Jack Dickey, for the most part, is a normal undergraduate student. He's finishing his English studies at Columbia with hopes of landing a job after graduation. But, at 22, Dickey has a resume that's not the typical here-are-my-internships-and-related-coursework document.
He co-authored the Manti Te'o story.
Dickey, with fellow Deadspin writer Timothy Burke and editor Tommy Craggs, broke the news that one of college football's most inspirational stories was a tall tale. A story that has the potential to cripple Te'o's stock in the upcoming NFL draft. A story that, at the least, damages the reputation of the Heisman runner-up.
ThePostGame caught up with Dickey, an editorial fellow at Deadspin, for questions and answers on how the pursuit of Te'o and his fictional girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, started; if other media outlets were also hot on the trail and if this is the best winter break he's ever had.
Spoiler alert: It's not.
ThePostGame: First off, how did the pursuit of this bizarre Manti Te'o story come about?
JACK DICKEY: As with most of our nuttiest Deadspin stories, we got an email. The tipster said that if we looked into Lennay Kekua, we'd find she never existed. Supposedly people around Hawaii knew. Anyway, tips go over email to the entire staff, and I asked if anyone had dibs on it. No one did, so I took it, and started looking through LexisNexis results and making calls. Tom Ley made some calls, too, after I struck out on one. Then Tim Burke, who's extraordinarily gifted with social media and searching and all kinds of technologies, jumped in to work those angles. Tommy Craggs, our brilliant editor-in-chief, started chasing it with us. And we were well on our way by end of business around 8:30 on Friday night.
TPG: You co-authored the story with Timothy Burke. Logistically, how did that relationship work?
DICKEY: Burke and I divided and conquered both on the reporting and on the writing. With the reporting, Burke took social media while I focused on the press's accounts of Kekua -- both broadcast and print. Then, once we started to get a fuller picture of the characters involved -- Monday morning or so -- Burke tracked down the woman who was in the photos of Lennay, and some of the people who had alleged Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was behind the hoax. I was simultaneously trying to piece together Ronaiah Tuiasosopo's life story, and trying to find people who knew him. Burke had a lot more breaks than I did in this process. He had a handful of people who talked to him; I made probably 20 calls and left more Facebook messages and got only one guy on the phone. (I really wanted to talk to Ronaiah, but he didn't answer me or Craggs.)
Monday night we started writing. We did it in a Google Doc, splitting up sections, and then taking passes through one another's work. Tuesday afternoon we put the story in the hands of Craggs and Tom Scocca, both of whom can turn middle-school-level prose into whip-smart well-argued stuff. By midday Wednesday, the story was ready to go. Dom Cosentino and Tom Ley made some final calls to retrace our steps, just to make sure we hadn't missed any possibilities, and then Burke, the editors, and I took our final passes through the story. Then we published.
The craziest thing about the logistics of this -- to old-media folks, at least -- is that Burke, Craggs, and I were all in different places when we put together the story. Craggs was in the office in Soho, Burke was at his lair in Tampa, and I was on winter break at home in Connecticut. (I normally work from the office.) We have some very long Gchat transcripts.
TPG: Did it surprise you that so many journalists had seemingly fallen in love with this elaborate concoction of a story and had failed to do their homework?
DICKEY: Yes and no. Most newspaper beat writers have to deal with resource cuts and inflexible deadlines and are stretched too thin already. It's not hard to see why they might have repeated Te'o's story as shading for other college football stories and not fact-checked it. But the journalists who went out of their way to compose so-called human interest stories about the relationship? I can't really see how they missed this one. If Lennay Kekua's story is important enough to you to write about, why didn't you try to get the whole thing? And if you did try to get it, and you found yourself colliding into particularly strange obstacles -- no obituary, no Stanford record, no family members who'd talk -- how, then, did you miss the truth?
TPG: When you started diving into this story, did you ever worry that some other media person (or people) would break the story before your Deadspin article could be published? Was there a sense of urgency?
DICKEY: We didn't hear footsteps in our reporting, but we did try to move quickly. The tipster said it wasn't a secret that the girlfriend didn't exist, and we found, through deep searching, some once-public allegations that Lennay was a hoax, and Ronaiah was behind it. We knew there was a chance another outlet would get to this story, and we were not going to let that happen. (ESPN said after we published that they had heard what we had, and that they had still been trying to get it confirmed.)
TPG: Since the story broke, I'm sure you've received tons of media requests for interviews. Can you give a ballpark figure for how many you've received and how many you'll grant? How are you choosing?
DICKEY: Burke and I received plenty of interview requests. All told -- TV, print, and radio -- we probably received about 100. Maybe 125. (Lots of them from Canada, weirdly. Two from England, one from Ireland, and one more from New Zealand.) I did a bunch of radio, as did Tim, and Tom and Dom. We tried to do as many as we could on Wednesday night and Thursday; for those I just picked people Deadspin had worked with in the past, people who have always been attentive to our work.
I myself did probably 10 or 15 of those, as well as the holy trinity of Access Hollywood, Extra and Inside Edition. Burke did Good Morning America, The Today Show and lots of cable news. And, Scocca was all over MSNBC. Now I think we're in the phase where we're turning most things down. (We need time to report further developments!) But, I'm still happy to talk to people who want to know how we put the story together, which is something I can speak to pretty well.
TPG: Let's talk more about you. You're a senior at Columbia. Your credentials are impressive with regular contributions to Deadspin and Sports on Earth. Jealousy among your classmates must be at an all-time high. If you don't mind me asking, how old are you? What's next for you?
DICKEY: Ha, I haven't met too many jealous classmates. It's sportswriting, and so few people here seem to follow sports. (A good friend of mine, when she has to introduce me to other people, always says, "He writes for Gawker.") Besides -- and this is the thing with college kids nowadays -- everyone else has some sort of niche at which they've excelled far more than I have. So, whatever success I've had with sportswriting is easily dwarfed by what some other student is doing with his tech startup or with her cello or whatever.
Anyway, where were we? I'm 22. I hope I can keep writing and stay on at Deadspin once I graduate. I've been there for two years now; it feels like home. Tommy Craggs is a genius, the rest of the team consistently humbles and wows me, and we have editorial freedom to pursue whatever we want. But nothing's official yet. Maybe there's some other outlet that wants to pay me to write about Unsolved Mysteries, the Mets, how hard it is to be a twentysomething and life at the farm house in Maine I don't yet own? If so, inquire within.
TPG: I've read your Sports on Earth profile of Gary Sheffield several times; it's definitely one of my favorite articles. What's your favorite story that you've ever written?
DICKEY: Wow, thanks. I had a blast writing the Sheffield story. He's my favorite interviewee ever -- opinionated, open, smart. I've had other stories I've really enjoyed writing and reporting -- this comes to mind , as does this one -- but nothing where the story I wound up telling surprised me like it did with Sheff. Well, until this week, anyway.
TPG: Last question: does this mean you've automatically aced all your journalism- or English-related classes you have left to take at Columbia? And, is the best winter break you've ever had?
DICKEY: No! I don't take any journalism courses -- there's no undergrad j-school here -- and I bet the English professors who'll be teaching me this semester have never heard of Deadspin. So, I'll have to prove myself anew as a capable literature student. We'll see how that goes. And this is probably my third-favorite winter break, although it's not totally over yet. Number two was the one where the Jets beat the Patriots in the divisional round. And number one was the one where I scored the second and final goal of my youth hockey career at a tournament in South Windsor, Conn. That was December 2001. Never gonna top that.
-- Follow Tyler Heffernan on Twitter @TylerHeff.
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