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ESPN’s Senior VP and Director of News Vince Doria offers insight into Michael Sam interview

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ESPN’s Chris Connelly (l) interviews Michael Sam. (Greg Amante/ESPN)

Today’s Outside the Lines (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) will focus on the news emerging from Chris Connelly’s interview with SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam, who, on Sunday, became the first openly gay NFL Draft prospect. Additional interview footage will be included in today’s OTL, as well as expanded discussion on the topic. (Viewers can use #SamNFL to join in the conversation.)

Here, ESPN’s Senior Vice President and Director of News Vince Doria offers some background on how the interview with Sam came about and some insight into how the news division handled placing the story across ESPN platforms.

How did the interview come about?
Howard Bragman, a Los Angeles-based publicist, contacted Chris Connelly in early February, to tell him he was representing a college football player named Michael Sam, who was gay, and who intended to go public with this information prior to the NFL Draft. Howard wanted to know if ESPN would be interested in getting the interview.

What happened next?
Chris told Victor Vitarelli, senior coordinating producer in ESPN’s Features Unit, and me about the conversation, and put me in touch with Howard. Over a handful of discussions, Howard told me he wanted to give the first interview to ESPN and the New York Times, and he wanted to orchestrate the release of the story.

Our typical approach to a news story is that we break them when we have them confirmed. It is a sensitive topic, of course, and ESPN along with most media outlets, has operated with an acknowledgment that an individual has a right to control an announcement of this nature. It should be noted that while we agreed to a release time, there would be no restrictions on the questions we could ask.

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Michael Sam (Greg Amante/ESPN)

Why was Connelly the right person to do the interview?
In September of 2012, Bragman had contacted Chris about doing an interview with Kevin McClatchy, former owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had recently gone public about his sexual orientation. ESPN did the interview, Bragman was happy with how we handled it, which no doubt contributed to his comfort level with Chris.

What was the arrangement with the New York Times?
In a conference call last week that included Howard, sports editor Jason Stallman of the New York Times, and me, we determined that both outlets would do their interviews (yesterday), and we would break the story simultaneously at 3 p.m. ET on Monday. That was the timetable Bragman wanted. I don’t think Jason nor I was terribly comfortable with holding the material for 24 hours – we knew other media had been chasing the story, and might decide to break it without an interview – but those were the parameters. We also were made aware that Howard had enlisted Cyd Ziegler and OutSports.com [Ziegler is co-founder of OutSports] to do a behind-the-decision piece on what was transpiring.

So, how did it come about that the story broke on Sunday night?
The interviews were scheduled to take place mid-day Sunday West Coast time at Howard’s home in Los Angeles. Chris Connelly would be there for us, along with lead producer Greg Amante and feature producer Sharon Matthews. Tim Hays, a coordinating producer in our Enterprise Unit (which produces our Outside the Lines pieces), would oversee production back in Bristol, preparing material for television, ESPN.com, ESPN Audio and other ESPN platforms.

On Sunday morning, Howard informed Jason and me that he feared the story might come out shortly. He had information about specific outlets that had knowledge of the story, and feared it might break at any time. It was mutually agreed upon that both ESPN and the Times would break the story at 8 p.m. on Sunday, with ESPN airing and publishing it on all our platforms. The time was a reasonable one for both entities to get their interviews, both text and video versions, and prepare them for air and publication. We had the usual concern, as any entity would, the story would break before we reported it. As it played out, no one broke the story in advance, and ESPN and the Times had exclusives at 8 p.m.

Where does discussion/coverage go from here?
We’ll see where the story goes. As you can see if you’ve watched our air, read our website, etc., our analysts and other independent entities have discussed the decision, why it came now, how the NFL might receive Michael Sam, how his draft status may or may not be affected. We’ve also engaged our own analysts and others from the LGBT community, to assess the impact of Sam’s announcement. As will be the case with most media outlets, we expect to cover the story aggressively.

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