Interest may have waned, but former ESPN columnist Sarah Phillips' story is one that still intrigues many within the journalism industry.
The story is as complicated as it gets, but one of the central themes in the scandal is that the 22-year-old Phillips was deceiving her employer, ESPN, and her thousands of readers in a multitude of ways.
Phillips wrote a gambling column called Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics, but questions arose about her exact identity and some of the sketchy side projects she was involved in with her associate Nilesh Prasad.
ESPN ultimately fired her on May 1 after Deadspin published an exhaustive look into all of her problems, but stories continued to come out about Phillips' past, including her involvement in a T-Mobile scam and her attempts to commandeer popular Twitter parody accounts.
Part of her scheme was to leverage the power of having a column on ESPN.com into getting owners of popular parody Twitter accounts into giving her access to the accounts. She would then use these accounts, such as the OhWonka account that has more than 800,000 followers, into driving traffic to her personal Twitter account and her website, Sports Comedy Net.
Many questions still remain about Phillips, including how she even landed at ESPN in the first place, but one area that has been overlooked is the impact of her scandal on the journalism industry. Phillips had never met anyone face to face at ESPN and actually had used fake photographs in a past column at Covers.com that initially drew the interest of ESPN Page 2 -- now ESPN Playbook -- editor Lynn Hoppes.
ESPN.com's editor-in-chief Patrick Stiegman issued a short statement after the scandal that stated Phillips had provided the information necessary to contribute to us, but his sentence implying a review of the process is what could have the biggest effects at ESPN.
What Changes at ESPN?
ESPN, the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports, has its fair share of detractors, but has made great strides in recent years to bolster its journalistic credibility. ESPN has hired some terrific journalists in the last few years, including Chris Jones, Wright Thompson and Seth Wickersham, as well as becoming more transparent with the addition of George Solomon, a former Washington Posts sports editor, as the company's first ombudsman in 2006.
Even with the improvements across the board, the organization has still run into its share of issues. In just the month of May, ESPN has to deal with the embarrassment of the Phillips scandal, as well as fight off a lawsuit by Laurie Fine, wife of former Syracuse basketball assistant coach Bernie Fine, that alleges ESPN consciously spliced together an audio recording that wasn't completely accurate.
Fine is suing the sports network for libel for destroying her reputation in an attempt to capitalize financially in the tragic wake of the Penn State abuse scandal. She states that ESPN purposely cut a recording of her conversation with Bobby Davis, a former Syracuse ballboy, to suggest that she admitted that her husband sexually took advantage of young men.
ESPN likely won't face any financial consequences for failing its due diligence in hiring Phillips, as it could from Fine's lawsuit, but it could spur changes within the organization.
Hoppes, the editor who hired Phillips, could be receiving some heat within ESPN for the embarrassment the incident has caused the company. The former Orlando Sentinel sports editor is known for his impressive vetting skills in hiring, according to one person familiar with him, who asked not to be named, but appears to have failed with Phillips.
It was Hoppes who plucked Phillips out of obscurity from her Covers.com column and put her in a high-profile spot at ESPN.com. He likely wasn't the only one to sign off on the hire -- multiple sources mentioned that it usually takes more than one person to sign off on any hire -- but he is the one most responsible for her hiring.
Since the incident, Hoppes has remained in his position at ESPN Playbook and has acted as if nothing has happened. He also didn't respond to multiple requests for comment from the International Business Times about the Phillips hire.
The source familiar with Hoppes says it would be within his nature to offer himself up if he believed he was at fault -- Hoppes reportedly offered to go every time buyouts came at the Orlando Sentinel -- but that he may be damaged enough at this point that he could actually be worried about getting another job.
Ed Sherman, a veteran sports media writer and creator of the ShermanReport.com, doesn't believe that anyone at ESPN will be fired because of Phillips, but that ESPN will do more examination when it comes to freelancers.
The Effects on the Digital Journalism Industry
Not meeting an editor face to face isn't something new, but does represent a significant risk in the digital journalism realm. It's doubtful Phillips would have admitted all of her shady business practices in a face-to-face with Hoppes, but ESPN executives would have at least gotten a better feel for the person they were about to hire.
One of the biggest issues with Phillips was that she was a relative unknown -- she had been writing professionally for less than a year when ESPN hired her -- which can lead to fiascos like this one.
Sherman said that for experienced freelancers like him it shouldn't pose much of a problem going forward, but that there could be more examination for a younger writer that pops up out of the blue.
Phillips' quick rise up the journalism ranks clearly was ripe with risks, but showcases the power of the digital age.
Because of the visibility you can get in the digital environment, a young person can make strides in a career much faster than they used to, said Malcolm Moran, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State University. But if you don't operate honestly, you can derail a career in no time.
You can go from a rising star to not hireable in some cases of one point and click.
Moran, a former sportswriter at USA Today, says that at traditional media organizations there was guidance so that if someone was taking a chance on a story there would be an editor to save a person from embarrassment. Without some of that structure, issues like the one with Phillips and a few involving Joe Paterno can and will occur.
But Moran believes it is important to note that scandals of journalism credibility long predate the digital age. He recalls Janet Cooke, a Washington Post reporter, winning a Pulitzer Prize in the 1980s for her story on an 8-year-old heroin addict only to later admit that the story was fabricated. Or the story of former USA Today reporter Jack Kelley, who was nominated for a Pulitzer but also was caught fabricating stories.
The Knight Chair professor thinks that the Phillips scandal doesn't reach the magnitude of either of those two examples, but will have its effects.
One thing that we do know is it's not someone who won any major award, Moran said. It hasn't reached the level of a Pulitzer being affected, but it's a high-profile organization. Page 2 is an important piece of real estate.
Sherman tends to agree that the case doesn't rank high among journalism scandals, but that it was a good short-term story. He says that there was so much interest in the story because it was a scam and people loved scams.
The quick rise and demise of Phillips will likely make organizations think twice about hiring someone with some serious question marks in their background. Further, organizations, such as ESPN, will look at the way they handle freelancers -- from hiring, to editing, to assigning stories -- and solidify the process in order to avoid a major scandal.
Moran says that organizations need to look at: the chain of command, what is the method of communication, what are the policies in place and how they are described to freelancers.
This could help organizations avoid the embarrassment of a major scandal, but if history has taught us anything, these types of credibility issues will continue to affect journalism and other major industries.