

"We called in to Stanford. Several articles insisted that she had either been a Stanford student or a Stanford alumna and nothing checked out there. We called all the mortuaries and funeral homes in Carson, California where several sources had reported she had been buried. They had no information on it. …

When we finally were able to track back to see all these pictures, these pictures that had represented Lennay Kekua and we found the actual alive-doesn’t-have-leukemia-and-has-never-met-Manti Te’o-person that they belonged to, that sort of opened everything up."

The difference in approaches between Sports Illustrated and Deadspin is striking. Facing the same basic questions, SI pulled back. Deadspin went for it.

A fearless approach to journalism

So this is really a story about the ongoing disruption of traditional media. Critics may blanch at some of the topics Deadspin pursues, but there’s no denying that its editorial team has adopted the critical and fearless approach to journalism that traditional media brands once practiced with more consistency.

Deadspin’s Josh Koblin explained his approach to covering another sports media giant – ESPN – in an interview with the Sherman Report:

“I cover them skeptically,” Koblin said. “Considering the size and reach of ESPN, they should be covered skeptically. ESPN is bigger than the NFL. There’s nothing like ESPN in any other industry. They have a massive amount of influence in sports coverage. There are interesting and important stories there, and they are going to be vigorously reported.”

The bigger takeaway is that digital upstarts such as Huffington Post and Deadspin parent Gawker Media continue to chip away at the influence of slow-moving legacy media. Having established their brands by embracing the elements that have disrupted the traditional news-gathering ecosystem (social media, aggregation/curation, etc.), they are now attacking traditional media’s core value proposition: original reporting. These “classic disruptors” are now “marching their way up the value network,” according to Clayton Christensen, David Skok and James Allworth, who describe this trend in a Nieman Report called Breaking News:

"Disruption theory argues that a consistent pattern repeats itself from industry to industry. New entrants to a field establish a foothold at the low end and move up the value network—eating away at the customer base of incumbents—by using a scalable advantage and typically entering the market with a lower-margin profit formula.

Because new-market disruptors like The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed initially attract those who aren't traditional consumers of a daily newspaper or evening newscast, incumbent organizations feel little pain or threat. The incumbents stay the course on content, competing along the traditional definition of "quality." Once established at the market's low end, the disruptors—by producing low-cost, personalized and, increasingly, original content—move into the space previously held by the incumbents.

It is not until the disruption is in its final stages that it truly erodes the position of the incumbents."

Deadspin, despite its well-earned reputation for snarkiness, has slowly established its journalism cred with legitimate investigative journalism. Meanwhile, SI – the bastion of sports media brands that has won numerous accolades for its in-depth investigations of steroids in baseball and other topics – failed to follow up on obvious red flags, ostensibly because of a pressing print deadline.

The longer traditional media remains tied to outdated processes, structures and cultures, the harder it will be for them to fight off the digital upstarts.

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