Behind The Scenes

How Outside the Lines reported the Mike Rice/Rutgers story

(L-R) Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti, ESPN's Jon Barr and ESPN's Seth Greenberg on yesterday's OTL.
(L-R) Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti, ESPN reporter John Barr and ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg on yesterday’s OTL.

Editor’s note: Front Row will present a live Storify of today’s Outside The Lines, which airs from 3-4 p.m. ET on ESPN.

Today’s firing of Rutgers coach Mike Rice comes on the heels of Outside the Lines’ Tuesday report that included footage never before seen publicly of Rice verbally and physically abusing players.

The story and the reporting done by John Barr and Don Van Natta Jr. has been lauded nationally and continues today with Barr on-campus at Rutgers and Van Natta furthering his reporting.

Here, Front Row gets background on how the story came together from the combination of Senior Coordinating Producer of ESPN’s Enterprise Unit and OTL Dwayne Bray and Senior Editor, Investigations and Enterprise for ESPN.com Christopher Buckle. The pair, who were colleagues at the Dallas Morning News prior to ESPN, wrote their answers in tandem and those are presented below.

How long has ESPN been working on this story?
We worked on the story five days before breaking it Tuesday afternoon. Typically, we assign a reporter and a producer to a story. This time, we assigned two reporters — John Barr and Don Van Natta Jr. — and three producers — Justine Gubar, Greg Amante and Mike Sciallo, as well as a host of production assistants, video editors and story editors and senior producers to direct the effort.

How many people have been involved in it?
This might be conservative, but when you add up all the people who touched this content in the reporting process, I’d say at least two dozen people. The core group was about half of that. It’s a lot of people, but a lot had to be done in a short amount of time, especially considering we have obtained at least 300 DVDs of practice material. We pretty much tripled or quadrupled staffing on what we would ordinarily do so we could do six weeks worth of reporting in less than a week.

How did Tuesday’s interview with [Rutgers athletic director] Tim Pernetti come about?
We first started talking to Rutgers on Monday. We had shot an interview with Eric Murdock, the former basketball team staff member, on Saturday and had started to reach out to players. We were planning to reach out to Mike Rice and Tim Pernetti once we felt we knew the story.

Before we could make that first call to them, a Rutgers sports information director contacted us, because we had been calling players. At that point, we requested a sit-down interview with Pernetti and Rice. We hadn’t heard back on that request, but by Tuesday afternoon, we heard the school would show the video to selected local reporters.

We quickly moved to put the stories out on the air (beginning at 2:45 p.m. ET on SportsCenter) and shortly thereafter on ESPN.com.

At that point, we again requested Pernetti and Rice. Pernetti agreed to come on OTL. The Rutgers TV studio was booked, so Pernetti, OTL field producer Justine Gubar and two Rutgers sports information directors drove to a studio 25 minutes away in Raritan, N.J. just in time to do the OTL show live. According to Gubar, “Tim didn’t wince at going” to the studio to appear on the show and defend his decision of not firing Rice last December.

What is the procedure when ESPN.com and ESPN television are working on a story simultaneously? Take us through how that works and who takes the lead.
We’ve become excellent communicators on stories like these and have a great team whose members are cognizant of each group’s particular needs, deadlines and requirements.

On story tips like these, we immediately communicate with the enterprise and investigative unit leaders on all platforms about how to best approach the potential story — everything from timing to reporting and producing. We then start reporting, and are in constant communication at the editor and producer level, and in cases like this one where there are multiple reporters, there, too.

We have a lot of conference calls and write a lot emails that include reporters, editors and producers from all platforms. We share drafts of TV scripts and ESPN.com stories throughout the process. We encourage feedback from everyone. In a story like this one, we also keep our respective news desks informed of story timing and other details. It’s extremely complicated and takes a lot of time to get this right — and we don’t always agree throughout the process — but in this media environment, we must work stories like this in this manner. We have a great team.

How would you respond to people who claim Murdock just has an axe to grind?
He believes he was fired or had his contract not renewed by Rutgers unfairly. It’s our responsibility as journalists to ensure that we are transparent about people quoted in our stories and used on air. This is part of the vetting process. In this case, we noted repeatedly and prominently that he had lost his job and is quite likely to sue the university over it.

What did you think of the job Jeremy Schaap, John and Don did in Tuesday’s interview?
It was unusual for us to have a newsmaker and two of our reporters as guests on a show. Our reporters had a bunch of questions for Tim Pernetti going back to our request to interview him on Monday. After Jeremy, as the host, was done asking Pernetti questions, he opened up the show for John and Don to ask Pernetti questions. We thought it was riveting, interesting, informative television. You couldn’t take your eyes or ears off of it.

What can we expect on Wednesday’s special hourlong OTL (3-4 p.m., ESPN)?
The story is obviously continuing to develop, but we’ll have more video and interviews during the show today. There are other examples of verbal and physical abuse and possibly some NCAA violations in terms of how many coaches are on the court (the NCAA allows only a certain number of “on-court” coaches during practice). Yesterday’s piece was two-and–half minutes long; today’s piece will be at least three times as long as that and will have new footage we haven’t shown yet. We’re continuing to report developments, which are running on SportsCenter and ESPN.com.

Guests for today’s OTL are expected expected to include: Barr (in Piscataway, N.J.), ESPN.com Senior Writer Andy Katz, New Jersey Senate president Steve Sweeney, executive director of Garden State Equality Troy Stevenson and former Rutgers player Tyree Graham.

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