Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

How Sports Illustrated Nailed A-Rod, and Why It May Not Happen Again

Last month,

Time Inc. boss Ann Moore made her case for the survival of magazines, and in a broader sense, traditional media: If they don’t make it, who’s going to do the work to get hard-to-find information?

If she’d just waited a few weeks, she could have saved herself some trouble and simply handed everyone she met a copy of today’s New York Observer, which has a great story about the story behind the Alex Rodriguez/steroids story that her own Sports Illustrated broke on Saturday.

Per the Observer’s John Koblin, here’s some of what SI reporter Selena Roberts (pictured above) went through to get the story:

  • Roberts started on the story at least four months ago, when she was assigned a general profile of the Yankees superstar.
  • By January, Roberts and colleague David Epstein were confirming rumors that Rodriguez’s name had surfaced in a 2003 drug test. They eventually cobbled together four different sources to confirm their story.
  • Last week, Roberts flew from New York to Miami to confront Rodriguez directly. After an encounter with a security guard and the Miami police, she drove by his house, then tracked him down at a local gym.
  • After getting a “no comment” from the player, she conferred with her editors, and the SI team then spent another 48 hours dotting i’s and crossing t’s before publishing.

It’s a neat tale, and one the folks at Time Warner (TWX) should be proud of. And it’s a good counterpoint to pundits who assure us that one day soon in the brave new world, old media gatekeepers like SI will be replaced by the collective wisdom of the Web. Because the last time I checked, crowd-sourcing didn’t pay for months of reporting, flights to Miami, a team of lawyers, etc.

Could a dogged individual, working without a net, have gotten this story? Theoretically. And some bloggers working primarily with crowd-sourced tips have done some great work, too–see the great work that  Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo did on the Justice Department/Attorney General scandal last year. And, just to knock down that straw man–big media, armed with all sorts of resources, does get all sorts of stuff wrong, as the New York Times has admitted on a couple of occasions now.

But look at how much work Roberts and SI had to invest in tracking down what in the end isn’t a story that’s truly important, in a State-of-the-Union sense of the word. Now think about how much work it takes to suss out answers to much less sexy but more crucial questions, about, say, the way our government works.

I still don’t think that Moore’s argument–that these publications will survive because we need them to–will pan out. And I worry that only a small slice of us will get good info about important stuff. But when that day comes, I hope someone will have created a free Web archive of reporting like Roberts’s story, so that the rest of us can get a sense of what we’re missing.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik